With the huge success of Halloween and Prom Night, Jamie Lee Curtis had slowly become one of the biggest stars of the genre, with her appearances in a variety of popular horror flicks earning her the moniker ‘scream queen.’ Her most underrated of films during this period was Terror Train, a stylish and inventive slasher which would make the most of its unique setting and would prove to be Curtis’ greatest contribution to the genre behind Halloween. With appearances from the likes of screen legend Ben Johnson and even rising magician David Copperfield, Terror Train boasted enough ideas to compete with many of its contemporaries but sadly it seemed audiences were looking elsewhere, resulting in the movie almost slipping under the radar. Over the years, fans have come to appreciate the film and it has since been considered a highpoint of the slasher boom, far superior to Curtis’ other post-Halloween slasher, Prom Night.
Terror Train would mark the directorial debut for thirty-five year old Canadian filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode, whose prior work as an editor on Sam Peckinpah’s acclaimed Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Getaway and Straw Dogs would help prepare him for a career behind the camera. His subsequent efforts, including Turner & Hooch, Tomorrow Never Dies and the Schwarzenegger action flick The 6th Day, would prove far more successful but Terror Train would work as an ideal training ground for the stylish director. Shot on a budget of $3.5m in Montreal, Quebec for four weeks shortly before Christmas 1979, the production had rented a train from Traintown in Vermont and Spottiswoode would be forced to shoot his first movie in such a confined environment. Thankfully, he was blessed with a talented crew which would include production designer Glenn Bydwell and famed British cinematographer John Alcott, whose collaborations with Stanley Kubrick had resulted in an Academy Award for his work on 1975’s Barry Lyndon.
During New Year’s celebrations at the fraternity house Sigma Phi, a group of friends decide to play a prank on class nerd Kenny Hampson (Derek MacKinnion). Inviting him into a bedroom under the pretence that he will be seduced by popular beauty Alana Maxwell (Curtis), Kenny climbs onto the bed to discover a corpse which one of the students had borrowed from class. Understandably upset and shocked, Kenny panics and goes insane. Three years later and graduation finally arrives, with the friends deciding to celebrate the event on a private train by hosting a fancy dress party. Those responsible for the previous accident arrive and make their way onto the train but one of them, Ed (Howard Busgang), is stabbed with a sword and collapses, although his friends are convinced it is a joke and climb on board, leaving his body by the track. The killer collects Ed’s costume, a Groucho Marx mask and suit, and follows them inside.
The instigator of the prank, Doc Manley (Hart Bochner), seems to show little remorse for his actions whilst Alana seems more aware of how their actions disturbed Kenny. Believing the killer to be Ed, Jackson (Anthony Sherwood) is coerced into the bathroom and subsequently murdered by the maniac, who locks his bloody corpse inside after taking his lizard costume. Meanwhile, most of the students are enjoying a magic show performed by the charming Ken (David Copperfield), who flirts with Alana after the show and dazzles her with his illusions. Jackson’s body is soon discovered by the train’s conductor, Carne (Johnson), who alerts one of his colleagues, only to find that the Jackson is missing and the blood has been cleaned up. After dispatching of the friends one-by-one, the killer is eventually revealed to be Kenny, who had been disguised as the magician’s female assistant, who finally comes face-to-face with the one who had seduced him into the prank.
Terror Train is by far one of the most impressive of the early eighties slashers, with stylish cinematography and a detailed production design. Each scene was lit with hundreds of small bulbs in order to avoid bleaching the shot, which would help in creating ambiance and a sense of claustrophobia. If the film was to suffer from anything it was the involvement of Copperfield. It was not his performance or acting skills that would come into question but the fact that audiences refused to believe that the illusions on screen were not optical effects or camera trickery but were in fact the result of his talents. But thankfully, Copperfield’s role is only a minor subplot and does not distract too far from the overall effect of the movie.
Whilst Terror Train lacks the recognisable villain of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, Kenny makes for an eerie antagonist. MacKinnion’s turn is both sinister and tragic, with the actor – who would sadly only have one irrelevant film role after this – providing a sinister and convincing performance. Curtis adds another impressive heroine to her résumé, a far more impressive turn than her one as Kim Hammond in Prom Night (and thankfully the film wisely avoids any embarrassing disco sequences). By far the most effective sequence is Kenny’s first disguise, stalking his victims whilst dressed as Groucho Marx (who, coincidentally, had only passed away three years prior to the release of the movie). Despite Marx being designed as a comedic character, this visage is a creepy presence and by far Kenny’s best disguise. Full of interesting ideas and stylish cinematography, Terror Train is an underrated gem of early eighties horror.