I’ve been making my way through a lot of new-to-me classics lately, and also, I watched Terror Train.
I recommend it. This is a kitchen sink cookie of a horror film, unrefined and messy and enjoyable. Also, it’s set on a train, which makes it better: for any given film, if you ask yourself, “Would this action be more interesting if it were happening on a train?”, the answer is almost certainly yes.
It’s entirely possible this film was reverse-engineered from a set of ideas scribbled on a Post-It: train, masks, David Copperfield, Jamie Lee Curtis. Certainly the plot in no way feels as archetypal as Halloween, as inevitable as Black Christmas, or even as straightforwardly coherent as Friday the 13th. But the film’s lumpen strangeness is part of its peculiar charm; it’s memorable for staying bizarre start-to-finish while somehow managing to hit all the traditional slasher beats anyway, and as off-the-wall as it is, it’s executed competently and with a genuine sense of style. Roger Spottiswoode edited films for Peckinpah and Walter Hill before making this, his directorial debut; cinematographer John Alcott worked for Kubrick, shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon (and reprising some of the Barry Lyndon lighting techniques here). That pedigree shows.
Terror Train opens with fraternity hazing, immediately making it clear that almost everyone in this film is a douchebag. The decision has been made to sexually humiliate pledge Kenny (Derek MacKinnon), and these dipshits can’t even do it normally. Instead, they convince Kenny that Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) is waiting for him to come to her; they talk Alana into hiding in a bedroom filled with gauzy, drifting curtains. There, she talks a little to Kenny, encouraging him to strip down and join her on the bed–where Kenny almost locks lips with a stolen corpse that the frat boys have put there. He recoils in revulsion, twirls madly into the curtains, and has a nervous breakdown.
Inexplicably, despite stealing the dead body of someone’s loved one and trying to invent non-consensual necrophilia, all of the prank culprits are still happily enrolled in school a few years later. They’re a bunch of horny pre-med students who have decided, for unusually complicated reasons, that they will book an event train for a New Year’s Eve costume party. Before you can say, “Wait, what?”, it’s all aboard–and a killer has already struck, stolen the victim’s mask, and boarded the train in disguise. What follows is a fairly tense setup in which the killer roams around the train freely, donning victim’s costumes after various kills. The movie gets some good mileage out of that, especially when it involves gaslighting the poor beleaguered working stiffs (especially conductor Ben Johnson) just trying to run this train and keep these damn kids alive.
Thrown into the mix is David Copperfield as the Magician, a performer who adds to the general sense of unreality and untrustworthy appearances. The Magician clashes with Hart Bochner’s Doc, the architect of the original prank and a character whose general demeanor is like a flashing neon sign reading I GAVE MYSELF THIS NICKNAME. Doc is almost comically awful even when he’s not being a grave-robber: he urges his best friend to cheat and then sets the friend up to get caught! (He may or may not be angling for a threesome for half the movie, but, buddy, this isn’t the way to get it.) He heckles live shows and isn’t even funny! He’s also responsible for my favorite line in the film, as he rushes to help his carved-up friend and barks out, “I’m a doctor!” when he’s not even a medical student.
If this mixture of actual talent, bizarre choices, goofiness, and well-utilized setting sounds good to you, Terror Train is available for free with Amazon Prime.