October Horrorshow: Terror Train

For about four years in the late 70s and early 80s, Jamie Lee Curtis had a hell of a run as a scream queen. During that time, she starred in four slasher flicks, and was part of an ensemble cast in another. Audiences in those days must have grown familiar with her piercing, oddly resonant, terrified wail. Whether she was fleeing a maniac in a William Shatner mask, evading the vengeful spirits of dead lepers, or, in today’s film, fighting off a costumed murderer aboard a moving train, her howling gusts are an integral part of the soundtrack. She was perfect for the roles she played. Always playing the survivor, she had youth, attractiveness, and innocence touched with enough sexuality to make her someone all the males in the audience would want to save. Only, she didn’t need it. For a time, there, she seemed to be the hardest person in Hollywood to kill. It’s a living, I guess.

By the time Terror Train was released, in 1980, Curtis was in serious danger of being typecast. But an added benefit is that, by the time she had reached this film, she was a pro in the horror genre. Everything about her performance feels easy and practiced. She’s like a pro athlete who has had a few years in the league to iron out the kinks, and is now a seasoned veteran. She shows up every day, does her job, and wins. This movie is like watching Curtis go 1 for 4 with a walk, a double, and an RBI. Good game. It’s odd to think of an actress in this way, because we’re supposed to suspend disbelief when we watch a movie. We’re supposed to forget we’re watching performers, but that’s never really the case, is it? I would venture that we prefer professionalism and competence over illusion.

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and written by T.Y. Drake, Terror Train was one of an endless number of slasher films released around that time. Halloween really turned loose that subgenre of horror. Besides Terror Train, 1980 saw To All a Goodnight, The Fog (also featuring Curtis), Don’t Answer the Phone, He Knows You’re Alone, Fade to Black, and the immortal Friday the 13th. That’s a lot. This movie had better have a hook. It does! It’s a slasher film…that takes place aboard a train. Bonus: one of the supporting characters is a magician played by David Copperfield. That sounds gimmicky, but in actuality, it’s inspired casting. I can’t give away too much, lest I spoil it for any of the Loyal Seven who might seek this movie out, but the magician is important to the plot, yet also totally unnecessary. I realize that doesn’t make any sense, so I’ll try to put it another way. The magician is needed for a plot twist, but it just as easily could have been the train engineer or one of the conductors. I just love the fact that this movie called for a magic act, and the producers went out and got Copperfield, a grand showman, to do a couple card tricks and levitations. That would be like Gordon Ramsay showing up at your cookout to grill up some hot dogs.

But, wait? Why is Jamie Lee Curtis on a train with a murderer and a magician? Well, she is there for a New Year’s Eve/graduation party. She, and the wild and crazy pre-meds of Sigma Phi Omega are ready to ride the rails and drink all the booze they can find. It’s pretty standard fare as far as slasher flicks go. Have youth, will party. It’s not all that inaccurate, either. The party is also a costumed ball, which is convenient for the mystery killer. With every life he takes, he swaps costumes with the victim. That’s another pretty cool hook.

Other potential victims (and suspects), include the head conductor, played by Ben Johnson, and the fraternity’s resident party animal, Doc Manley (Hart ‘Hans, Bubby, I’m Your White Knight!’ Bochner). I didn’t really need to list any other cast members, or comment on their performances. But I did need to make any readers aware that the cokehead asshole from Die Hard is in this flick. That alone makes this worth the watch.

Terror Train isn’t the type of horror film that inundates the viewer with scares. It’s very much a film with a deliberate pace. It’s also light on the gore in comparison with its brethren, although things do get a little stabby. The most surprising aspect of Terror Train is how anonymous it seems to have become. It’s not a groundbreaking film or anything, but it is a good movie. In a genre known for its lesser examples, Terror Train feels like it got lost simply because it lacks unique characteristics. The producers were aware of that, which is why it is set aboard a train, but that’s mere window dressing. I’ve seen a whole pile of slasher films, and they all consist of interchangeable parts, to the extent that my memory has jumbled a bunch of them together into a gory pastiche that I can’t pick apart anymore. Terror Train adds to this chaos, but it doesn’t make it worse.