‘All aboard… If you dare!’
Terror Train is a 1980 Canadian slasher horror film directed by Roger Spottiswoode (The 6th Day; Tomorrow Never Dies; Turner & Hooch) from a screenplay by T.Y. Drake (writer-director of The Keeper) and additional dialogue by Carlyn Wickman. Produced by Lamar Card, Don Carmody (Rabid; The House by the Lake; Shivers), Harold Greenberg (Death Ship; The Uncanny; Rituals), Daniel Grodnik (Blue Demon; Without Warning) and [uncredited] Sandy Howard.
The movie stars Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween; Prom Night; Road Games; et al), Ben Johnson and David Copperfield.
The cinematographer was John Alcott who had just shot The Shining for Stanley Kubrick.
At a college pre-med student fraternity New Year’s Eve party, a reluctant Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis) is coerced into participating in a prank: she lures the shy and awkward pledge Kenny Hampson into a darkened room on a promise of some fun. However, some other students have placed a woman’s corpse in the bed. Kenny is traumatised by the prank and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Three years later, the members of the same fraternities and sororities hold a costume party aboard a train. Class clown Ed is disguised as Groucho Marx. Prank ringleader Doc Manley is disguised as a monk. Jackson is disguised as an alien lizard. Doc’s girlfriend, Alana’s best friend Mitchy, is disguised as a witch. Alana’s boyfriend Mo is disguised as a bird. Also along are Carne, the train conductor, and Ken, the magician hired to entertain the crowd.
As the train journeys into the icy wilderness, the students responsible for the prank are murdered one by one, with the killer assuming the mask and costume of each murder victim in turn…
Front and centre in slasher infancy, Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train is, to many, a significant stop in the canon. Terror Train pulled into the station in 1980, the same year as Friday the 13th, and just two years after John Carpenter’s Halloween. While it failed to generate the mammoth profits of either (or any sequels), its legacy endures as an important part of slasher history, sharing subgenre tropes with both, and a seminal lead actress with the latter.
Jamie Lee Curtis, whose significance to the genre is as irrefutable as it is deserved, plays Alana Maxwell, a medical student caught between the pranking, insufferable cool kids, and the one shy student they should never have messed with. As in Prom Night (another 1980 slasher classic), and aforementioned Halloween, Curtis is brilliant as the last girl standing; by far the most likeable of this cast of characters, and impressive for the fact she helps us to see past their failings, and root for their survival. She draws on the success of those earlier performances, further solidifying the tracks on which the genre, and Curtis herself, rode to become a horror legend.
As is typical of the subgenre, Terror Train uses stalk-and-murder sequences, a masked killer, and plenty of shadowed locations for the villain to stow themselves away in. It’s clever enough to lace originality through its use of each, but it’s the success with which it carries off these tropes that have cemented the film’s reputation. Its location (the film is set almost entirely on a moving train) proves an opportune spot for horror. The camera shudders, characters pack themselves into tight spaces, and light reflects from the swaying disco ball.
It’s because of these busy sets that the killer remains untracked throughout; the viewer’s eyes so drawn by the moving bodies that they never settle on the guilty party. This, and the train’s forward motion, give the impression that the bloodthirsty festivities might never end. The stalking through the carriage unnerves, and hands grabbing from the darkness frighten, even without the packed cinemas it’s intended audience would have been afforded. But even so, it’s the measured, wrung tension (so typical of the subgenre) that’s most chilling.
For the film’s first hour there’s barely any blood shown, and many of the scenes focus more on the revelry than the bloodlust. Most modern slashers have largely moved away from this trait, but a repeat viewing of Terror Train re-establishes the efficacy of this method.
And though all the typical tropes are present, that’s not to say the film lacks imagination. The changing face of our villain represents a twist on the form, as they take the fancy-dress mask of each victim after their killing. Furthermore, where slashers of the time were more about reality (the seeming invincibility of their antagonist’s aside) and played on the audience’s fear of a murderous lunatic on their own doorstep, Terror Train leans heavily into the magical.
David Copperfield stars as the on-carriage entertainment, and his presence draws the film’s themes together. In making both himself and his assistant disappear he clearly reflects the fate of the film’s victims. In fearing that a drunk college audience won’t give his act the respect it deserves, he further emphasises one of the villain’s key motivations.
Perhaps the distinction between magic and reality is what distances the killer, and the dead, from the survivors, as it does Terror Train from other films of the period. The film’s opening scene provides the genesis of our villain’s quest for revenge, and in it he’s tricked into believing something that isn’t true. The bullies play on his willingness to believe, and the reality of his virginal status, just to ridicule him.
Further scenes probe both the killer and his victim’s relationship with magic, and those who engage in trickery (both of the magical kind, in mistruths, or cheating on their partners) generally end up dead. The only character shown to unsuccessfully use magic is Carne (Ben Johnson), the train conductor, whose tricks knowingly don’t work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s still failing to shuffle cards while the credits roll in. It’s due to the magic theme, the cramped location, and the effective use of popular tropes that Terror Train has stood the test of time. To slasher fans both old and new, all aboard!
Thomas Hutchinson, MOVIES and MANIA
“Despite a high body count and the requisite number of lung-busting howls by Curtis, Terror Train is a fair slasher exercise at best, even when compared to its Canadian contemporaries. Tom Drake’s derivative script, based on American Daniel Grodnik’s equally underdeveloped Halloween-on-a-train concept, just never builds up appropriate steam…” Canuxsploitation
“Released early on in the “Golden Age” of the slasher cycle, Terror Train is a sterling example of the subgenre done right. It features good, likable characters, solid performances and a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere that distinguishes it from many of its peers.” Dread Central
“Terror Train is a slasher movie with a complex structure and thematic unity. The distance between reality and illusion constantly vexes dramatis personae and creates an environment of uncertainty and unpredictability, for the audience as well as the film’s protagonists. This allows the killer free reign. As viewers, we begin to question what we see, and the suspense mounts…” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1980s, McFarland, 2007
” …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.” Oh, the Horror!
“The novelty of the killer donning different disguises throughout Terror Train elevates the film above others from the period. The various party costumes are clearly a key to the overall success of this spunky slasher. While the audience primarily knows at any given point which mask the psycho has donned, the main players do not. And it imbues the bloody journey with a built-in suspense that works to its favor.” The Terror Train
“Watching the film post-genre heights highlights a lot of dumb behaviour, even Jamie Lee repeatedly wanders off by herself without a chaperone. It’s also low on bloodshed and nudity, erring more towards Hitchcockian suspense and character interactions than stalk-n-slash. But don’t let that put you off, Terror Train means business.” Vegan Voorhees
MOVIES and MANIA editor says:
The unlikeable rich kids partying on a train – that’s clearly not moving – are killer fodder most audiences wouldn’t care about. And magician David Copperfield is just annoying. Hence, this opportunistic slasher concoction failed to click at box offices. Only Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Johnson stand out. There aren’t even any notable deaths although the battle between JLC in a cage and the killer is fun.
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