Terror Train (1980)
Steeped in 1980s slasher movie morality, there ain’t no brakeman on this bullet train to your sentimental station. Terror Train has just been given the SCREAM Factory treatment, and we’re standing on the platform with a ticket in our hand.
A group of frat boys, obsessed with their junior members losing their virginity (which, according to the films of the 1980s, was the more important thing that would happen in anyone’s life, ever), corpse-prank nerd Kenny Hampton which, surprisingly to none, drives him insane. So goes the boilerplate flashback opening of Terror Train, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
Three years later, all the pranksters are still in college, and embarking on a costume party, which is taking place on a train (the trailers state that it’s a New Year’s Eve party, while the original poster shows people holding a banner that says “Happy Anniversary”). After the achingly unfunny class clown is murdered, unnoticed, on the platform, the train sets out on its voyage. In an early scene whose only reason to exist is to provide clumsy exposition to explain away an obvious plot hole, the viewer is made aware that because the “Company” is too cheap, the party train has no radio, and thus no means of contact should things go awry.
And then things go awry.
The unknown killer takes his victim’s Groucho Marx costume (which looks nothing like Groucho, but is a dead ringer for film critic Gene Shalit). As the train hurtles into the dark night, the partygoers are treated to performances by a spectacularly unfunny comic and a profoundly cheesy magician (played by profoundly cheesy magician David Copperfield) because there is nothing that drunken, horny college kids without adult supervision love more than magic shows, except perhaps awful disco bands. There’s one of those, as well. As the partyers split off into pairs for more private matters, those responsible for the prank are murdered, one by one, and it is learned that Kenny Hampton is on the loose and seeking revenge. Whether he escaped from a mental hospital or was released is unknown; obviously it’s not important.
Alana (Curtis), is the last of the pranksters left standing, and it is down to her to deal with Kenny, their confrontation resulting in the unfortunate young man falling from the train which, naturally, doesn’t really happen. Being possessed of the kind of strength and recuperative powers imbued to the psycho slashers of the genre, Kenny survives for one last battle, and dies in such a way as to leave a door open to sequels, of which there were none.
Terror Train is one of many movies of the 1980s slasher craze, which was unintentionally fueled by horror legend John Carpenter with his 1978 masterpiece Halloween, also starring Curtis. In the wake of Halloween, countless cliché-ridden imitators sprung up seemingly overnight, including the lamentable Friday the 13th series, and quickly established a formula in which character development was discarded in favor of partial nudity and creative mayhem; typically, the victims of the psychos would be involved in some degree of illicit activity (usually sex), which would lead to their bloody demise at the hands of a seemingly superhuman killer. Again and again, the formula was played out against a backdrop of Reagan-era morality, suggesting that if the partyers/campers/cheerleaders/pranksters/students weren’t where they shouldn’t be, doing what they shouldn’t be doing, they wouldn’t be getting murdered.
And yet, despite its flaws and limitations, Terror Train is an enjoyable ride. It is a snapshot of a simpler time, in which it is conceivable (if wildly improbable) that perpetual college students would be really into a costume party train ride with David Copperfield, where all a kids really need is the calm, folksy authoritarian father figure of a train conductor (Ben Johnson) to show them that everything will be fine, even if it won’t. For these reasons, Terror Train is a voyage into the past, to a place unmarred by time and cynicism, in which the journey is more important than the destination.
Shout Factory has given Terror Train the deluxe treatment with its Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital release featuring new cover art (the old cover art is visible through the inside clamshell case), interviews with Production Exec Don Carmody (Shivers (aka They Came From Within, 1975, Rabid, 1977), Composer John Mills-Cockel (The Clown Murders, 1976), Production Designer Glenn Bydwell (whose art deco sensibilities and lighting schemes give the film a rich, yet claustrophobic aesthetic), and Producer Daniel Grodnik (“I’m gonna make Halloween on a train!”), theatrical and television trailers, and a still gallery. The picture quality is very good, and the sound’s 2.0 stereo carries the train’s rumbling nicely.
Kudos to Shout Factory for not taking an elitist position with vintage horror; as unlikely as it may seem, Terror Train holds up rather nicely as the little genre film that could.
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Michael LaPointe is a freelance writer and literacy advocate who is seeking a literary agent for his recently completed first novel, Revival. A lifelong devotee of things that go bump in the night, Michael has written extensively on film in numerous forms of media. Michael lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife Stephanie and their cats, Maggie and Homer. For book updates and other digressions, visit Michael at the Rogue Highways Official Site and on Facebook.