Dir. Roger Spottiswoode
A group of college kids responsible for a prank gone wrong several years prior, are menaced by a masked killer as they throw a New Year’s Eve costume party on-board a train.
The early Eighties is now regarded as the Golden Age of the American slasher film. From 1978 to about 1985, cinemas were saturated with gory flicks featuring masked psychos stalking nubile teenagers in lonely locations, gruesomely killing them off one by one. The popularity of these movies was ignited by John Carpenter’s Halloween, and their rigid template was confirmed by Friday the 13th. Each successive title layered on the violence, gore and nudity, neglecting to realise that what made Carpenter’s film so effective was its use of suspense and the anticipation of violence.
Terror Train was one of the first slashers to cash in on Halloween’s success. It epitomises the sub-genre, sticking to its conventions as tightly as Jamie Lee Curtis clinging to a knife for dear life. Everything associated with the sub-genre is present and correct. A masked killer avenging a past ‘misdeed’. Check. A group of teens in an isolated location. Check. Ineffective authority/adult figures. Check. Teens indulging in drugs/alcohol/premarital sex. Check. Characters splitting up to look for other characters/investigate strange noises. Check. Knives and other sharp (phallic) implements as murder weapons (killers in slashers prefer the thrill of the chase and the intimacy of killing victims up close and personal with a knife). Check. Jamie Lee Curtis as the chaste heroine, or to use slasher terminology; Final Girl. Check, check, check.
Despite its unwavering adherence to convention, Terror Train really benefits from taut direction by Spottiswoode, who wrings every drop of menace and suspense from the confined space of the singular location. With its long, dark, shadowy corridors, there’s nowhere for the imperilled teens to run and hide as they’re picked off one by one aboard the increasingly creepy, claustrophobic train. The isolation of the setting is perfectly invoked by shots of the train hurtling through the icy night, its shrill whistle sounding like a petrified scream. A symphonic score and moody cinematography lend it an old fashioned feel and enhance the spooky atmosphere, and there’s even a little social commentary evident in the various lamentations by certain characters on the demise of rail travel. As the ageing conductor Carne, Western movie veteran Ben Johnson brings a certain gravitas and dignity to his role. Equally sympathetic is Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana, a smart and resourceful teen who constantly despairs at the endless hijinks of her friends. Like most slashers, Terror Train’s depiction of the American frat/sorority lifestyle isn’t especially sympathetic.
While it may boast atmosphere and tension by the bucket load, Terror Train is also riddled with plot holes. Just how does the killer move around on the train when logic dictates he can only go backwards or forwards? Perhaps the various costumes - which in themselves are effectively creepy - enable him to move around undetected, or perhaps, as one immensely eerie shot indicates, he uses the exterior and the roof of the train. Terror Train also suffers a little in the pacing department. At times it’s rather uneven, and proceedings are especially bogged down during the scenes with a smarmy David Copperfield as a magician charged with entertaining the revellers. Once the bodies begin to pile up though, events gradually build to a satisfyingly suspenseful climax which pits Curtis against the sadistic, axe-wielding killer dressed as a gnarled old monk.
With its inspired setting, Terror Train just about manages to set itself apart from the glut of early Eighties slasher movies, but only just. It’s still a hugely enjoyable thrill-ride though, particularly for fans of the subgenre; and personally speaking, it's one of my favourite slashers. All aboard!