At a glance this rarely discussed slasher film from the 1980s featuring libidinous teenagers getting hacked up by a masked villain, revenge for a fraternity prank gone wrong years ago, in the context of the sociopolitical significance of horror cinema, which is now a fully analyzable genre, is fascinating and admirable for reasons beyond pure entertainment.
Terror Train (1980) dir. Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield
By Alan Bacchus
This film has the distinction of being the first horror film I ever saw. And as a 6- year-old, the experience of watching a sadistic murderer kill innocent teenagers dressed up as Groucho Marx had a palpable imprinting effect on my life. I’ve never forgotten the fear and sheer terror this film caused me. Years later I was distraught to find out that most of the critical world didn’t feel the same way.
But the idea of a pristine Blu-ray version (via Shout Factory) of this highly personal film was akin to unearthing a time capsule from one's youth. I certainly wasn’t expecting a diamond in the rough. In fact, I had the opposite expectations, which had me even question whether re-watching this movie would tarnish my selective and biased childhood memories. Alas, no, I had to watch it.
Indeed, the film is not great. But it is fascinating.
The story can be summed up in a sentence or two. In the preamble we see Jamie Lee Curtis roped into participating in a cruel joke from her fraternity friend/jerk extraordinaire Doc Manley (Die Hard's Hart Bochner). Of course the prank goes wrong, the poor naïve kid is humiliated and for years he's treated for mental trauma. Cut to three years later, Curtis and the same group of pre-med students are partying it up on a New Year's Eve train ride full of booze, pot and heated sexual libidos. When one of the students is killed before boarding the train, and whose costumed identity is assumed by the killer, we assume it’s the same poor kid and that there’s going to be a bloodbath.
Curiously, the film is spare with its blood. Most of the kills are hidden from us, like a consciously PG version of the traditional slasher film. This point specifically is interesting to examine from the point of view of horror film history. Terror Train was made in 1980, thus it was one of the first of the modern teen slasher films. And if you look at Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) explicit gore had yet to become a prerequisite for the genre.
As forgettable as the plotting and characterizations of the story may be, for genre enthusiasts the narrative deconstructs perfectly into the genre formula - the Inciting Incident: a community of people responsible for an immoral act against the villain in the past; Location: An isolated environment disconnected from the outside world; Villain: a masked avenger burdened by the trauma of the past; and a Twist: a whodunit mystery with misdirected cues and red herrings about the killer’s identity.
From a political point of view, this film was made in the heyday of the Canadian tax shelter, produced entirely in Canada with American money but independent of the studio system - though 20th Century Fox would later acquire the film for US distribution. Production values are surprisingly strong, especially the cinematography lensed by the great John Alcott (famous for shooting Kubrick films such as Barry Lyndon and The Shining). It also happens to be Roger Spottiswoode’s first feature, and his ability to choreograph suspenseful action within the tight space of a real train shows remarkable talent. And even the performances manage to surmount the rickety material. John Ford and Sam Peckinpah stalwart Ben Johnson as the heroic conductor is the heart of the film and lends immeasurable credibility to the action. And Jamie Lee Curtis, as usual, oozes screen charisma from her pores. David Copperfield also does a surprisingly good turn as a magician aboard the train who becomes the audience’s main suspect for the murders.
The Shout Factory Blu-ray/DVD disc holds deep reverence for the picture, as evidenced by the four well produced and informative featurettes centring on the production reminiscences of the then-young production executive Don Carmody, US producer Daniel Grodnik and the fine work of production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell. Each of these men, while not claiming to have made fine art, take their work seriously. Their candid enthusiasm is refreshing and infectious, aiding in the appreciation of this picture in the context of the genre.