Roger Ebert said this of scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in 1980: At this point…if she should get a straight role in a conventional movie, she might start screaming and running away from the camera just on reflex.” Eeb sure could turn a phrase but he frequently turned on horror – at best, offering back-handed compliments and it almost pained him to do so – and at worst, one and even zero-star reviews.
Terror Train is one such film.
And that’s a bit unfair as it employs sleights of hand usually absent in slashers.
We’re fans of magic and Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. One of was even an amateur magician at one time and using magic as a backdrop for a film is a great way to fudge the line between real and unreal. Plus, setting up its victims on a moving train means they’ve gotta stick around to watch the whole show.
“Damn med students!” from the Sigma Phi Omega fraternity book a steam locomotive on New Year’s Eve for a big costume party a few years after they’d pranked a frat pledge into a mental hospital with a mean-spirited windup.
Before boarding, a Groucho Marx-masked “wacky guy”- a staple of 80s gore who’s frequently killed – doesn’t disappoint. He’s impaled with a sword and a mysterious killer assumes his Vaudevillian identity.
On board the train is the one and only David Copperfield doing close-up magic and more elaborate tricks on stage. And that’s some train! There’s also a band, some ladies of the evening and a conducting crew that includes the legendary Ben Johnson, Academy Award winner for The Last Picture Show and the Texas ranger in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Meanwhile, the killer kills his victims one by one and adopts their disguise (For the men at least…The women he just leaves in their berths). Luckily, everyone’s drinking pretty heavily and the noise of the train and the levity drown out the screams.
In Horror Films of the 1980s, John Kenneth Muir astutely points out that victims die or survive based on their ability to process illusions and buy into the ruse. He must have been referring to Terror Train.
The movie is dark – not morbid dark- but murky. According to the director, cinematographer John Alcott (best known for The Shining and A Clockwork Orange) “would light people’s eyes with little medical lights, little pen torches. He’d stand behind the camera and hold a pen light in each hand and pick out people’s eyes.”
It definitely makes for a neat effect.
The denouement is a bit unsatisfying, but it’s neat to see a slasher film play with convention during the height of the phenomenon.
***1/2 (out of 5)