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 (and in my humble opinion, best) slashers to be produced in the wake of 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 resourceful heroine, or to use slasher terminology; 'Final Girl'. Check, check, check. While all these things are of course present in so many other slasher films of this era, the tension, mood and atmosphere sustained throughout Terror Train, help elevate it above many of its bloody peers.
Despite this seemingly unwavering adherence to convention, Terror Train really benefits from taut, measured 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 imperiled teens to run and hide as they’re picked off one by one aboard the increasingly creepy, claustrophobic train. One immensely eerie shot indicates the killer also uses the exterior and the roof of the train to move around undetected. The isolation of the setting is perfectly evoked by shots of the train hurtling through the dark, lonely, 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 hi-jinks of her friends. Like a lot of slashers, Terror Train’s depiction of the American frat/sorority lifestyle isn’t especially sympathetic, but the always reliable Curtis ensures her character is immensely likeable and relatable. When she figures out her friends are going missing, she keeps a clear head, alerts the conductor and tries to ensure everyone else remains safe.
Terror Train boasts atmosphere and tension by the bucket load. The pacing dips a little at the halfway mark, especially during the scenes with David Copperfield as a magician charged with entertaining the revelers. Once Alana realises that some of her friends are missing though, and the bodies begin to pile up, events once again start to build to a satisfyingly suspenseful climax which pits Curtis against the sadistic, axe-wielding killer. Also keeping audiences (and indeed the imperiled characters) on their toes, are the various changes of costumes and masks the killer makes throughout the film, usually changing into the costume and mask of the last victim, to enable them to move undetected among the partying teens. The various masks used throughout the film are incredibly creepy, and the numerous mask/costume changes are quite untypical of slasher film villains, which again, adds a nice touch to proceedings.
With its inspired setting, creepy atmosphere and expertly crafted tension, Terror Train is one of the better early Eighties slasher movies. It’s a hugely enjoyable thrill-ride, and personally speaking, one of my favourite slashers. All aboard!