Terror Train (1980)
"The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die."
A bunch of medical students staging a fraternity prank go too far when they lure Kenny, one of the more socially-awkward boys, along to what he thinks is going to be a hot night with sorority girl Alana. However, the students use a medical corpse stolen from the morgue and Kenny freaks out a little more than anyone anticipated, leading him to become hospitalised. Three years later when the students are celebrating graduation, they hire out a train for the world’s biggest party where one gate-crasher is only too happy to reunite with his former frat buddies.
With Roger Spottiswoode (who would go on to helm Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies no less), cinematographer John Alcott (who worked with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining), featuring a cast with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Academy Award winner Ben Johnson and famous illusionist David Copperfield, and with a fairly reasonable budget, Terror Train has some serious pedigree for a 1980 slasher film. Luckily, the film beat the slasher flood by a year or so before the market was saturated with rip-offs and clones of Halloween and Friday the 13th. As a result, a lot of what you see on the screen is fairly original, if lacklustre.
Terror Train is competent, I’ll give it that. Despite the novel setting and the fact that it should be a lot more original than it is given that the slasher formula had still to be ‘perfected,’ it’s just about passable to get through. For every decent atmospheric, claustrophobic shot of the murky, dingy insides of the carriages, there’s another shot of the same thing with only with dancing teenagers and flashing lights to ruin the mood. For every few minutes of excitement or tension, there’s twice as much talking or standing around doing nothing. Terror Train is definitely a film that you think you enjoyed watching a lot more than you actually did. Maybe it is the gloss after all. Alcott’s photographic presence really shines to the fore here, presenting this train ride as the ultimate vision of a ride to hell, complete with darkness, smoke, red lights, silhouettes…you name it, it’s the perfect location for someone to be getting some revenge in.
As the big party is a fancy dress one (or costume party for those American readers), the killer has the annoying habit of assuming the identity of the person he has just killed. Most famously brought to life in the ‘Groucho Marx’ mask splattered across the poster, there are other costumes equally as sinister, though I did have to draw the line of credibility when gender roles become blurred and the killer attempted to pass himself off as one of those hot co-eds walking around with little on. Quite how he finds the time to change (and conveniently anyone he kills is his size in clothes – a massive problem if I was to do that as I’m 6’ 5”), apply make-up/face paint if needed, dispose of the body of the previous victim and clean up the mess before anyone finds it also stretches credibility a bit. Though the audience knows which costume the killer is wearing, the other characters do not and so this ramps up the tension a little bit, especially in some of the earlier scenes of the killer targeting his victims.
Unfortunately, Terror Train cuts away from the moments of death, depriving the audience of some much-needed closure with some of the less likeable characters on show. There’s a bit of blood splattered around with an odd severed limb or decapitated head but this is at the birth of the ‘Golden Age’ and gore was yet to really come into its own. Sadly, the cramped confines and relative lack of escape routes and hiding places on board the train aren’t really used to much effect and Terror Train lacks any real suspense or stalking scenes, save for a particularly good final chase involving a conductor’s cage inside a carriage.
Jamie Lee Curtis is her usual likeable self in this one, playing up the typical ‘Laurie Strode’ role she had done two years earlier in Halloween. Curtis would also star in Prom Night and The Fog in the same year, making her quite the horror pin-up for 1980. Hart Bochner douches it up big time as Doc, the lead prankster who doesn’t care about anyone except for himself. Oscar winner Ben Johnson is on hand as the token veteran and adult authority figure and adds some gravitas and dignity to what should have been a throwaway role. The most bizarre piece of casting comes in the form of illusionist David Copperfield, who performs magic tricks to dazzle the teenagers on the train and is throw around as a red herring for a bit. It doesn’t really work and just stands out a mile as deliberate padding to keep the running time going. Copperfield does perform plenty of tricks and at times it’s like an advertisement reel for one of his shows.
Some stylish cinematography really raises the appearance of Terror Train, an average slasher which not too many people outside of the genre have ever heard but which is possibly too well-thought of for those who are familiar with the genre. Pacing issues, plodding at times, frustrating at others and impressive in flashes, Terror Train is a decent example of pre-splatter slasher, just don’t expect it to be as memorable as you’d hope it to be.
Director(s): Roger Spottiswoode
Writer(s): T.Y. Drake, Daniel Grodnik (story), Judith Rascoe (screenplay)
Actor(s): Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Derek McKinnon, Sandee Currie
Duration: 97 mins