While the film has weathered the passage of time, some elements still stand out the killer wearing a mask as a the legendary comic genius of Groucho Marx, the rising star power and scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and course the uncovering the talents of director Roger Spottiswoode, all still show that Terror Train can still ride the rails. Those horror fans unfamiliar with this tale, likely find themselves in the less than 5%, for that it returns to beginning of Curtis’ reign on the horror genre, with her starring in three horror films before this one, and just in two years. In fact, a side note Prom Night (1980) and Terror Train filmed practically back to back, with regard to timing and location, Toronto and Montreal, respectively, in of course, Canada. In addition, this shares an element with Prom Night, bases itself on a horrendous event from the past, reflecting itself to present day with revenge design to plague the survivors or culprits of the incident. Director Spottiswoode, made his debut at the helm of this film, and also made is only venture to date in the horror genre and the movie at the time not well received by critics it has grown with following for the picture over the countless years since the release. However, none of that stopped Roger, as his career ventures to a grand career, which started out as an editor on The Mikado (1967) and directorial hits as Turner & Hooch (1989) and even Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
A simple enough plot which turns from a thriller to a straight horror movie, but not exactly a slasher, as the freshmen stunt humiliates and in the end destroys another student, from the Sigma Phi fraternity that involves Curtis (Alana) and a corpse. Then turn to four years later, now everyone is a senior and some prepping for medical school, few pranksters, rent a train for a final New Year’s celebration as classmates. Except someone is boarding the train, with murder on the mind, and in fact others, might live and die by the motto “What goes around comes around”. Now as seniors, Alana feels remorse for prior insults, bullying and the cruel joke to Kenny (Derek MacKinnion), although Doc Manley (Hart Bochner), has no interest in reflection, in fact his character portrayal, becomes the ideal jerk of the cast. In fact, Bochner’s character captures the individual idealistic quality of the early 80s me only mentality and the entire events for the night need to surround him, and he as the star of the all, even showing up the magician Copperfield. A unique twist on the mask wearing killer syndrome is that this one wears outfits from his various victims, and hence luring in the next victim, without any struggles, a more authentic technique. The usage of confinement also adds another layer to the film, trapped on a train, with tight compartments and passageways, and cascading shadows, makes for extra level psychological torture, likely not intended, but very successful. The body count adds up quickly, but much of gore found in other slashers at the time; however, the buildup of teasing from the killer permits unsuspectingly a tad measure of suspense, propelling the production and giving the audience more interest. All of this presents the cast with great opportunities especially Curtis, providing the proper amount of strength and yet showing enough panic mixed with sensitivity with all the death occurring around her. Lastly, the film also benefits from the performance of Ben Johnson, who passed in 1996, as the train conductor Carne, gives a stellar and convincing portrayed of a man, seeing the youthful lives dash away in horror, and seeking solutions in dreadful conditions.
The entire concept of the film came from a strange dream of executive producer Daniel Grodnik from seeing both Halloween (1978) and Silver Streak (1976) and with the Oscar-winning cinematographer John Alcott, on board, the design of the horror set, had a solid foundation for the audience to enjoy. The late Alcott, who passed in 1986, used his keenness early on, rising from the lowest ranks of a camera crew, as clapper boy, to working with exceptional talents such as Stanley Kubrick, understanding expertly the power of shadows and light to capture and even misdirect the audience. Both the direction and capturing of tight quarters works wonderful with a chase since on the train, and reference a bit to Silver Streak, however this time it is all inside the train. Since the film, has many prankster, the ideal need to have a magician performing, and that came from David Copperfield in his only acting role, though perhaps not his most greatest moment, yet the tricks and illusions add to the story and provide misdirection for the cast and viewers.
While many critics upon the release in 1980, passed on the hidden qualities and dismissed as mindless drivel in the sub-genre of slashers, the movie, has gained the cult status, with Curtis’ role fitting a more commanding presence than that of Prom Night, and harkening back to Halloween’s Laurie role. Now there are a few obstacles, however the murders and rising body count allow for sheer delights for the core of horror fans. Now some argue why not just stop the train and hold the passengers in the rooms, however the reasoning, comes later from Carne, as they do stop, it is freezing outside, and in the middle of nowhere, and therefore the confining to rooms becomes a deadly consequence. Spottiswoode uses the talents of Alcott, assisting him in his directorial debut, and fix in tight areas with limited movements, heighten the claustrophobia and carrying that over to the audience, only showed what his abilities were on a $3.5 million budget. Also, the sound shots with the mixture of screams and train whistles brings more suggestions, disguising a spooky creation with increasing suspense of a growing creepiness that would make Hitchcock very proud. Another area of vast discussion, is focused on a suggestive remark between Doc and Alana’s boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), in referencing to Alana dumping Mo “You’ve still got me”, had a deeper sexual meaning. However, I vastly disagree, the mentioning leans more to the wingman attitude, meaning, if something goes wrong, one can fall back, regroup and especially if that person needs a place to stay. In addition, they likely pledge the fraternity at the same time, and the same pledge class, with brothers and family trees, drives the remark to another level.
This movie 30 years later, holds itself firmly for many, as distant reminder of the heyday of 80s slasher paradise of genre creation all using the same formula, the revenge on some issue, teens in a location, the more distant the better, add in the sin factors, and a final girl, all checked off for the film. The film ranks on the lower end of the spectrum for blood splattering and lack of wild abandonment of morals in the style of excessive nudity, leads away from the standardized creations that plague the genre. Spottiswoode’s movie, never skips, rather plunges the viewers into an atmospheric creation for the slasher fans and horror lovers in general, and with Scream Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release from 2012, with fine attributes the flick does not seem to rusting on the rails anytime soon.