Terror Train (1980) – By Jonathon Pernisek

 There’s nothing scarier than alliteration, and Terror Train is just one example among many goosebump-inducing titles. Just to name a few, there’s Menacing Monorail, Spooky SUV, and the little known but still immensely frightening Captain Calloway’s Caustic Cab of Cacophony. Yeah, I know, this isn’t exactly the most gut-busting way to open a review, but in truth I’m just trying to avoid what I know is inevitable, namely talking about this government issue, no-frills, TV dinner of a slasher flick.

After her debut turn in Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis made a career out of appearing in films about knife-wielding massacres, occasionally stopping to appear in episodes of The Love Boat and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (she played Unchained Woman in the latter, proving she could earn respectable roles…since she was unchained, ya see). Then came Terror Train in 1980, and by this point I have to assume Curtis was getting a little tired of the genre. Her boredom shines through as she plays Alana, a sweet gal who reluctantly takes part in a fraternity prank that goes, say it with me now, horribly awry.

This gag, thought up by med students as we’re reminded again and again, involved getting nerdy pledge Kenny into a room with a corpse borrowed from the campus morgue. Not aware of this lady’s post-life status, Kenny hops in bed with her, spurred on by the voice of Alana who hides just feet away. Now, I’d understand someone freaking out over finding a corpse, but Kenny’s reaction is just, well, odd. He spins around like a human tornado and gets caught up in the bed’s ample supply of gauze netting, which we later learn earned him a trip to the hospital. Weird kid, and obviously the killer we’ll see down the road, but for now let’s assume the movie’s going to be more creative.

Three years later Alana and those same crazy med students rent a train to celebrate the coming New Year. I don’t know about you, but something tells me I’d get smacked if I suggested throwing a party on some lame locomotive, but apparently these kids think it’s the bee’s knees. It sure made filmmaking an easy job, since there can’t be any more than six different locations in the entire movie, one of which includes the outdoors for crying out loud. Director Roger Spottiswoode could have used this limitation to his advantage, lending his film a claustrophobic atmosphere, but instead every scene comes off as a tad boring and repetitive.

It also doesn’t help matters when you realize the entire cast is made up of actors less captivating than a pile of wet firewood. Curtis walks around looking tired and dowdy, with a hairstyle no woman would envy, and her friends are a bunch of interchangeable slasher targets with various personality hooks (slut, schemer, drinker, and so on). The only other name to boast is David Copperfield, who plays The Magician. You know, as opposed to The Plumber or The Architect. Copperfield spends so much time entertaining the frat students with his Z-grade tricks, in fact, that I began to wonder if I was watching a horror movie at all. Sorry, but magic from the early ‘80s does not hold up, let me tell ya. Ooh, he’s making her levitate! Aw man, he made cards appear out of thin air! I guess too many years watching The Masked Magician reveal how these tricks work makes me a bit cynical in this regard. What’s even more annoying is how the story tries to make The Magician a potential suspect in the killings, but Copperfield can’t move his face enough to make himself seem the slightest bit suspicious.

Oh yes, the killings. Yes, this is a slasher movie, isn’t it? Well, you’d think a movie set on a train filled with college kids would result in a high body count, but no such hope can be realized, I’m afraid. Only a handful of schmucks get the axe, and all of the violence occurs off camera. This leaves the viewer to impatiently wait as some nervous Nelly opens a curtain/door to reveal their bloody carcass. The blood isn’t even realistic, looking more like tomato soup than anything else. I’m not even a big fan of violence, mind you, but at least it would have broken up the otherwise ho-hum script.

Terror Train is like a paint-by-numbers exercise. Put the attractive people in danger, have them get killed, yadda-yadda-yadda, and then turn off your TV so you can go to sleep. Its only minor saving grace is the final reveal of the killer, and while I will tell you it is indeed Kenny (as if there were any other possibility), the movie does a good job of explaining just how he remained in hiding while everyone moved about the train. This doesn’t mean you should have to sit through the first eighty minutes just to discover his secret, though. Believe me, playing a rousing game of Chutes & Ladders would prove more stimulating than watching this flick.