Terror Train (1980)

Author: Brett H.
Submitted by: Brett H.   Date : 2008-03-23 20:17

Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
Written by: T.Y. Drake
Produced by: Harold Greenburg

Reviewed by: Brett H.

“Yeah, that’s right, Doc won an award!”
“… Best pap smear in a supporting role.”

Before making her trek to full-on Hollywood, Jamie Lee Curtis made a couple stops in the Great White North in the subgenre she helped put on the map, the slasher. After Halloween, slasher movies began coming out at a furious pace and everyone wanted a slice of the pie. Jamie Lee Curtis was virtually stuck doing horror films from the time she played Laurie Strode until her big break in Trading Places five years later. While in Canada, she made two horror films in 1980, the first being Prom Night and the next, Terror Train, two films that share the staple revenge motif that make the slasher genre what it is. Whereas Prom Night spawned three sequels and became Canada’s Friday the 13th in a way, Terror Train only got one shot at pleasing the slash audience. But, is the train a smooth ride?

A college fraternity is throwing a big party and trying to turn a few of their “lesser” men into sexual experts. As a member of their frat, you’re forced to wear a beanie until you get laid and tonight is another night that the more nerdy and pudgier guys get a chance to prove themselves. Kenny Hampson (Derek Mackinnon) gets his shot with a hot sorority girl named Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis). His brothers tell him to go for it and he awkwardly bites their bait and unknowingly is about to be reeled in to the prank of a lifetime. Doc (Hart Bochner), Mo (Timothy Webber) and the boys are med students and seemingly spend a lot of their time pulling a Dr. Frankenstein, collecting assorted body parts for gags, because it’s no big deal, right? They’re just having some fun, but little could they possibly imagine what’d happen next.

Reluctantly, Alana lures Kenny to take off his clothes and as he stands there in his tight yellow gotch, she pleads with him to kiss her. As he climbs into bed he is met with a female, but it’s not Alana. Kenny runs his fingers through the hair of a mutilated corpse that the guys had stolen from the morgue and he absolutely loses his mind in front of everyone. Three years later, everyone is nearing graduation and a bash to end them all is going down, thrown by Doc and Mo on a moving train. Everyone’s going to be there and you just wonder what happened to poor old Kenny. Turns out he was hospitalized after the incident, and even more shockingly, he had killed someone in the past, but it’s not clear whether it was an accident or not. With his enemies confined in the cars of a train travelling through the middle of nowhere in the cold winter, one can only wonder if the long forgotten Kenny Hampson will make an appearance... The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die.

Terror Train was released just before the market was swarmed with rip-offs of rip-offs, and at the very least it brings a unique aspect to the slasher table. Whereas many by-the-numbers flicks take place in the woods or in a house somewhere in suburbia, Terror Train is unique in the sense that neither the killer nor the victims have anywhere to go. Not only that, but the big soiree is a costume party, giving a potential killer the ability to cloak his visage and pick off his choice of victims one at a time with more ease. It’s a battle of wits and survival of the fittest; the killer doesn’t even need to come prepared. Rather than bring his own arsenal of disguises, any viewer with half a brain can put it together that not only could the killer be anyone, but he could assume the identity as friends of his targets or the targets themselves by stealing their costume. It’s a pretty cool trip for a slasher fan and a trait that sets it apart from the rest. One thing is for certain, there’s no way in hell you’ll uncover the true mystery of the killer’s identity.

The motif that appearances are deceiving is strong in Terror Train. The frat boys go on with their lives as though Kenny never existed and appear to be normal partying young adults. Among the passengers of the train, David Copperfield has a role as a magician and it further adds to the mystique of the film where the unbelievable is believable. Frequent pranksters, illusions, costumes and secrets, the entire film is embedded in uncertainty. One could say that hacking up certain people in an aggregated mass of teens is a bit hard to swallow in such a confined area, but seeing as magic tricks are so prevalent in the film, it’s actually quite fitting. How did he do it? That question is what makes the illusion that much more gratifying, and much like a magician, I’m sure the killer would never reveal his secrets. The characters the killer is knocking off aren’t that great, much like Prom Night, it’s hard to feel too sorry for some of them, mainly Doc. He’s pretty much an annoying asshole when the spotlight isn’t shining on him. Alana and Mo aren’t too bad, and the supporting cast make their scenes memorable and they’re likable. At the same time, they played a pretty mean trick and in the world of Canadian revenge slashers, you’re destined to pay the ultimate price. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

To offset the teen vibe, there’s an older cast of employees of the rail company and they bring that My Bloody Valentine (another Canadian slasher, one of the best the subgenre has to offer) quality to the picture which adds seriousness and a different perspective on the events taking place. While the partygoers continue to give’r, the adults have to figure out what to do and maintain control of a panicking and paranoid crowd. The jokes are all moderately funny with a couple truly funny scenes and for a serious slasher, the film moves at a decent pace. With the good comes the bad, and Terror Train suffers in the fact that most of the kills are off-screen or the scene will quickly cut away. In such a confined space and the setting of a train in general, you would ideally want more stalking than the film provides, it’s just so perfect for it. As much as your mind will play tricks with you when trying to figure out where the killer is, the idea of the killer legitimately being anyone disguised, as anything isn’t used quite as well as you’d expect. The best scenes are ones where the killer takes the costume of a passenger, but they are few and far between. The gore highlight is a severed head, and it looks phoney, but it is appreciated. Any more realistic and it’d probably have been cut anyways with the moronic MPAA going nuts back in the day (especially the year later, in ’81).

It’s not a Canadian themed film at all (it is nice to see a winter setting, though), the American flag is present as is a magic trick involving an American quarter. There’s a nice little jab at the older, conservative generation of America and it’s quite the hoot. I don’t think the music is as engaging or fun to listen to as a lot of slasher themes were, but it is good enough. Canadian slasher fans rejoice, there’s a hint of disco in the film, although it’s not as out there as Prom Night’s “classic scenes” by a long shot. There are some unique shots and the lighting is good and at times pretty moody. One scene that was really creepy to me was after the passengers all knew a killer was on the loose. The lights from the party were still shining, revolving and glistening, but the mood was totally moot; imagine a funeral set in a nightclub. Fox’s DVD has a really nice widescreen transfer and a single trailer, but it should be noted that a new viewer shouldn’t peak around on the DVD menus, the mystery will be spoiled if you do. The coal is burning, the engines are revving, and Terror Train steamrolls through the rest and emerges strong as an icon of Canadian horror. All aboard! Buy it!

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Average members rating (out of 10) : 8.33   
Votes : 3 since 2008-04-11 22:31