This, folks, is the very reason that Jamie Lee Curtis is still known as a (or even "the") "Scream Queen". Luckily she's a good actress too, which led her to a career worth raising your Activa to, but her first claims to fame had to do with her frequent face-offs against Serial Killer after Serial Killer after Serial Killer.
The interesting thing about most of these higher-profile slasher thrillers is that, while they're all pretty comparable plot-wise, very few of this era were all that bad (whether they starred Jamie Lee or not). This brings us to Terror Train, a film that does star Madamoiselle Curtis and is pretty damned derivative to boot. It may not be Halloween, but 90% of the film does take place during a costume party. What's more, this costume party takes place on a moving train, which scarcely allows for any victim (even Jamie Lee) to get away from the costumed crazy du jour!
And, once again... the film isn't that bad. Admittedly, this is a relative thing and if you're not a fan of the Slasher Mystery, you won't get into this one either. The truth is that during this era (with some cheaper exceptions) the slasher thrillers were a lot more like Murder Mysteries with more blood, the occasional exposed breast and a killer that won't stop. The films that divested themselves of the mystery seem to be the ones who have become icons. Nobody questions that Michael Myers is trick or treating behind you, that Jason Voorhees is following you around Camp or that Freddy Krueger is the man of your dreams, but in films like My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, Graduation Day, Happy Birthday to Me and April Fool's Day, the Mystery's the thing!
In this case it makes a lot of sense that this film would journey into mystery, as its director is Roger Spottiswoode who, needless to say, has proven that he knows what he's doing in that genre and beyond.
Our terror tale starts in college as the Sigma Phi Fraternity celebrates New Year's Eve with a little Frat-boy pledge Hazing which goes just a little bit beyond the pale. Knowing what a great experience sex with Jamie Lee Curtis' Alana Maxwell would be (and I'm sure it would), a geeky pledge named Kenny (Derek MacKinnion) follows her seductive beckoning into a bedroom where he finds, instead, a Cadaver waiting for him! Needless to say this messes him up a little bit. In fact, it's easy to see how such a thing could tend to act as "The Anti-Viagra"!
Well, things don't go well for poor Kenny (he must be from South Park) but Alana and the pranksters who put her up to this joke (that she wasn't truly in on, by the way) have gone on to great things. Alana's beau Mo (Timothy Webber) and his cronies Doc Manley (sounds like a porno name), played by Hart Bochner (also sounds like a porno name), Ed (Howard Busgang, which sounds kind of like a gay porno name) and Jackson (Anthony Sherwood) along with Alana's BFF Mitchy (Sandee Currie) are among the many celebrants at a last college bash on a train to celebrat New Years Eve (how's that for a Red Letter Day?)! Yeah! But that's not the best part... wait for it... it's a costume party!
It isn't long before the "Captive Audience" at the party start to die one by one. Easy solution, though, right? Trains consist of cramped quarters so somebody is sure to figure this out quickly, right? Well, that's what the Conductor, Carne (Ben Johnson) thinks when he locates the first body (that he knows of) in the bathroom, all covered in blood and devoid of a pulse. So why is the movie longer than twenty minutes? Two reasons. The smart reason is that the killer is clever and makes this discovery look like a prank (which the goobers of Sigma Phi are good pretty darned good at). The stupid reason is that the train was never equipped with a radio, so "Chilly Conductor Carne" couldn't call the cops even if he thought the murder was real.
Needless to say, this works for the killer's plans and it works for the screenplay by T.Y. Drake (from a story by uncredited Daniel Grodnik)! Because the passengers are trapped in this enclosed and fast-moving space they are easy pickings for the inventive killer and because the killer can assume the identity of anyone on the train (just by putting on their costumes after killing them) none of the partygoers realize that their friends are missing until it's way too late. This is why everyone carries on as they ordinarily would at such a party, seducing their classmates, getting drunk, getting high, passing out and watching the party's special guest entertainer, a talented magician named Ken (played by David Copperfield). Talk about CASTING!
It might be easy enough to figure out who the killer really is and it's clear that Terror Train's engineers realized this was the case. What works for the mystery here is that, regardless of who the killer really is, there's no telling who that killer might be posing as at any point in time. Nobody even realizes that there even is a killer (or any victims) until the body count has already risen to a notable degree. Further, either intentionally or not, Terror Train makes use of the fact that the Slasher Formula was already becoming well-known and sold well (especially when the films featured Jamie Lee herself). Because the (true) identity of the killer may seem obvious, it's easy to second guess this fact, considering how well-educated the audience has become on these motifs. This, coupled with constant prank angle and the consistantly changing masks helps to keep the viewer guessing, even when the hints are clear.
That said, it's hard not to recognize that this is, in no small part, the result of the successes of Halloween! By this time studios were already thinking about what angle they could spin on this same formula in order to make a new, if familiar, film and name it something clever that might entice audiences to fork over their cigarette money. Reportedly, this is exactly what happened with Terror Train! Grodnik had the idea for "Halloween on a Train" and the rest is history.
Still, the film does manage to be among the better (though perhaps not the best) of the Halloween-clones that bubbled up to the surface in the early 1980s. This is due, in no small part, to the interesting angle and the talented director and cast (which also includes appearances by such lovely ladies as D.D. "Vanity" Winters and Joy Boushel)! Sure there are unoriginal parts, sure it's one of a crop of immitators and sure this one is predictable, but Terror Train is also interesting and scary enough to earn Three Stars out of Five!
The truth is, with so many derivative Slasher and Splatter flicks in this era, I would expect (and even want) to give some of these a lower rating. Truth to tell, many of them really ARE terrible. Somehow a few of these still manage to be watchable and fun in their mystery and unique horror angles. So, until Ozzy, Deathtongue and Tull all sue me for ripping off their songs for this review, I'll see you in the next reel's depot!
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