Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Jonson, Hart Bochner and David Copperfield
Towards the end of the 1970s/early 1980s, Jamie Lee Curtis gained recognition for starring in horror films and being dubbed a scream queen. Halloween from 1978 is the earliest of these roles, a classic horror film that helped cement the tropes of slasher films and spawned endless sequels and copy-cat films. One of these limitations is Terror Train, also starring Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s even described by its producer, Harold Greenberg, as ‘Halloween on a train’. Greenberg asked for, and was given, the blessing to make the film from Halloween’s writers, John Carpenter and Debra Hill.
Terror Train is essentially what the creators set out to make, an imitation of Halloween. It’s no where near as good. Instead of building up a group of characters that you want to survive and the slow building of tension and horror, Terror Train gives you blank characters with no real depth or personality who are killed one by one without any tension or horror. Saying that while it may not be scary, it is in some ways charming and endearing, just not enough to carry the whole film.
It starts with a prank at a New Year’s Eve party that goes very wrong, with the victim of the prank ending up in hospital. 3 years later the same group of people, minus the prank victim, and a whole lot of extras end up on a rented train for that year’s New Year’s Eve party. One by one, members of the group die. I’m sure you can guess the ‘twist’ ending from that alone. It’s beyond obvious who the killer is going to be and at one point I actually thought they weren’t going to toy around with who it could be and just get on with it, but no we still get a red-herring or two and when the final reveal happens, there isn’t any shock.
The first thing you will notice when watching Terror Train is how bad the acting it. Pretty much the entire cast is awful. Almost none of the dialogue feels genuine or believable in the way it is delivered and when you combine that with some of the most unnatural lines of dialogue ever written, that’s where the charm comes in. There are a few moments of unintentional comedy, that makes this film charming, even if it isn’t intended.
The second thing you will notice is how dark the film is. The film is completely shot at night, due to budget constraints and the hanger they were using being too loud during the day. The lighting inside the train is dim. Instead of adding to the horror, it makes portions of the film hard to make out. Instead of being enveloped by an unsettling atmosphere, you’re straining to see what is going on. It really weakens the film. This also ruins the prologue, with the prank as you can’t see clearly enough what is going on.
The most important aspect of a slasher film is the deaths, they need to be memorable, which is another failing of Terror Train. They aren’t very good or entertaining to watch. The characters don’t really react to being attacked and they become laughable. The only person who puts up a real struggle is Curtis, and she is the one who survives being attacked.
One of the more memorable things about the film is that it stars David Copperfield, the illusionist, as a character simply named The Magician. It’s an odd addition to a slasher film, but his tricks between the killings work as a nice change of pace. They’re fun and amp up the charming quality of the film and separate it from the production line of slashers from the 80s.
While for the most part this film isn’t scary, creepy or unsettling, the ending is a step up from the rest of the film. The reveal of the killer, while completely obvious, is unsettling and does make the film worth watching, it’s a shame the rest of the film, especially the killings couldn’t keep it up.
On paper this film could be a really good horror film. Turning Murder on the Orient Express into a slasher film, where you can’t tell which of the passengers is the killer. In execution it isn’t the classic it could have been. It takes too long to get going, the deaths are pitifully poor and the acting is atrocious. It’s charming in its own way, but this is probably a 1980s horror film that is best forgotten.