Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Distributed by Scream Factory
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.
It’s interesting to note that Terror Train was filmed in 1979, and star Jamie Lee Curtis made this in quick succession with another slasher classic, Prom Night. Both movies share similar structures and devices that went on to become mainstays of the slasher film: opening tragedy as catalyst for the murders, more red herrings than you can shake a stick at and a surprise ending in which the killer’s identity may or may not be a shocking reveal. Furthermore, both films feature surprisingly sympathetic slashers, making them more discernible from the soon-to-be glut of masked madmen that would follow.
Of the two, Terror Train is the superior slasher. It benefits from a good pace and some very suspenseful bits. Director Roger Spottiswoode may be somewhat ashamed to talk about this film these days, but he shouldn’t be. With a killer whose disguise is ever-changing, Spottiswoode seizes the opportunity to milk several scenes for as much tension as can be mined. This chameleon-esque slasher makes for a formidable villain, and we’re never quite sure where he’ll pop up next. It’s always been a favorite of mine for this very reason. Coupled with the cramped confines, Terror Train makes everyone seem vulnerable all the time. It’s one of the smartest things about this movie and Spottiswoode’s confidence as a director really shines through.
And the cast is terrific. Jamie Lee Curtis is effortlessly likable, as usual, but it’s really Hart Bochner who shines throughout. As Doc, the jerky med student, Bochner plays up the character’s most detestable aspects for maximum effect. Ben Johnson brings veteran status and “marquee value” to the production as the possibly disgruntled conductor, while David Copperfield shows up as, what else, a magician turned red herring. Not much to his character, but it certainly gives this film an odd distinction. For years one of my relatives would refer to this movie as ”the one with David Copperfield.”
It’s a simple and effective slasher movie. One of the best examples of its kind. Terror Train is polished, boasting some real jolts throughout. I’ll knock off a point for having something of an anticlimactic (and sort of hilarious) ending, but it’s not enough to detract from the overall experience. The goal here is to take horror fans for a ride – just like our characters aboard the titular train – and, on that front, it accomplishes its task.
Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory brings Terror Train to Blu-ray in a terrific 1080p transfer. Here’s one of those titles I’ve devoured on every available format since my youth. I’ve worn out two VHS tapes (no exaggeration, they were both former rentals), and my old Fox DVD was getting scratched up. So this release comes just in the nick of time, and what an upgrade it is! I’ve never seen Terror Train look this good. But it’s not just a step up, it’s a beautiful way to experience this film. From the rich black levels to the preserved grain structure, this transfer offers superb clarity and detail all around. Yes, it has a bit of that 80s “softness”, so don’t expect this to be reference material, but it looks very true to its source. Terror Train is a dark film, and Shout’s transfer beautifully captures that atmosphere.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio track isn’t anything special here. Dialogue falls fairly flat, and there’s almost nothing happening in the ambient speakers. Certainly not a deal-breaker, but it’s a so-so mix. Decent, but nothing to write home about.
Now here’s something I never thought I’d see. A special edition of Terror Train. Considering Spottiswoode’s aforementioned reluctance to talk about this film (even though it was originally announced that he would do a commentary), Shout! went ahead and drudged up a respectable smattering of supplements to help entice fans to fork over some cash for their release.
In addition to an identical DVD copy, there are four interview featurettes. The first up is a 12-minute chat with producer Daniel Grodnik. This is actually pretty solid stuff, covering a range of topics from the project’s roots to filming and everything in between. Grodnik is informative and good-natured enough to make this worth a watch. Then there’s a 13-minute chat with producer Don Carmody. It complements Grodnik’s piece rather nicely, expanding upon the challenges of filming considerably. Then there’s an 11-minute featurette surrounding production designer Glenn Bydwell. It’s capped by an 8-minute interview with composer John Mills-Cockell.
Because information on this film was notoriously scarce prior to this release, I’m delighted by Shout’s efforts here. It’s a shame that Spottiswoode couldn’t have been coerced into participating (and ditto Jamie Lee and Bochner), but I’m happy to have these features. As a big Terror Train fan, it’s more than we had before.
There are also a stills gallery and a TV spot / trailer rounding out this set.
Terror Train arrives on Blu-ray sporting an awesome high definition transfer. Its audio won’t blow you away, but it doesn’t detract from enjoying the film either. And the supplements, while on the low end of what we’ve seen from Shout! lately, are still worth a look. If you’re a slasher fan, then you’re going to want to clear a spot on your shelf for this one. Recommended.
4 out of 5
3 out of 5