Terror Train 1980 Review
Terror Train 1980
Directed by: Roger Spottiswood
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Ben Johnson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
The girls and boys from Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die… Taglines don’t get much better than that now, do they? Thankfully Roger Spottiwood’s debut has a lot more to offer than just imaginative promotion, it was actually one of the best flicks of the peak period. Add on top of that the fact that it was the first post-Halloween slasher to set in stone the ‘revenge of the bullied nerd’ premise that would become a signature in movies like Slaughter High and Iced throughout the decade.
The three and a half million-dollar budget that was thrown at the feature acts as proof that way back in 1980, a lot of studios were serious about backing the slasher cycle.
To keep with the holiday theme, it kicks off at a massive outdoors New Year’s party where youngsters converse and dance around a bonfire. A group of Medical students secluded from the rest of the revelers set up a prank in which one of their colleagues enters a (smartly lighted) room to find ‘love’ for the first time. Elaine (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been pressured into taking part, although she is unaware of the full implications. Unsurprisingly, something goes wrong and they end up creating a maniac that’s bitter, twisted and eager for revenge.
After the credits have rolled, we see that its New Years Eve once again; a couple of years down the line. Doc (Hart Bochner) has arranged a party on a locomotive train and all the culprits from earlier have shown up with the rest of the students from their year. The theme is fancy dress and the mood is set when an old lady that works at the station comments, `With a party like that, I’m always afraid some kid’s going to hurt himself’. The Conductor (Ben Johnson) replies `I wish to hell they’d put a radio on that train…’ So basically once the wheels are set in motion, everybody’s stranded until they reach the next station, which is a fair few miles away.
There’s an uninvited guest aboard for the ride and he doesn’t take long to begin slicing his way through the guilty revellers. Can Elaine avoid him for long enough for them to reach the next station?
Let’s face it – any slasher movie with Jamie Lee Curtis at the height of her scream queen period has got an instant advantage over its peers. Here she’s got some decent support from Hart Bochner and Sandee Currie, who herself in the same year had been working on Curtains, which was released in 1983. Screen mogul Ben Johnson brings some class to proceedings. His ‘is it worth it‘ speech was especially memorable. Roger Spottiswood had worked previously as an editor on various movies, including Straw Dogs. Here he proves, beyond a doubt that he can handle horror and build suspense, which is especially tight in places. The parts in which the guards search carriages with very little light were superb, keeping pulses running and you’re always aware that the killer could strike at any minute. Doc’s deserved fate was exceptionally handled and it was fun watching the once-brash bully turn into a grovelling coward.
The silent-killer stuff still felt fresh this early on and even though we’re pretty certain who’s under the various masks (more on that in a second), there’s still an intriguing mystery, because we don’t know whom he’s actually disguised as. Could he be the creepy magician? Or perhaps the driver that disappears? The conclusion is not one you’ll easily be able to solve.
The maniac here steals and then sports the attire of his most recent victim and with it being a fancy dress party; he is spoiled for choice. A similar idea was used in both Class Reunion Massacre and Hide and Go Shriek, but it is utilised to the best effect here. He dons some really disturbing guises, but my favorite was the creepy robe (well it looked like a robe) and mask that he wore in his confrontation with Elaine. In a fantastic sequence, the killer who is splashed in blood proceeds to smash out the lights in the carriage with a spear, as he constantly pursues the petrified final girl. In terms of horror visuals, it’s a real classic and stands comfortably alongside the similar scene from My Bloody Valentine. Terror Train isn’t exactly a gore hound’s delight, but it’s still graphic enough to satisfy most and it’s one that will stay with you after the credits have rolled.
Sadly there are a few flaws that prevent total praise, mostly due to the intermittent pacing. Terror Train has a truly terrifying antagonist, but he isn’t used as often as he should have been on a train filled with passengers. The between scenes mainly consist of obnoxious magician David Copperfield looking for excuses to give yawn-inducing magic shows or using them to try and score with Elaine. I found these parts to be an especially tedious form of padding; padding that an otherwise slick film really didn’t need. They could have cut him out completely and just trimmed it to eighty-minutes and it probably would’ve worked much better. John Mills Cockell’s award-nominated accompaniment wasn’t used as much as it could have been. Such a great score should’ve had a lot more screen-time. It proved to be effective in working up the suspense and heating up the climax towards the end, when the flashes of brilliance made-up for some of the slower patches that were evident earlier on.
One thing I did find interesting were the various talks about trains dying out and how they would become just a memory in a few years time. Well, that was 1980 and over thirty years later, they’re still as over-crowded as they’ve ever been…
Terror Train mixes relentless gloom, compelling mystery and good performances to achieve fairly decent results. Everything’s neatly photographed and it’s a refreshing change to see a healthy budget put to good use in a slasher flick. Trains are a claustrophobic location anyway and Spottiswood does enough to work it to the flick’s advantage. I like it much better than the other genre piece that Jamie Lee accepted, Prom Night, but it still can’t touch Carpenter’s Halloween. Despite a very mean-spirited tone and some really dark and disturbing scenes (a vibe much similar to Class Reunion Massacre, which coincidentally has much in common with this), it is far too heavily padded with long, boring and unnecessary David Copperfield moments to be a complete classic.
Buy yourself a ticket if you love slasher movies, but don’t expect just a fun-filled high-speed ride. This journey will take you on the odd snooze-laden diversion instead of a direct line on the horror express…
Final Girl √√√√√