TERROR TRAIN [1981]

()
Directed by:
Written by: , ,
Starring: , , ,

At a Northern Illinois University fraternity’s New Year’s Eve party, reluctant Alana Maxwell is coerced into luring the shy Kenny Hampson into a room where others have placed a woman’s corpse; Kenny is totally shocked. Three years later, the members of the same fraternity hold a New Year’s Eve costume party aboard a train. Three years later, members of the same fraternity hold a New Year’s Eve costume party aboard a train. Class clown Ed is murdered prior to boarding and the killer dresses himself in Ed’s Groucho Marx mask, allowing him to board the train unnoticed and wonder among the students who all think he’s Ed….

Reviewing Bullet Train last week unsurprisingly got me thinking about other films set on a train, and was there ever a slasher set on a train? There certainly should be, the very nature of this setting seeming like a perfect one for a masked maniac to off some teenagers. And actually there was one, and I’d seen it a great many years ago though not recalled much about it except that was something of a – well, you should all know by now that I’m not the most PC of writers  -prick tease. Yes, there was a number of killings, but all except one had the camera cut away from the action at the point of bloodshed and then just have somebody coming across a dead body or lying there dying. This seemed tantamount to being a crime for a slasher, and it overshadowed any of the qualities the film may have. Yet it’s really a rather good outing, certainly making good use of it being set on a train and delivering some solid passages of suspense and frights. It also employs a gimmick used elsewhere which is always effective but which is usually just relegated to one scene – the killer being able to move about in full view because he’s wearing a mask and everyone thinks he or she is someone else – and does quite a lot with it. Acting is above average and Jamie Lee Curtis does a good job playing a slightly more complex heroine than usual for her, there’s a nice subtheme of magic running throughout it even though it’s not exploited enough, and the whole thing has a glossy sheen unusual in slashers of the time, looking like a bigger budgeted affair than it actually was, even though it was made at that curious period when major Hollywood studios dabbled in this disreputable genre, either picking up films or putting money into them themselves, something which no doubt made the critics hate them even more.

Producer Daniel Grodnik dreamt the idea for this after seeing Silver Streak and Halloween together. In the morning he wrote a treatment and made a deal on it with producer Sandy Howard that very afternoon, with T. Y. Drake writing a full screenplay, though when Roger Spottiswoode, an editor for Sam Peckinpah who later made the likes of Under Fire and Tomorrow Never Dies, was hired to direct by Howard on the condition that he also edit [though Anne Henderson ended up doing the latter], he got his girlfriend Judith Roscoe to do a major rewrite, with Howard insisting that a magician be written in. Principal photography mainly took place in and around Montreal, Canada. An actual Canadian Pacific Railway train was used, and was still operational as of January 2021; most of the train scenes had to be shot at night though, because it was too busy around the warehouse it was in. Non-professional actor Derek MacKinnon, who played the killer, got the role without knowing what the part was; he would then row on set with Spottiswoode because of both his supposed unprofessionalism and Spottiswoode  keeping him away from the other actors. Curtis, who made this immediately after Prom Night, suggested that her character kiss the killer, which was accepted. She also injured a stunt man with a metal spike when technicians forgot to make a door she was slamming into the killer collapsable. John Ford and Sam Peckinpah actor Ben Johnson filmed scenes where his character was involved with another particular one which was interesting indeed; they were cut though, as were shots of the killer being alive at the end. The final day of shooting had a stunt man fall from the train into a frozen river; he considered it too cold for him, so art director Guy Comtois did it instead. 2oth Century Fox picked the film up, though didn’t make as much money as they expected, partly due to over spending on the promotional campaign.

So, as is often the case, we begin with the incident which sets up the later action, the killer and his or her reason for killing, though this scene was added a month later. Though done to death, I always like this setup, because it creates a bit of sympathy for the killer. It’s New Year’s Eve, and a bunch of students are singing around a bonfire. One of them, obviously a bit mentally challenged, is being told that a pretty girl fancies him and will even give him a shag. Kenny of course buys this, even though he could have taken having his hand shook by a severed hand being held by somebody else as a warning. Alana doesn’t want to go along with it but is being almost forced to lure him into the room where a body stolen from the medical lab awaits him. Slow motion vividly gets through to us how this affects Kenny, though we don’t entirely learn how badly he was affected until much later on – I can’t work out if this was a good decision by the writers or not. Anyway, the opening titles now come up, along with a black background opening up in one area to show a train speeding along. The train of the film proper is stationery at first, as we’re introduced to our main characters, most of whom we’ve already met, though they spend much of the time in costume, at times even masked. Class clown Ed is disguised as Groucho Marx; Prank ringleader Doc Manley is disguised as a monk; Jackson is disguised some kind of alien lizard creature; Mitchy, Doc’s girlfriend and Alana’s best friend, is disguised as a witch; and Alana’s boyfriend Mo is disguised as a bird. Also along are Carne, the train conductor, his driver Charlie and his guard Donley, and this unnamed magician hired to entertain the crowd. Goodbyes are said and Carne is offered a joint – and is shown a severed joint of the other kind.

Ho ho ho, though the joker responsible is then seen with a sword having been ran through him and the person who sees him thinks he’s just pretending. The killer puts on the rather freaky Groucho mask and gets on the train where he now ought to find it easy to slash his or her way through the cast. His or her? Who am I kidding? You already know that Kenny is this killer, though I’ll call him Kenny from now on, though there’s a twist involving Kenny towards the end which was a gimmick used in several other similar movies of the period; I should have probably spotted it really but hey, I still do like surprises. As usual, we spend a lot of time with the characters just being themselves, though they’re slightly better drawn than some and the bodies begin to show up a bit quicker than usual for a film taking place during the first phase of the first wave of slashers. On the train we learn that Alana still feels guilty about her involvement in the event exactly three years before and angry at Mo for getting her to do it and Doc for getting Mo to talk her into it. She didn’t even want to come on the train, understandably not liking frat parties. Doc is still Mo’s best friend and this is straining Mo and Alana’s relationship. Despite being involved with Mitchy, Doc goes off with another guy and two girls, leaving Mitch to get drunk, stoned and then try to bed who she thinks is Ed though he’s actually of course Kenny in a quite memorable scene which manages to be frightening, darkly amusing and darkly sexual at the same time. As for the magician, he initially impresses a few of the kids by showing a cigarette making a hole in a coin, going all the way through it with the hole than heeling and the coin suddenly appearing somewhere else, but when he performs live not everyone seems to be on board until he performs a trick which can’t help but impress everyone who sees it. The kids who forked out for this shindig sure had a lot of money; as well as the magician there’s unlimited drinks, a band and a disco. But soon a body shows up, then another one, and so forth.

There’s a rather pointless scene where Carne stops the train so that it can be searched while the kids are outside, but then we also get a really exciting struggle between Alana [oh come on, you know she’s going to be the final girl] and Kenny which seems like it could be the climax, then a bit more footage followed by a second struggle which is over disappointingly quickly. Early on we get to see a face being smashed into a mirror, though not in particularly graphic detail; after that we get several slashed throats and a stabbing, but don’t actually see any of it really. There’s a shock with a severed head, though it’s very quick, and, as usual with severed heads, isn’t convincing. There’s only one brief glimpse of breasts, so I’m therefore mystified as to why the Blu-ray carries an ’18’ certificate, but then then this is the BBFC we’re talking about, as inconsistent and puzzling as usual. Spottiswoode obviously wasn’t that interested in the exploitative side of things and, to be fair, he does give us enough memorable moments to almost compensate, the mature adult Doc admits. There’s some fun business with a toilet which is always occupied, then has a corpse wearing a costume in it, and is then seen to contain the same costume but with a certain somebody else in it who certainly isn’t dead. There’s also a really good version of the scene where somebody opens several doors and may be greeted by the killer behind one of them – really tense this. There also a really unsettling bit where the killer is outside the train looking in and his mask looks like it’s sliding down the window!

The dark corridors of a train are utilised to the maximum, though perhaps the odd scene or two is a little two dark, something cinematographer John Alcott does make up for some nice lighting elsewhere, most notably some rather lovely shots of a dark carriage with some pink ambiance. Actually it’s probably just the same shot used several times but still, we do have a film that tries to be more visually pleasing than its cousins, even if there’s one glaring mistake when it’s nighttime yet a shot of the train obviously filmed during early daylight is cut in; it was probably a pickup shot deemed necessary to smooth over a cut, but surely it could have been darkened? Copperfield is good enough to wish he’d been in more movies, even though he had trouble remembering his lines; one just wishes that his use of illusions had played more of a part in the actual plot. Curtis is typically strong in perhaps her best characterised final girl part; part of her confrontation with the killer is a surprisingly powerful, emotional moment, and a bit she suggested herself. Johnson is given some nice moments, though he insisted on cutting down this lines he had to speak. John Mills-Cockell’s music score does all the right things for this type of movie though lacks anything really memorable. Terror Train in the end doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be; some of the people involved clearly wanted a typical slasher but others wanted something more respectable. The result doesn’t wholly satisfy, but is still undoubtedly one of the best made films of its ilk from this period.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Avatar photo
About Dr Lenera 1978 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*