Terror Train: All Aboard for a Killer Party

Today is ‘Scream Queen’ Jamie Lee Curtis’ birthday. Undoubtedly, the legendary actress has made her mark in films across genres. But Curtis defined her early career with a series of starring roles in horror movies beginning with Halloween. Fans fondly remember most of these roles. Hollywood has even given some of these movies the remake treatment. In contrast, Terror Train has largely slid into obscurity.

Synopsis

At a New Year’s Eve fraternity party, pledge Kenny Hampson is subjected to a humiliating hazing ritual. The experience leaves the pledge institutionalized. Three years later, the same fraternity throws a New Year’s Eve costume party on a train. Alana, the sorority sister who lured Kenny into his hazing, joins her boyfriend for the festivities. But an uninvited guest has also boarded the train. A masked killer is stalking and killing everyone involved in that tragic hazing. Each time the killer claims a victim, they take their costume and blend back into the party. Has Kenny re-surfaced to take revenge? Or has one of the responsible fraternity members succumbed to their guilt and gone mad?

Terror Train Gets a Lot of Mileage Out It Simple Premise

Terror Train was released in November 1980 just as the slasher craze was kicking into gear. This was the same year that saw Friday the 13th, He Knows You’re Alone, and Motel Hell released. Jamie Lee Curtis herself starred in not one but three horror films that year, which included Terror Train, The Fog, and Prom Night. With so much product cycling in and out of movie theaters, Terror Train needed a twist to help it stand out.

But the writers were able to put enough small twists on familiar story elements to separate Terror Train from the growing subgenre.

By and large, writers T.Y. Drake, Daniel Grodnik, and Judith Rascoe follow the slasher template that was already coalescing at the time. Everything from the tragic past incident to easy-to-spot red herrings abound in Terror Train. But the writers were able to put enough small twists on familiar story elements to separate Terror Train from the growing subgenre. The film’s opening hazing ritual, for example, is just bizarre enough to stand out in spite of its inherent silliness. Though the movies’ mystery story doesn’t add up to much, the killer’s pattern of adopting their victim’s costumes creates a few interesting scenarios. All in all, these small variations help Terror Train stand out.

Terror Train 1

Terror Train May Be A Little Light on the Gore for Some Slasher Fans

Surprisingly, Terror Train is a light on the Grand Guignol death scenes that would become characteristic of the slasher subgenre. Director Roger Spottiswoode focuses more on crafting suspense than setting up elaborate death scenes. Some slasher film fans may find this aspect of the movie disappointing. But it’s a creative decision that further allows Terror Train to feel somewhat different while still going through most of the slasher motions.

No one is going to confuse Terror Train with Murder on the Orient Express. But Spottiswoode exploits the claustrophobic setting to elicit a few moments of genuine suspense.

Spottiswoode also gets a lot out of the confined train setting. No one is going to confuse Terror Train with Murder on the Orient Express. But Spottiswoode exploits the claustrophobic setting to elicit a few moments of genuine suspense. Jamie Lee’s climatic chase sequence with the killer delivers enough fun tension even if the conclusion is never in doubt. Cinematographer John Alcott captures several beautiful shots of the Quebec countryside as an added bonus. Of course, the movie’s ‘shocking’ reveal feels perfunctory. Moreover, Terror Train ends rather abruptly, feeling almost anti-climatic.

Terror Train 2

Jamie Lee Curtis Isn’t Given Much to Do in Terror Train

Terror Train was Jamie Lee Curtis’ third horror movie in 1980. By this point in her career, Curtis clearly knew the drill and delivers what’s expected from her. Sadly, Terror Train’s screenplay doesn’t require Curtis to do much other than check off the standard ‘Final Girl‘ check-marks. Curtis is an excellent actress, but she’s arguably the least interesting character in the movie.

Somehow Terror Train’s producers roped veteran actor Ben Johnson to make an appearance. Older cinephiles who recognize Johnson will likely be disappointed at how underused he is in the movie. Magician David Copperfield also makes an appearance, largely serving as the movie’s red herring. But it’s veteran character actor Hart Bochner who gives the movie’s most interesting performance. Playing the ‘jerky’ frat boy, ‘Doc’, Bochner actually offers a layered portrayal, making the character far more interesting than what was probably intended.

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Terror Train is a Minor Slasher Hit

Terror Train is clearly is a B-level slasher movie. It never reaches the heights of the decade’s heavy-hitters like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Similarly, Terror Train doesn’t have enough going for it to be mentioned alongside smaller hits like My Bloody Valentine. Nonetheless, Terror Train does enough right to make for a fun diversion. It’s head and shoulders above the disco-drenched Prom Night and a decent entry to the subgenre before it fell into self-parody.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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