Terror Train (DVD)

Promiscuity, revenge, homosexuality and a subtle commentary on the burdens of technological advance share crowded liquor-soaked seats aboard a steam train packed with lively college students in this decent post-Halloween slasher. Cut from the same beast that birthed Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and Carpenter’s pasty-faced pal Michael Meyers, Terror Train is a slice of the numerous slasher clones that arrived on the scene in 1980. It was one of two pictures ingénue Jamie Lee Curtis starred in at the cusp of the new decade of horror, the other being Prom Night. Her comfort level tackling genre material was pretty evident by this time (Halloween II arrived the following year) with the “sweet-natured, strong-headed girl next door” shtick being her forte. Terror Train benefits from her presence but probably could have stayed on track even if it was bereft of baby-faced Curtis riding along as a passenger.

Establishing its victims, er, lead characters in an event three years prior to the main plot at hand, Train introduces us to Curtis’ Alana naïvely acting on a med school fraternity joke, of which most of her friends are also involved. The mark is a scrawny pledge named Kenny, led away from a New Year’s Eve beach party under the assumption that his fellow brothers have set up him up to get laid. But when this desperate lad strips down and hops in the sack he finds out that his partner is stiffer than he is. Apparently not down with this shot at getting some necro-love, the kid reacts in a freakish display, that would make the Cirque du Soleil’s acrobats cringe (the kid’s got no form), and is whisked off to a psych hospital.

Cut to years later (like I said, three). Alana and her graduating class are celebrating yet another New Year’s party, this time on a wintry steam train excursion doubling as a masquerade ball complete with a magician (a pessimistic David Copperfield). Before they even step aboard an unknown killer begins to enact his wrath, skewering one passenger and stealing his Groucho Marx mask. Face now concealed (the Marx mask is particularly creepy stuff), the killer stalks the train picking off Alana’s friends, using their disguises to dupe them into certain doom. Naturally, it doesn’t help for his victims that they’re getting absolutely loaded on booze as the night wears on. Those keeping their heads out of the 100-proof haze are the magician, Alana and train conductor Carne, played by Ben Johnson who adds some gravity to a film that could just as easily have slipped into trashy body count movie mess.

Director Roger Spottiswoode makes the most of the close quarters he had to work in by keeping the claustrophobia tight and the production design appealing. Each train car (shot on a stage) was purposefully given distinct character, heightening a sense of confusion and providing an ideal setting for a killer who was deft at blending in. Spottiswoode counters the bacchanalian chaos with dimly lit wide shots of the train’s sleeping quarters. The tension this location exudes thrives on the simplicity of the fact that anyone could be lurking behind the wall of curtains covering the cots. But while many of the director’s strengths are dependent on settings, he often falters at unifying everything he has at his disposal to pull off anything truly intense until the final third, which in itself is only potent because of Curtis’ ultimate violent showdown with the killer. Bob Clark and John Carpenter mastered the fright equation by integrating score, camerawork, and environment. Here, Spottiswoode seems to have forgotten the camera is his friend and John Mills-Cockell’s score is undistinguished to the point of being almost non-existent.

Not swept under the carpet is Train‘s acting ensemble whose participants are despicable for the most part, but are damn fun to watch which is a rarity for a film of this type. Granted, Curtis’ Alana garners our empathy and wears her budding sex appeal on her sleeve while flirting with Copperfield. Her circle of friends, however, invites a few laughs with their comedic antics. (Listen to one guy carry on about the Middle East and rising gas prices – I guess things have never changed.) Alana even seems to be blind to the bizarre affection one guy named Doc has for her boyfriend. Then again, when she’s not within earshot of Doc telling her man “If she dumps you…you’ve always got ME, you know” how could she be aware? Nevertheless, it’s one of those interesting layers to Terror Train that separates it from the humdrum pack of copycat slashers.

Long out-of-print on VHS, Fox is releasing Train on disc just in time for the 2004 Halloween season in a presentation that delivers both a full screen and a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that could use some polishing. The wildly colorful lighting schemes hold well yet when Spottiswoode shifts his film into the shadows there’s mild degradation in the contrast and grain begins to present itself. Nevertheless, it beats that bootleg fifth generation VHS copy residing on my shelf and I found no problems with the evenly leveled stereo soundtrack. It calls attention to subtleties I never picked up on like, for instance, the haunting click…click…click of the party strobe lights that tick down to the break of Kenny’s sanity as he falls for a most unkind joke.

Aside from a theatrical trailer (2m 39s) that has seen better days there are no other extras to speak of.

Terror Train (1980)
(Fox Home Entertainment)
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield

Special Features

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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