TERROR TRAIN (1980)
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Written by T. Y. Drake
Starring Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield(!), & Vanity(!!!)
Man, I hadn’t seen TERROR TRAIN in ages. Let me tell you what I remembered from the film prior to seeing it; It had Jamie Lee Curtis (post-HALLOWEEN, when she was just starting to look hot). It took place on a train (of course). And it had illusionist David Copperfield in it. Apart from those three facts, I completely forgot pretty much everything else about this film. For some reason though, every time the film popped up in my mind, there were fond memories, so I couldn’t wait to check it out again to see if it was just nostalgia or if the film was actually as good as I remembered. Though in finding images for this review, I could only hope that the ad wizards who came up with the tagline in the poster to the right weren’t talking about the movie itself…
Note to self: Next time I think it’d be a good idea to play a practical joke on a twenty year old virgin by luring him into bed with a cadaver, watch this film to see how bad of an idea that is. This is a pretty twisted little movie. Sure, it’s basically HALLOWEEN on a train, but where it falls short on gore, its cup spilleth over with weirdness. The aforementioned virginal nerd is tormented by his pre-med school “friends” and after a prank goes wrong in the opening scene of this film, we quickly skip to a party occurring years later as the kids’ graduate college. Though it’s not Halloween, the kids decide to have a costume party on a train across a frozen wilderness. What could go wrong?
There’s some real talent behind the camera in TERROR TRAIN. A little investigating uncovered that this was director Roger Spottiswoode’s first film. Spottiswoode went on to direct SHOOT TO KILL (a personal favorite of mine starring Sidney Poitier, Kirstie Alley, Tom Berringer & Clancey Brown), TURNER & HOOCH, STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT, and TOMORROW NEVER DIES. While I wouldn’t categorize those films as classics of cinema (aside from SOMMWS of course), it is an impressive resume. Here Spottiswoode amps up the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped on a train with a killer. The corridors are tight and poorly lit. There are all kinds of closets and nooks for a killer to hide (as exemplified with perfection in a scene where the ageless Hart Bochner holes himself into a room only to find the killer hiding in there with him). There’s all kinds of close discomfort going on in TERROR TRAIN, probably because the movie was filmed on a real train and the camera equipment back then was pretty bulky, so the close up shots were probably the only shots that could be taken. This is basically a whodunit although we know who the killer is, there’s a train full of masked partiers. The tension is amped because the killer doesn’t stick to one costume. He switches from one to another throughout the film, making everyone a suspect, which plays on a Halloween motif never taken advantage of even in the HALLOWEEN films. Damn cool stuff.
There are good performances mainly provided by Ben Johnson (who many will know from THE WILD BUNCH, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and maybe RED DAWN, but I know from THE TOWN THE DREADED SUNDOWN and THE SWARM) who plays a protective conductor who loves magic, Hart Brochner as a whiney med student who you can’t wait to see perished, and Jamie Lee Curtis finishes up her horror trifecta with this film after filming HALLOWEEN’s 1&2, and PROM NIGHT just before this one. Curtis gets down and dirty with the killer in this one as she runs from car to car trying to get away from him. This is a pretty physically demanding performance here, but I guess it didn’t cure Curtis from trains given that she starred in TRADING PLACES just a couple of years later which ends on a train too. As an added bonus, we have some pretty keen magic from illusionist David Copperfield which occasionally skids the story to a screeching halt much like the brakes on a train. These magic stops are fun, sure, but I couldn’t help but scoff at bit at how dorky Copperfield’s mesmerizing stage stare is.
More times than not, returning to a film I dug as a kid leaves me disappointed. Not the case here with TERROR TRAIN. Though I hear it was to be remade starring Thora Birch, it looks like that one got distributed as TRAIN, minus the terror. Haven’t seen that one. Maybe I’ll seek it out, but it’s got it’s work cut out for it if it’s going to match the quality scares and thrills in this TERROR TRAIN.