Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sunday Slasher #2: Terror Train (1980)

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.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I haven't seen this film since I was probably 15, so that's been over 20 years. I do remember I enjoyed it. It was stupid and silly in parts, but almost all slasher films were. You are right, that it's not the best or the worst. It is an enjoyable film to pass the time away with. There are so many good things about it, especially Jamie Lee Curtis. She was so wonderful in these type of films. Another film I haven't seen in a long time that I might have to watch again.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks's definately a middle tier slasher but it works in parts...I love Jamie Lee and she always brings so much to any film she is in.

colinr said...

This is another film that I've got to pick up some time soon. I've never seen it before but your write up and the fact that it features Jamie Lee Curtis must mean it can't be that bad!

There seemed to have been a period when filmmakers picked up on the horror of train travel (perhaps they were commuting to work?(!)) - Horror Express, Night Train Murders, even the opening of Martin are all great train horrors made around that time!

(I suppose this is a logical setting for Final Destination 4? They've already done a deadly amusement park after all!)

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks that you responded to both my back to back Terror Train and Kieslowski posts...
I think trains are a really ideal setting for thrillers and horror films and I am surprised they aren't used anymore...perhaps a comeback is needed...thanks again...

colinr said...

By the way, one of my favourite train-set horrors is a horror novel by Stephen Laws called Ghost Train, which is a really shocking piece of work (or at least it was when I first read it when I was 12! I think I might have been too young from the way it has stuck with me!)

From what I can remember the plot is some hokum about train tracks in England being built over ancient cult ley lines or some such thing, but it has some horrific scenes. I particularly remember the hero who at the beginning of the book returns home to find his wife immolating herself in the back garden in a similar way to those Buddhist monks!

Something particularly disturbing is the way that a bickering family gets possessed by "the evil" early on - father, mother and deceptively angelic daughter, with the big set piece of the book occuring when they spark off a wave of insanity on a runaway train by the little girl 'infecting' people by walking through the carriages and touching people then having her father kill her - this then sets the people she touched off on their own killing sprees. Incredibly shocking and I don't think it could ever be made into a film!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Colin,
I am not familiar with novel but it sounds intense. I'll try and track it down...I am amazed that trains aren't featured even more in horror films...