6.01.2008

Terror Train (1980)

DIRECTED BY
Roger Spottiswoode

STARRING
Ben Johnson - Carne (Train Conductor)
Jamie Lee Curtis - Alana Maxwell
Hart Bochner - Doc Manley
David Copperfield - The Magician
Derek McKinnon - Kenny Hampson
Sandee Currie - Mitchy
Timothy Webber - Mo

Year - 1980

Score - 3.5 Howls Outta 4


As a native New Yorker, I take the subway every day of my life. It gets me around NYC pretty quickly, taking me to where I want to go mostly without any interruption. While the daytime usually holds more than a packed train, the nighttime ride can be a bit nerve-racking. Barely anyone is in the same cart with you. If someone is with you, they're usually homeless or scary looking to the point where you become more alert and paranoid than any person have any right to be. I become very cautious during the ride back home during the night. Probably why you're still reading my reviews.

But what if there was someone on the train who wanted to kill you? Maybe it's a total stranger. Maybe it's someone you pulled a big prank on and they want revenge. Either way, you're a target. In TERROR TRAIN, Jamie Lee Curtis has that problem - and this train is FULL of people - in disguises during a New Year's Eve party. If you can't be safe around your friends, do you even have a chance of survival? Fortunately for this rarely seen or talked out slasher flick, you definitely want to watch for the answer.

PLOT
At a New Year's Eve party, a freshman fraternity prank on nerdy Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) goes terribly wrong. So wrong in fact, that Kenny goes off in a screaming, flailing fit to the point where he's traumatized by the whole ordeal. Three years pass and the same group of characters board a train to celebrate the upcoming arrival of the new year in an annual costume party. While everyone has a good time aboard, everyone involved in Kenny's prank suddenly begin to drop like flies one by one. Yep, there's definitely a psycho killer onboard the train, ready to make sure none of his targets survive the trip. Is it Kenny wanting his revenge? Maybe it's freakin' David Copperfield, still pissed that Claudia Schiffer dropped his ass? Who knows, since the murderer is changing his disguise between every kill! Can the train conductor (Ben Johnson) save Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis), the killer's main target?

REVIEW
It's funny...I had originally thought I had seen all of Jamie Lee Curtis' earlier slasher films. But until this past weekend, I realized that I had never seen TERROR TRAIN before! I've seen HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, PROM NIGHT, HALLOWEEN II, even the obscure ROAD GAMES - but never TERROR TRAIN. But you know what? I'm glad I finally got to see it because this is one damn good slasher film. Apparently, this film was released pretty much around the time THE FOG and PROM NIGHT were released. I guess due to Jamie Lee Curtis overexposure, this film was lost in the shuffle. Which is a shame because out of the three films, TERROR TRAIN is the best one.

I think the thing that first really struck me about TERROR TRAIN is the cinematography. Done by Stanley Kubrick's cinematographer John Alcott, the film is absolutely stunning and beautiful. From the snowy mountaintops to inside the dark train, the picture never fails to look professional. How many slasher films of this era can you say that about? Maybe HALLOWEEN or HALLOWEEN II? There's an actual budget to this film and it was placed in all the right places. Really nice job.

The direction by Roger Spottiswoode, who would later direct AIR AMERICA, TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE 6TH DAY, and the "classic" STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT, is also really well done. Very nice use of red, blue, and green hues flashing through several train sequences. Spottiswoode makes sure the characters sway left and right to make it look like the train is actually moving. Who knows...maybe this was filmed on an actual train? I couldn't really tell the difference and that's a really good thing. The pacing was also quite decent [even though the middle section of the film was a bit slow and loses a bit of the film's momentum] and the murder scenes were shot well. You actually don't get to see gore in this film [there is blood but minimal] but I actually like to imagine how the murders had taken place. Makes the film more interactive in my opinion. After watching modern horror films, you get kind of numb to all the blood and guts after a while. The aftermath shots were pretty cool though. Slit throats, decapitated heads - not bad at all. So this film was a nice change of pace.

I also enjoyed the story. Yes...a horror film with a simple and sensible plot! Who knew? Unlike most horror films these days, there's an actual "mystery" to who the killer is. Okay, we KNOW who the killer is by name and by history, but we don't know who the killer is because he's always underneath a costume until the end. There's enough suspects in the film to make us wonder if one of these people is really Kenny in costume or maybe with a new look to fool his targets. And the ending makes perfect sense. There's a nice twist leading up to it [which I half-got but not totally] but you're not fooled by it as there is no cop-out. It goes from point A to point B to point C with ease. That's all I want from a horror movie and TERROR TRAIN provided that for me in spades.

Speaking of the killer, I gotta say that it was an excellent idea to have him constantly changing costumes to fool everyone on the train. With horror icons like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees, you have an iconic look that can never be changed or else it won't look right. You can identify these characters the moment you see them. Not in this film. You're never really sure who is who here, keeping you in suspense. My favorite costume is the Groucho Marx outfit. To see such a iconic comedian murder people is a pretty neat sight. I never realized how scary Groucho could be. I wish more horror villains had the ability to pull this off. It would make things a lot more unpredictable, something the genre really needs at the moment.

I also enjoyed the acting and the characters. Jamie Lee Curtis is probably THE Scream Queen of all time and TERROR TRAIN is no exception for the actress. She has amazing scream capacity, can run and cry with the best of them, and can definitely act out of a paper bag. It's not really a hard role for Curtis, as Alana is pretty much the same character she protrays in all of her early horror films: the virtuous goody-too-shoes who will be the only one to stop the killer from continuing his rampage [even though Alana does like to drink and flirt with boys]. But when you're good in that role, how can I complain? And Curtis is quite good here, as she's very likeable and very well-developed for a horror character.

Academy-Award winner Ben Johnson is also quite good as the Conductor. He's pretty much the male hero that helps out Alana's heroine character. Very warm, likeable, and quite charming in his performance, Johnson is a welcome addition to this film. We also get a pre-Prince Vanity [using her real name Denise D. Winters] as one of Alana's friends. She doesn't do much but she's very nice to look at. David Copperfield plays the mysterious Magician, who seems to catch Alana's eye. I don't have a lot of hate for the guy as some people I know do, but I thought he was actually quite good here. He mostly did magic tricks, but I found them quite entertaining. Plus he added a lot to the film's mystique factor, since he vanished in and out of the crowd pretty sporatically. Plus his name was Ken too. Is he Kenny, the victim of the prank - the killer? I'm not telling you that. And then we get reliable Hart Bochner, playing the prick role he's so great at playing [watch DIE HARD and tell me I'm lying]. He's an evil dick but he's a likeable dick. Plus his scenes after finding out there's a killer on the train are pretty amusing and quite tense. He did a really great job.

And Derek McKinnon as Kenny is - what can I say? - he's a fuckin' loon. Or he plays a real good loon. I'm not sure. The dude was freaky and his scene where he laughs and screams while draping himself with a silk canopy at the beginning gave me goosebumps. I never want to be alone with that guy on a moving train. I'd definitely be wanting out of there...FAST.

I think my only issues with the film, besides the slow middle portion of the film, is that the film is not scary. You won't be jumping in fright or clinging onto your boyfriend out of fear. It's pretty much by-the-book and doesn't really bring anything new to the genre. Also, there are a lot of characters in the film, so getting to know them all is not possible. So we lose alot of closeness and sympathy to most of these characters. Which is a shame because I'm sure these characters could have been interesting if there were less characters and they were fleshed out more. Oh well...

THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE SEDUCING WOMEN WITH MY MAGIC TRICKS

1. Ed, dressed as Groucho Marx, was stabbed by a sword. Just like Abe Lincoln, Ed had a horrible NIGHT AT THE OPERA.

2. The Magician isn't read to perform tricks for the large partying crowd. I guess he's pissed that he can't scout beautiful women, take half-naked photos of them, and convince them to go to the Bahamas with him without it being on TMZ. Or maybe he just sucks. A magician never reveals his secrets.

3. The magician can do mean tricks with putting cigarettes through quarters. No wonder Copperfield got so many hot chicks in his day. He's a master of putting things in places that they shouldn't have access to.

4. Vanity was very into The Magician's act. Maybe she's hoping he could get that pretty mess off of her dress.

5. Don't piss off a girl wearing a witch outfit. After she parties her sadness away, she'll shove a broomstick up you ass. If you happen to like things being shoved up your ass, then please ignore what you just read.

6. Mitchy always wanted to get to know Jackson, the black guy. Well once you go black, you can never come back. And boy...she ain't coming back!

7. Don't pull horrible practical jokes on people. The only ones that will be laughing are the victims.

8. Alana grabbed a hanger to use in case the killer attacks her. Nice to see she learned something from HALLOWEEN.

9. The killer really wanted to kill Alana. He must have seen CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS. Totally understandable.

10. Vanity was concerned for Alana. Too bad Bruce Leroy wasn't on the train. He'd show the killer who's got "the glow".

THE FINAL HOWL
TERROR TRAIN
is one of the better slasher films from its peak in the early 1980s. It's not a classic by any means, but it's definitely worth watching for sure if you're a fan of Jamie Lee Curtis or these films in general. It's fun, it's entertaining, and there's a nice sense of mystique that's lacking in horror these days. Hell, I'm even gonna buy the DVD just because I liked it so damn much. There's a remake coming out this year called TRAIN starring Thora Birch as the Alana character. So I suggest checking this version out before it's released soon. I have a feeling this version will be the better of the two.

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