Terror Train (1981)
D: Roger Spottiswoode
Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Ben Johnson
Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis survived the boogeyman on Halloween, but can she survive the ever-morphing serial killer hacking and slacking his way through a costume party on a moving train? The answer is probably self-evident, but what you might not expect is this spiffy little thriller that has a pedigree even a mainstream non-horror film would be jealous of. How about Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies, Air America) handling directorial duties? How about John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) as the Director of Photography?
The plot is somewhat familiar now. A fraternity prank gone horribly awry sends nerdy kid Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) into a psychotic fit of rage. It’s understandable. He thought he’d be going upstairs to make out with Alana (Curtis, in a much edgier role than Halloween’s Laurie Strode). Instead, the frat brothers have secretly substituted a medical cadaver for his sexy coed. This naturally causes a freakout, and Kenny has to be put away.
Fast-forward to the graduation party. Rich kid Doc (Bochner, the obnoxious coke-hound from Die Hard) has rented a train to host the kids’ masquerade party. He’s even hired a magician (a young David Copperfield) to entertain the party. They’re not just for 11-year-olds anymore.
Someone runs class clown Eddie (Howard Busgang) through with a sword and dons his wacky Groucho Marx mask. Just think of how terrifying an evil Groucho Marx would be. The killer has a unique gimmick. For every kid he kills, he steals their costume. Of course, this virtually ensures that he’ll never get an iconic Halloween mask like Jason or Michael Myers, but it sure makes the movie more logical and suspenseful.
Doc spills the beans about Kenny. Kenny had a history of trauma even before their little prank, but that was what sent him over the edge, forcing him into an institution. The college banned initiations after that. Alana is so upset to hear this that she takes it out on her boyfriend (Timothy Webber), ruining their trip – well, not relative to the events that would follow.
The plot unfolds Ten Little Indians-style, which becomes less a whodunit and more of a “which one is he?” mystery. In that respect, Terror Train sets itself apart from the pack of slashers where the only participation is to watch gruesome murders and wait to see who the killer is (and, in some cases, not even that is in question).
That pedigree I mentioned early pays off with a slick and professionally shot slasher film. The cinematography is great for the constraints. Many slashers have faded or become grainy over time, but Terror Train still looks modern decades later. The presence of character actor Ben Johnson as the conductor certainly adds a bit of class.
The real star is the script, which keeps you guessing with twists and turns all the way through. On a second viewing, you’ll probably smack your head wondering how you didn’t see all the clues, but in the first run-through, it’s exceptionally difficult to spot the killer.
Terror Train certainly distinguishes itself as a film that has an appreciation for the old school. The story hearkens back to the mysteries of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Even Spottiswoode’s direction often evokes earlier classics. It’s not just a throwback to better times, though. Terror Train stands on its own as a thoroughly enjoyable and tasteful slasher film.
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