While it wasn't the first madman on a train movie ever released, 1980's TERROR TRAIN is certainly one of the most memorable. Shot in Canada in late 1979 partially aboard an actual train, young director Roger Spottiswoode delivered an interesting if flawed entry in the slasher genre that is well worth giving another look to.
Spottiswoode, who edited several high profile films in the 70's including STRAW DOGS and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID for Sam Peckinpah, is probably best know today for his directorial work on the 1997 James Bond film, TOMORROW NEVER DIES. TERROR TRAIN was his first assignment as a director and while the film is undeniably silly in parts, the direction from the young filmmaker is pretty stylish and the cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, is mostly solid.
Like many Slasher films of the period, TERROR TRAIN begins with a practical joke that goes horribly wrong. The victim of the joke in this one is named Kenny, an outcast wannabe magician who is constantly made fun of by his classmates. Three years after the joke lands Kenny in the hospital he returns to wreak havoc on his old classmates, who have rented out a train for a New Years Masquerade party.
TERROR TRAIN suffers from the typical major lapses in logic that most of the slasher films in this period share, but the script by T.Y Drake (writer of the 1976 Christopher Lee film, THE KEEPER) thankfully keeps things fairly levelheaded. The main strength of the film thematically is its setting, as there is something naturally claustrophobic and frightening about being on a moving train after a snow storm with no where to stop.
Spottiswoode's film also suffers from sluggish pacing in its first half, mostly due to some needless time padding scenes featuring the great actor Ben Johnson. Also disappointing is the film's score by John Mills-Cockell which is neither scary nor particularly effective. The band on the train is credited as "Crime" and their oddly off kilter synth songs lend the film at times a weird Euro Disco feel that is simultaneously effective and distracting.
Despite the many problems the film obviously has, I still like it and looked back on it feels much more classier and solid than many of the other films of the genre that came out in the same period. The film's biggest asset is indeed Jamie Lee Curtis, who looks really lovely here under the film's fine photography by John Alcott (one of Krbrick's favorite D.P.s who had just shot THE SHINING before this one). Curtis is very strong in the role of Alana and simply put, every time she is on the screen TERROR TRAIN works very well. Particularly noteworthy is an exciting fight sequence between her and Kenneth that thankfully isn't interrupted by a male hero coming in to save the day. Curtis was always so strong and smart in these films. It is a credit to her and her directors that she was allowed to play these parts the way she did, and the reason she is still so beloved today by genre fans. Curtis was in her prime as the great scream queen of the period here as she had just wrapped Paul Lynch's PROM NIGHT just before TERROR TRAIN began shooting.
The cast also features the fetching Sandee Currie, who is good as Jamie's best friend Mitchy, and a surprisingly effective David Copperfield as simply 'The Magician'. Many other faces pop up that film fans will recognize, including a young Vanity and of course the great Johnson who is a bit wasted here although he does get a lot of screen time.
So its not the greatest film ever made but any film starring Jamie Lee Curtis, directed by Sam Peckinpah's editor and shot by one of Kubrick's favorite D.P's should at least be interesting, and TERROR TRAIN absolutely is.
TERROR TRAIN opened up in early 1980 to pretty solid business and was either ignored or condemned by most critics. The film is surprisingly tame with most of the killings taking place off screen. I am not sure if any footage was cut out or not or if that was Spottiswoode's intention from the get go. The current DVD of it features a fairly sharp print of the film that shows just how fine Alcott's photography is, but outside of a theatrical trailer it is a bare bones release. If you can trudge through the poorly paced first half of the film, you will find TERROR TRAIN to be surprisingly effective and a ride worth taking. It isn't among the very best slasher films of the period but it certainly isn't one of the worst.