Buried somewhere beneath all the awful acting and a screenplay by T.Y. Drake that is brutally lacking in any sort of continuity is Donald Spottiswoode’s undernourished attempt at directing his first feature film: Terror Train (1980) – a thinly veiled, weak premised fright-fest designed to capitalize on the B-budget horror movie craze, itself prompted by the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). In fact, the film’s executive producer Daniel Grodnik even had the guts to telephone Carpenter’s producer Debra Hill beforehand to inform her that he was doing ‘Halloween on a train’. With all due respect to Grodnik, he was reaching way beyond his capabilities – either as a producer or writer; even as his initial concept for Terror Train was immediately snatched up by producer Harold Greenberg.
Taking advantage of a Canadian film tax credit (whereby for every dollar spent the Canadian government put up four to match it) Grodnik and Greenberg plunged headlong into their shoot just outside of Montreal, hiring Halloween’s good luck charm, Jamie Lee Curtis to star, and cinematographer John Alcott (who had just lensed Barry Lyndon for Stanley Kubrick) to give Terror Train its visual flair. Regrettably, Alcott was hampered by the producer’s insistence to use a real moving train for much of the shoot. Working in such confined spaces may have indeed given Terror Train what little claustrophobic suspense the production has – but not even Alcott’s low lighting style could mask the film’s more glaring oversights.
I recall quite vividly being smuggled into the theatre by a friend and his older brother who had an even older cousin working as an usher at the local Odeon back in 1980. I was nine back then and with a limited understanding and appreciation of cinema in general that basically included a handful of Disney movies – cartoon and live action - some Abbott and Costello and Three Stooges reruns, and, a few severely edited B-grade creature features viewed on the tube Saturday afternoons. Yeah, I know…where were my parents? Actually, they thought I had gone with that same friend to play. Technically, I did. But I digress.
To say Terror Train scared me then is an understatement. In fact, I don’t think I slept for a couple of days after seeing it. With its obligatory nudie shots and mounting carnage it all seemed so adult, so frightening and so deliciously tawdry. I just knew mom and dad wouldn’t approve and that added something to my viewing experience. Remember, I was nine! But what scares us as kids rarely has the same effect once we become adults…or that is to say, it has to be a damn clever horror film to work its magical fright on us post-puberty. Sadly, Terror Train lacks such good judgment. It isn’t anything like a ‘good’ horror movie. Instead it veers into the horridness of a typical slasher but without even the guts to actually show us anything except several severely mutilated bodies once they have already been butchered.
I don’t know how the more savvy horror fan feels about all this, but Terror Train left me cold, and not in a sweat or suffering from some voyeuristic chills because of its frigid Montreal locations. It’s just tacky and tasteless and really lowbrow – a movie that could have only appealed to a child of the 1970s; a decade where such debase grit, grunge and gruesomeness were simply par for the course of most movie going experiences.
Our story begins at a wintery frat party for a bunch of med students. Pompous jock stereotype, Doc Manley (Hart Bochner) sets up mama’s boy, Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) into thinking that he’s going to get some action with college babe, Alan Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis). Using his own girlfriend, Mitchy (Sandee Currie) as a lure, poor old Kenny hurries up to a darkened dorm. Alana’s standing behind the bed, beckoning him to crawl in next to…well, she’s not quite sure. But not even she has fathomed that Doc would be so ruthless as to have stolen a real female corpse from a nearby mortuary and plant it in the darkness beneath the sheets.
Discovering the body throws Kenny’s already fragile psyche over the edge. He gets tangled in the gauzy overhead drapes of the four poster and collapses in a heap as other frat pledges enjoy a sadistic chuckle at his expense. Alana is horrified. Three years later, she’s about to be very, very sorry.
For this is the night Alana’s boyfriend, Mo (Timothy Webber) has decided to surprise her and all their alumni with a New Year’s Eve train trip as part of their going away graduation present. But what is at first promised as a night of fun-filled adolescent debaucheries quickly turns deadly when friend, Ed (Howard Busgang), after entertaining his fellow dead-heads on the platform with some truly terrible jokes while disguised as a demonic looking Groucho Marx, fails to get aboard. Actually, he’s been prematurely gutted with a magician’s sword – the first of the casualties - and left on the tracks to have his head run over as the train pulls out of station.
The killer, now disguised as Groucho stalks a drunken Mitchy next, but decides to derail his ambitions in order to Ginsu another classmate, Jackson (Anthony Sherwood), who is dressed as a lizard man. Jackson is repeatedly stabbed inside one of the bathrooms. Meanwhile, inside the film’s dining car Ken the magician (David Copperfield) is busy doing rather pedestrian card and disappearing dime tricks to impress the ladies. Alana thinks he’s cute, but is unimpressed to learn that Mo merely paid for their train trip. The idea for it came from Doc. After participating in Doc’s last great idea, that sent Kenny to the asylum, Alana swore she would never agree to anything he planned ever again.
But it’s too late. The vintage locomotive and its train cars are already hurdling across a barren, dark and snow-covered countryside with no radio contact available. The train’s conductor, Carne (Ben Johnson) discovers Jackson’s remains. But when he returns with Charley the brakeman (Steve Michaels) a few minutes later he is astonished to see the lifeless lizard man stir and all of the blood spatters miraculously cleaned up. Assuming he’s been part of an elaborate hoax, Carne allows the lizard man to leave the bathroom stall; a mistake, since the killer has already disposed of Jackson’s body (we’re never told how or where) and assumed his costumed disguise.
Mitchy gets hers next, her throat slashed inside her upper birth. Alana discovers the body and is consoled by Carne who takes her to another car to calm down. In the meantime the rest of the unsuspecting crowd are enjoying the magician’s act inside a blackened dining car. It’s unclear what happens next but Mo, who has been seated next to Doc while viewing the performance, suddenly keels over into Doc’s lap, his chest covered in blood. The usually callous Doc is reduced to a frantic pile of unhinged goo, racing through the train with Mo’s body in his arms. Eventually he slumps over in the lower birth under Mitchy’s corpse with Carne and Alana arriving to comfort him.
The emergency cord is pulled but the train doesn’t stop. Carne rushes to the locomotive to discover it unattended. We never do learn what’s become of Charlie. Carne stops the train and orders everyone off. As the class president (Greg Swanson) begins to take inventory of who is left, Carne quickly ushers Alana into a private car. Alana, who has had time to figure things out with the aid of a yearbook, decides that Ken the magician must be Kenny the killer, the boy they were all responsible for sending to the asylum with their prank.
Carne agrees. He confines everyone to a single car, isolating Ken the magician in another containing his props. Doc panics and after kicking Alana out of her safe room, locks himself inside it instead. Unfortunately, Doc’s also barricaded himself in with the killer who wastes no time decapitating and stashing both Doc’s head and body in a pull down upper birth. Alana begins to have second thoughts about Ken. Sneaking into his prop room, Alana finding the magician crammed inside one of his escape boxes, pierced by a succession of swords. Racing to the conductor’s car, Alana is stalked by the killer who reveals himself at long last as Kenny. After several attempts to murder Alana, Kenny is instead killed by Carne who sends him flying out of an open door and to his death, plummeting off a bridge into some icy frigid waters below.
Terror Train is so obvious in its premise, so transparent and one dimensional in its narrative that it is virtually impossible to appreciate as an adult. No one but Kenny could be the killer and – big surprise – no one else but Kenny is. There really doesn’t seem to be much point to the murders that occur except to say that they do, and with increasing regularity and grisliness that has the opposite effect on the audience.
We aren’t particularly challenged, surprised or even shocked when another body turns up, so much as we’re merely keeping score of Kenny’s kill count. Jamie Lee Curtis phones in her performance. It isn’t really her fault. She’s given the most unimaginative and sparse dialogue to grapple with; forced to play pouty for the first third, and utterly shell-shocked for the latter two. However, unlike her performance in Halloween, the fear in her eyes this time around generates little except tedium for the exercise of being everyone’s favorite horror movie ‘scream queen’.
I’d like to report that there’s better news for the Blu-ray transfer. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Terror Train is probably one of the top ten worst hi-def transfers I have ever had the misfortune to screen. In fact, doing a side by side comparison with Shout Factory’s DVD – also included – all but confirms that this blu-ray is little more than a regurgitation of their flawed 720p elements merely bumped up to a 1080p signal. What a shame and a sham! Terror Train was produced on a shoestring budget for Astral Media and given mega-distribution by 20th Century-Fox. But from the opening Fox logo it becomes painfully apparent that the film elements have been stored under the most appalling conditions.
Not only is the print severely riddled with age related damage, dirt and dust, but the image is unimpressive and soft with very dull colors throughout. Contrast is so low that occasionally it is impossible to discern what we’re watching. Terror Train is a dark film – yes – but not this dark and it was also not shot on 16mm film stock. Fine details are completely absent in all but a few scenes. Colors have severely dated and slightly faded. Despite its lower than low contrast, blacks tend to crush and become a murky brownish mess. Pathetic!
The DTS 5.1 audio is limited by the film’s original mono elements. No surprise, and no fault ascribed. But in addition to these limitations, the audio also sounds muffled. I’ve heard mono tracks that suggest an ambiance that is very crisp, if slightly distorted. But this track just sounds like a glass is being pressed up against my eardrum. Very dull, indeed. Shout! gives us several featurettes with producer Grodnik and others briefly waxing about their contributions, but by then I had all but lost interest in continuing on with this painful viewing experience.
Note to Shout! Terror Train isn’t high art. But if you’re going to release it to Blu-ray at least have the decency to respect and preserve your original source material accordingly. You’re not winning over fans with such shoddy slapdash efforts. Overall, this is an absolutely abysmal disc. Avoid it at all costs.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)