Synopsis: The Boys & Girls Of Sigma Phi. Some Will Live. Some Will Die.
Take an excursion into terror with Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Johnson in this classic shocker from director Roger Spottiswoode.
It’s New Year’s Eve and group of college co-eds have planned a masquerade bash aboard a chartered train. What they didn’t plan on was that a knife-wielding psycho would crash the party and begin slaughtering the guests one by one!
Who is this brutal costumed killer? Could it be the mysterious magician (David Copperfield) with a talent swordplay…a former frat pledge with an axe to grind…or any number of other guests, both invited and uninvited? Climb aboard the TERROR TRAIN for a frightening combination of blood-curdling horror and intriguing mystery.
Terror Train 5.5
eyelights: David Copperfield. Jamie Lee Curtis.
eyesores: the hapless direction. the thin script.
“Jesus, I don’t know who it is anymore!”
‘Terror Train’ is a 1980 horror film featuring Jamie Lee Curtis, following hot on the heels of her success in ‘Halloween‘. In no time, after the monstrous success of the 1978 slasher film, she built up a reputation as the “Ultimate Scream Queen” with back-to-back roles in ‘Prom Night’ and ‘The Fog’.
Curtis would soon shed that reputation and find her way to Hollywood in such popular fare as ‘Trading Places‘ and ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. ‘Terror Train’, along with ‘Roadgames’ and ‘Halloween II‘ would be the last of her Scream Queen films until her return to the Halloween franchise almost two decades later.
Like ‘Prom Night’, which she shot just beforehand, ‘Terror Train’ was a Canadian production. In the early ’80s, this invariably meant “low-budget”, and all the actors are of prototypical low-budget horror caliber (i.e. not great). Jamie Lee Curtis is pretty much the best of the lot – and she’s going through the motions here.
Our story takes place on New Year’s Eve, aboard a hurtling train that has been rented out to a group of college students for a costume party. As the co-eds party with abandon, however, a killer is hiding in their midst and knocking them off one by one. How can they escape, trapped as they are aboard a train… with nowhere to run?
‘Terror Train’ could have been a decent picture. It has a pretty good core idea, a few interesting cast members and a couple of good gimmicks. Unfortunately, it was put together by a bunch of baboons in monkey suits. Simply put: it has no idea how to build and/or sustain suspense or interest. It’s amateur hour.
One of the key issues is the direction. Roger Spottiswood, whom I only knew as the director of ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (but apparently has made such cinematic root canals as ‘Turner and Hooch’ and ‘Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot’), was on his first picture and couldn’t set up a scene worth his life.
The problem was evident right from the start, with the opening salvo that took place three years earlier:
At a New Year’s Eve party, our protagonist, Alana, is coaxed by a couple of pranksters to set-up a nerd into believing that she has the hots for him. He, in the meantime, is lured to a room on campus, where he is expecting to meet up with her, only to be tricked. This immediately shatters his fragile mental stability.
The problem with this scene is that at no point is there any surprise about the outcome. The way that Spottiswood put it together, we know that Kenny is being set-up, we know he is going to be made fun of, and it’s also very likely that something is going to go awry – it is, after all, a horror movie.
This is pretty much to be expected, but you’d think that Spottiswood would find ways to not lay it all out for us right from the start. Furthermore, you’d think that he wouldn’t set up the movie with a self-evident villain right from the beginning. Usually, one would want to be creeped out by an unknown assailant for a while.
Alas, a killer is set-up so early on that we either: 1) know who he is, and thus there is no need to conceal him for the rest of the picture, or 2) he’s a red herring and we know to look for someone else. There are no other options in this scenario, and we are aware of this from the get-go – so there isn’t much to stimulate us.
Of course, the problem is partly in the writing, but the director has a lot to do with the way that the film is cut, and at the very least he could have had the opening sequence brought in midway through instead, as a flashback, when the students start to assume that Kenny is back… getting his revenge. As cliché as this is, at least it would have provided us with some mystery.
Alas, there is no mystery to be revealed in this picture. Or barely.
The film’s main gimmick is that the killer is hiding amongst the costumed revelers, so he/she can alter her/his appearance at will – and does. Every time that someone is killed, their costume is taken and then worn by the killer, and then used to mingle with and get closer to other eventual victims.
This is a good idea except that it doesn’t consider two things: 1) that most of these costumes would either be damaged or covered in blood, and 2) that there’s no way to trick people that you’re someone else if they are of a different size, gender and/or race; people can still see through your eyeholes and see your shape.
Another gimmick that had potential but that somehow got misused was to have a few characters be magicians. This was interesting because it suggested that not all is what it seemed. This could easily have been used to create a series of subtle and overt illusions to seed doubt in the audience’s mind.
However, it’s mostly used as a tool for practical jokes, as two of the three magicians are amateurs who don’t really take it seriously – they are merely doing it for cheap trick, to get reactions out of people. The third, thankfully, is a proper illusionist who has been hired to do a show for the college kids during the trip.
This magician is incarnated by none other than David Copperfield, in his one and only motion picture part. He is by far the most fascinating cast member: skilled, good-looking, charismatic. One really believes that he is as good as he’s made out to be in the picture, and it’s hardly surprising that he became the sensation that he was.
Beyond this, the film is merely a series of genre conventions, with very little to distinguish it from its peers. College students are partying, getting knocked off, a hunt is on for the killer and an eventual fight to death takes place. But it’s done so poorly that there’s really not much point to it.
Even the killer’s unmasking is neither surprising nor exciting: we guessed early on and didn’t care. And the final conflict lacks any sensation of risk and ends so abruptly that it appears like an afterthought. “Oh yeah, I guess we have to end the movie”, ‘Terror Train’ yawns at the end of its 90 minutes.
And thus ‘Terror Train’ ends its journey, leaving us unfulfilled, having achieved very little other than to map out the blueprint of what hopefully someday will be a superior remake. It has the makings of something half-decent, actually, but this is one ride that you don’t really want to take. It goes nowhere.
Date of viewing: December 26, 2013