They claim it’s a “Groucho” mask, but I swear to God the killer in Terror Train spends a quarter of the movie disguised as beloved film critic and punster Gene Shalit. I wish they’d have just run with it. “Why do I kill people? Because I’ve got a loco motive!” Oh, the possibilities…
Instead of going completely nutzoid, Terror Train embraces its identity as “Halloween on a Train,” a phrase several of the interview subjects on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray openly confess was their ambition for this low-budget slasher that came out just two years after the John Carpenter blockbuster. They even cast burgeoning scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role, just in case you didn’t pick up on the connection. The finished product is nowhere near as good as Halloween (what is?), but seemingly strives to be an effective thriller in its own right, with some interesting characters, impressive lighting and production design, and a cameo appearance by then-unknown magician David Copperfield, playing more-or-less himself.
A fraternity prank goes horribly wrong, and one year later the conspirators – including Curtis, dressed as a pirate, her boyfriend Timothy Webber and Die Hard’s ultra-yuppie Hart Bochner – are having one last college party aboard a rented train. Booze, drugs and promiscuity abound, along with a mysterious magician (Copperfield, obviously) whom nobody seems to remember actually hiring. Soon, the kids behind the initial prank – involving the loss of virginity and one particularly putrid cadaver – are getting killed one-by-one at the hands of a serial killer who keeps switching costumes with their victims, preventing anyone on board from realizing that their friends are missing.
Terror Train, it must be said, looks great. I’ve seen the film before, but in high definition it’s far easier to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in the production, which uses its claustrophobic location and disorienting lighting to eerie effect. It’s too bad that the rest of the movie doesn’t seem quite as clever. Terror Train is not a stupid film, but as a respected entry in a genre famed for memorable death scenes and psychopaths, it’s surprising that so few of the actual murders are standouts, and that the villain feels like such a non-entity. His (or her) identity is a mystery for most of the film, even though the prologue makes it obvious who has the motive, and the shifting nature of the killer’s disguise prevents them from having a consistent persona when we do see them.
Terror Train seems to attempt to mitigate this problem by having a wider cast of characters with melodramatic relationships, but only Hart Bochner boasts truly fascinating character: a bullying practical joker who uses his mischievous skills to sabotage Webber and Curtis’s relationship. He’s a dickweed, but he’s a dickweed whose behavior comes from a place of isolation, jealousy and mild homosexual subtext. He’s afraid of losing his best friend to a serious romantic relationship with a woman, and as the film progresses we see the toll that it’s taking on him, even though his behavior is abhorrent. Jamie Lee Curtis carries the film with her dignity and moralizing, but Bochner makes the film with an unusually complex character to find within a slasher narrative.
Terror Train never quite took on a life of its own. It’s one of the most respected of the early post-Halloween slashers, but it failed to produce a single sequel, presumably because trains are freaking expensive. I suspect it failed to catch on in the long term because the story is just as arbitrary as “Halloween on a Train” makes it sound. Whereas Halloween was about the inability to comprehend true evil, and Friday the 13th was, at the very least, campfire horror story come to life at an actual camp, Terror Train is mostly a standard revenge tale that just happens to take place on a train because… nobody had ever made a slasher on a train before. The location makes for unusual set pieces, but has no connection to the actual story that, for all intents and purposes, could have taken place at a frat house with minimal adjustments.
But Terror Train remains a popular genre installment, and Scream Factory has done an admirable job restoring the movie to gorgeous clarity, at least whenever the spooky lighting allows for clarity. The film’s atmosphere drips onto high definition in thick gobs, allowing for easy immersion in a quality home theater environment. The disc’s fairly sparse special features have notable omissions – there’s no commentary track and no involvement from Curtis, Copperfield or director Roger Spottiswoode whatsoever – but the interviews that have been compiled mostly make up for their absence. Producer Daniel Grodnik, production executive Don Carmody, production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell each have vivid memories of the production process and tons of fun stories to tell. For example, Terror Train’s director of photographer, Academy Award-winner John Alcott, didn’t use a light meter on the production, choosing instead to test his set-ups by taking Polaroid pictures. If you don’t know how unusual that is, let’s just say it’s a little astounding.
I’d seen Terror Train once before, many years ago, and remembered the film as most horror fans seem to: it was an above average horror movie, well produced and occasionally clever. My nostalgia was mostly validated by this Blu-ray release, which takes great care with “The Little Slasher That Could.” Terror Train doesn’t belong on any list of the greatest horror movies of all time, but it exceeds expectations despite an overreliance on a decidedly low-concept gimmick. “Look… We have the train, we’re going to shoot the train!”