Directed By: Roger Spottiswoode
“Jesus, I don’t know who it is anymore!”
I’m a sucker for one location movies, and while slasher movies are ostensibly all set in one location there’s always time made for the next day at school or the local bar etc. So it was neat to see that, prologue aside, Terror Train remains in its titular location for the majority of the running time.
The prologue serves the same act that the one for Jamie Lee Curtis’ other slasher did…no not that one, but Prom Night. In it, a prank goes awry and the film picks up years later. In the case of Terror Train a prank is played on a virginal freshman. Being medical students and this being a movie they of course bring a cadaver and it goes about as poorly as a prank involving a cadaver would go. There’s a lot of screaming and psychological breakdowns and then we cut to five years later. The same freshmen, minus the prankee who it’s later revealed spent some time in a psych hospital, are celebrating on a train and there appears to be a killer among them…
Terror Train is surprisingly uncharacteristic of what you’d assume from a film that came out during the slasher craze. The kills are largely bloodless and off-screen (Save for a blood drenched Curtis through the extended climax) and more time is given over to drama than the mystery. I can see why the latter point would annoy some, but i appreciated it avoided the cooker-cutter characterisation these movies usually have. The closest we come to that cliche is the joker of the group, but he’s offed before they even get on the train.
Aside from completing the trifecta of slashers that the underrated Jamie Lee Curtis made at the start of her career, the other notable thing about Terror Train is the casting of one David Copperfield as ‘The Magician’. That’s actually what he’s billed as (IMDB lists him as Ken, but the credits for the film don’t). He doesn’t even get a moniker like ‘Marvin the Mesmerist’ or even uh ‘Ken the Magician’, it’s just ‘The Magician’. He’s basically cast to do some magic (obviously) and to look incredibly shifty while peeping through curtains or staring at Curtis with those weird eyes and ill intentions.
Like the original Friday the 13th or any number of the earlier slashers the film basically plays as a mystery, though the identity of the killer is apparent about 15 minutes before the film decides to reveal it. Still, it’s a pretty good denouement, and that particular person does a good job of hiding in plain sight while also being completely obvious. There’s some lingering questions left at the end, but the film doesn’t care about those as it ends about 10 seconds after the villain is dispatched. Also, interestingly the film seems to err towards one of the main characters being gay, which puts a different spin on some of his actions in the movie. It’s not as flamboyant as the lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (What is?) but it hints at it just enough for you to take notice. It’s really the little details that let you appreciate these movies.
Given the glut of remakes out there I’m surprised this one hasn’t made the list. If something as staggeringly mediocre as Prom Night can see a remake I’m not sure why this one, with the more interesting gimmick, is left alone. Maybe it’s because rail travel is seen as being so old fashioned now (This is actually brought up a few times by the film itself, and this was released in 1980) that it wouldn’t work. But maybe some things are better left undone.
So that’s a pretty good start to this frightfest we have going on. I’m sure there will be both better and worse to come but I bet all of them will have to make do without the intensity of a David Copperfield role. I mean, just look at him: