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, Anthony Sherwood, Howard Busgang, Vanity, Steve Michaels, Victor Knight, Donald Lamoreux, Charles Biddle Sr.
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 plethora of 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-ups of countless post-Halloween 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. 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.
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.
Okay, so the movie stars the industry’s number one scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as featuring 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!’
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.
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 all you have to entertain you until then are lousy acting, inane conversation and David fu*king Copperfield.
The movie does have its plus points. The location is a fine concept for a genre which relies on isolation, as 1980’s 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, and some which are . . . well, I’ll let you judge for yourself.
Once Copperfield bites the dust (sorry, this was one spoiler I couldn’t resist), the movie finally kicks into life, and a tension-packed finale almost makes up for more than an hour of mediocrity, Jamie Lee finally given the platform she deserves as our newly-rampant killer settles on a masked identity worthy of a genre whose very purpose is to terrify.
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
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.
The first hour of Terror Train is a glorified magic show with a slasher sub-narrative, but the final act is a different movie entirely, ramping up the tension and finally giving the genre’s favourite scream queen the chance to shine.