At the turn of the ‘80s, Jamie Lee Curtis was THE face of horror; by this point she had already starred in Halloween (1978), and cemented her position with three releases in 1980 alone – The Fog in February, Prom Night in July, and today’s title, Terror Train, in October. It was a banner year for her, and for horror fans alike – well, apart from that snoozy school picture. Terror Train was a great way to end her 1980, and a fitting way to cap off 2016, as it’s a – ta da! – New Year’s Eve movie. Climb aboard for a fun, surprisingly classy ride.
There just aren’t that many horror films that take advantage of the holiday. New Year’s Evil (also 1980) is probably the most well known, and uses the neat conceit of the killer performing a bad deed for every time zone to, sadly, dull effect. Terror Train doesn’t hang its streamers on that hook, but merely uses it as an excuse for a costume party. (Much the same as me using it for a New Year’s Eve column, I guess.) The hook here, of course, was setting it on a train – and that truly placed it apart from its camp bound contemporaries.
Released October 3rd by Twentieth Century Fox, Terror Train didn’t blow up at the box office as they had hoped; it doubled its $ 4 million budget, but not much more. The critics, as expected, were unkind; with the exception of walrus-mustachioed Gene Shalit, who exclaimed, “You’d be off the rails if you didn’t choo-choose this loco-motion picture!”* And dammit, Gene was right - but first, some story, yes?
The fraternity of Sigma Phi is looking to prank poor old pledge Kenny (Derek McKinnon – Breaking All the Rules) on New Year’s Eve. He’s set up for a private make out session with a beautiful freshman, Alana (Curtis), who reluctantly goes along with the prank. When Kenny arrives in the bedroom, he’s greeted not by Alana, but rather a cadaver provided by pre-med student Doc (Hart Bochner – Die Hard), which sends Kenny into a psychotic rage.
Flash forward three years, and the soon to be graduating class is hopping aboard a passenger train to celebrate New Year’s with a costume party. Conductor Carne (Ben Johnson – The Wild Bunch) laments how times are changing to his fellow engineers (“No one’s going to build a shopping mall next to a train station”), and that he should have retired to his RV business years ago. He certainly should have retired before this night, as our killer puts a sabre through a late boarding student dressed as Groucho Marx (or the aforementioned critic Shalit, come to think of it…). Soon, our killer begins picking off the students who happened to pick on Kenny and put him in the silly slammer, all to the backdrop of a mysterious magician (David Copperfield) whom no one remembers hiring for the party. As the bodies pile up, will Carne and Alana be able to suss out the intruder before he has everyone call it an early night?
Terror Train came out during the early part of the slasher cycle, and the choices that first time director Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) makes are interesting; instead of capitalizing on the trend of ‘more’ (more gore, more flesh) he comes at this like Murder on the Orient Express for the young crowd. The onscreen violence is minimal, as is the nudity; again, wistfully looking back to a more chaste presentation. It’s not so much a ‘whodunit’ as it is a ‘whereishe’? I mean, you know who it is (it’s not that clever), but moving from costume to costume is an interesting diversion from the fact that the story is mere pro forma revenge. And by donning a different outfit for each kill, the film gives us a different killer every time; so many films of this ilk have an almost totemistic reliance on a singular entity that when we’re confronted with several unique visages (the Shalit mask, a hag, a lizard, and others), it breathes life into the confined and claustrophobic setting.
Spottiswoode started out as an editor for Sam Peckinpah in the ‘70s, cutting Straw Dogs (’71) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (’73) before getting the opportunity to direct. He was definitely ready, as the film moves with as lean of a precision (from a former editor) that T.Y. Drake (The Keeper)’s script will allow; there’s only so many times we can traipse up and down the same corridor without feeling a touch of déjà vu. But Spottiswoode shows a solid grasp of the material, and works well with his cast.
Johnson was brought on due to Spottiswoode’s association with Peckinpah, and I’m sure the prospect of starring in a feature was appealing. This was a formula that Canuxploitation (and producer Harold Greenberg – Death Ship, Porky’s ) revisited time and again; get a respected former movie star to headline in order to bring a little cache to the project and boost sales domestic and foreign. And it always worked; as a child I was drawn to the possibility of exposure to lurid behavior while my parents were impressed that the likes of Glenn Ford (Happy Birthday to Me) or Oliver Reed (Spasms) would appear in a picture like this. And Johnson does give the film a weight that wouldn’t be present without him; he’s our kindly grandfatherly tour guide.
Getting Curtis was a coup as she had just finished filming Prom Night in Toronto and flew right out to Montreal to start on Terror Train. What she brings is instant accessibility to the film, a shorthand protagonist where a character should be. (There are good actors here, but little depth to the parts.) It’s this shining likeability that ushered Curtis through these early roles; Laurie Strode being the only heroine with real meat on her bones. And I have to give a special shout out to Hart Bochner for winning The Hart Bochner Douchebag Award yet again. He’s a narcissistic prick here, and I bet you can’t take your eyes off him. More Bochner, all the time, okay Hollywood?
The biggest grab for the filmmakers was Oscar-winning cinematographer John Alcott. Here was Stanley Kubrick’s guy, who did A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, and I think he took it on as a challenge, because; a) it’s shot entirely at night, and b) it’s set in a confined, naturally dim space for most of the running time. But Alcott was a master of ingenuity (Lyndon was lit with almost only candles, for chrissakes), so he strung dimmer lights along the outside of the train to light the interior, and used pen lights to illuminate the actors’ eyes. It’s a great tactic; allowing the actors to be seen but still shrouded in an encroaching half darkness. The look he gives the film sets it apart from many lowbrow horror films of the period.
This brings me back to the sobering lament of Johnson’s Carne. He wished for a simpler time; a time when a train was seen as a viable form of transportation, a technological comfort food. Terror Train itself amplifies this statement; it wants to be a thriller in a slasher world, a locomotive racing against a motorhome along familiar tracks. But the railway did peter out eventually; and while the shopping mall continues to ignore the train station, you’re sure to find many an RV in its parking lot.
*Gene Shalit never said that. The fake Shalit-ism comes from Mike Delaney of Splathouse, because his is funnier than mine. And more accurate.
Terror Train is available as a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory.