Tagline: The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die.
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Writer: T.Y. Drake
Starring: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Derek McKinnon, Sandee Currie, Timothy Webber
18 | 1h 37min | Horror, Thriller
Budget: $3,500,000 (estimated)
Have you ever had a prank played on you by a group of friends? If so, did it make you want to dress up in a creepy mask and slaughter everyone involved in a variety of gruesome ways? No, me neither. For one thing, you would have to be a swift and crafty killer with the gumption to see through your intentions. You would also need a cunning and well-devised plan, a suitable location, a selection of deadly weapons that would surely raise suspicion when acquired over the counter. You would also be required to sacrifice your life and turn your back on everyone you know and love. Surely it would be easier to simply get over it, or, if you are the kind of person who finds it impossible to let sleeping dogs lie, how about playing a simple prank in return? I mean, these are high school kids we’re talking about, not sadistic minions of the Antichrist.
According to the set-up of countless slashers, a frat house rib is enough of a reason for a victim to slaughter everyone in sight, and, according to Terror Train, it is also enough to turn you into a freaky cross-dresser with a fatal aversion to kissing. Slasher movies are aimed at the teenage demographic, so it is only natural that filmmakers would play on their most natural urges and fears. Sex, drugs and alcohol are all no-nos in the world of high school horror, and unless you’re a frigid virgin with an unrealistically wholesome moral compass, you’re invariably ripe for the picking. Reagan’s America didn’t forgive its children for their inevitable immaturity, it chopped off their limbs and dipped their faces in the deluge. Hippie culture and free love had long been put out to pasture, and this grisly, morally questionable sub-genre was only too eager to remind us.
To be fair, the prank featured in Terror Train is particularly gruesome, the kind that would require Sigma Phi to have a practical effects major in their ranks, and since this is only a year after John Carpenter’s influential Halloween, the slasher formula was still relatively fresh, which is perhaps why the movie is regarded as one of the sub-genre’s premier entries. I’m writing as much because, in hindsight, I don’t see anything special that justifies its cult status. It’s a fair ride, but I don’t consider it one of the absolute premier entries of the slasher’s Golden Age. It’s as well made as any of them, more so than most, but it doesn’t quite have that commercial hook ― the clever title, the iconic weapon, the timeless disguise ― to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the genre’s giants.
Okay, so the movie stars the industry’s number one scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, who had already acquired that title as early as 1980 having starred in Halloween, The Fog and Prom Night within a two-year period, the latter shot back-to-back with Terror Train in late 1979 as her horror stock went from strength-to-strength. Less notable ― at least at the time ― is an appearance by Die Hard‘s Hart Bochner as the movie’s male protagonist, who looks more like a young Christian Bale than he does the bearded, coke-addled character who once uttered the immortal words, ‘Hans, bubby, I’m your white Knight!’ It also provides a small, early role for the impossibly beautiful, future Prince muse Vanity, who would garner quite the reputation as a party girl as the decade progressed, one that would see her turn to the church and protest the evils of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll before tragically passing away from kidney failure in 2016.
The movie also stars David Copperfield ― yes, the David Copperfield ― who spends so much of the movie’s running time performing magic tricks you sometimes forget you’re watching a movie, let alone a slasher flick. Why they brought him onboard is anyone’s guess, but he does everything in his power to kill the movie’s suspension of disbelief, though I’m sure he was quite the coup back in the day. Speaking of his only movie role, Copperfield would explain, “Film is a magnifying glass for magic, so I had to be very careful. What you see on screen is exactly what the extras saw during shooting”. Call me cynical, but magic is quite obviously a ruse. The true magic comes from the awed response of a live audience, who wonder how in the world the person on stage was able to pull-off such a trick before their very eyes. This is a movie, a realm of practical effects trickery. I mean, what exactly is the point?
Another letdown is the movie’s utter lack of gore, which is strange for a pre-censorship slasher. Sure, the film goes for the ‘less is more’ approach, relying on mood for the majority of its scares, but that doesn’t kick in until the last third, and director Roger Spottiswoode is no John Carpenter when it comes to suspense. In fact, since we find out the identity of the killer early on, there’s no real suspense to be had since the identity of the killer is revealed during the opening scene. We’re basically just waiting for someone to unmask him, which they could have done long before if they’d just used a little collective common sense. Instead we’re treated to lousy acting, inane conversations and David fu*king Copperfield as Curtis does her best to hold the whole thing together. Okay, so this is a slasher movie, and lousy acting and inane conversations are all part and parcel, but it lacks the wit, grue or accidental hilarity to keep one engaged through long stretches of banal, though sometimes engagingly moody stretches.
Terror Train does have its plus points. The location proves a fine concept for a genre which relies on isolation, as a 1980s graduation class goes on a train-based party bound for . . . it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a costume party, which means our killer is able to remain undetected, masquerading as different students in a plethora of scary disguises, some creepy, like the rubber Groucho Marx pallor, and some which are . . . well, I’ll let you judge for yourself.
Another thing that struck me about Terror Train is its use of lighting, which works wonders in creating the movie’s muted aesthetic, lending proceedings the kind of grainy quality usually reserved for lower budget productions but in a way that’s really quite beguiling. This was achieved by cinematographer John Alcott, who would devise an innovative technique that involved rewiring the modified carriages and mounting individual dimmers on the exteriors of the carriage cars, using a variety of bulbs and even pen torches to light the faces of cast members in the kind of setting that posed some real technical drawbacks. Terror Train was first pitched as ‘Halloween on a train’, and that kind of ingenuity is worthy of Carpenter at his most resourceful.
The first act is a little meandering, but once Copperfield bites the dust (sorry, this was one spoiler I couldn’t resist, one that has absolutely no bearing on the plot), the movie finally kicks into life, and a tension-packed finale almost makes up for long spells of mediocrity, Jamie Lee at last given the platform she deserves as our newly-rampant killer settles on a masked identity worthy of a genre whose very purpose is to horrify.
This is technically a suicide, and I won’t reveal the identity of the deceased, but let’s just say that it echoes an equally absurd moment earlier in the movie, as our unnamed character contrives to wrap himself in a white sheet out of sheer panic, taking a header off the train and breaking his bones on a solid lake of ice.
Most Absurd Character
This award could easily have been the totally unnecessary David Copperfield, but nobody beats the train’s insouciant conductor, who ambles from body-to-body with little more than a flip acceptance of the blood and guts surrounding him. ‘Possibly some kid,’ he opines while discussing a potential culprit. ‘Messed up on dope. Alcohol.’
Like it happens every day.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Watching one of Copperfield’s interminable repertoire of tricks, one drunken leveller speaks for the movie’s audience.
Reveller: [referring to his magic sheet] Why don’t you stay under there?
It would have made for a more efficient movie.