Befriending Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her roles in 1980 was worse for your health than if you were to inject yourself with instant cancer. You had a shot at defeating cancer, you had an outside shot of lasting twenty minutes as a friend to Jamie Lee Curtis.
In 1980 Curtis was cast in back-to-back-to-back shockers. The first was John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN follow-up – the atmospheric (no pun intended) and eerie THE FOG – then the high-school slasher PROM NIGHT, followed lastly with TERROR TRAIN which is arguably the lesser known of the three. I assume that it is the least recognized film based solely on the fact that it’s the only title of the films mentioned that has yet to be remade [Editor's note: They're trying]. Though having not seen PROM NIGHT to judge completely, I can’t imagine this was the least deserving of a remake.
Curtis plays Alana Maxwell, a college sorority girl who volunteers to lure a shy student into bed just to embarrass him. Unbeknownst to her, the fraternity boys had something a little more crude awaiting the wallflower when he made it in to the bedroom. The prank goes bad, and the boy ends up in a mental hospital.
Four years later it’s graduation time, and the same large group of frat boys and sorority girls rent out an entire train for a costume party to celebrate. As soon as the train boards one of the fraternity brothers is stabbed and stripped. The killer masks himself in the student’s outfit to blend in and go unnoticed as he methodically removes each person that appeared to be involved in the horrible prank four years prior.
It also co-stars David Copperfield. As a magician. On the train. Performing. The entire time.
David Copperfield being cast in the film as a magician, in a pretty pivotal role no less, should be a hint to curb your expectations; if only a subtle hint. I imagine it wasn’t a clue upon initial release almost thirty years ago, but it is now. It was Copperfield’s first and last acting role.
Despite that he is still the second-best part of the film, which should be a hint to curb your expectations indefinitely.
The film starts out fine, but quickly – and I mean quickly – devolves into annoying. Everyone not named Jamie Lee Curtis is a bad representation of a bad horror film character. Everyone thinks they’re funny, and everyone thinks everyone else is funny because they’re all drunk. There’s no voice of reason telling the unfunny people how very unfunny they’re being; not even Curtis who somewhat secludes herself from the group when she finds out the person responsible for devising the train celebration is the same guy who planned the sick prank at the beginning of the film. She’s not around the unfunny people often enough to sympathize with our reactions.
The irritating characters might have been forgivable – even Copperfield – if there was some semblance of suspense, or some major death scene payoff. However, the slasher sub-genre hadn’t quite arrived at the point where “cool” deaths were commonplace, or a focal point. TERROR TRAIN fails at suspense, and ignores satisfying deaths as it tries desperately just to work out the mechanics of the plot and the geography.
I can credit the film for making the events seem plausible even if they’re unimpressive, and the execution lackluster (except for Copperfield who is completely believable as a magician). But in their desires to make sense they neglected to make fun.
It’s quite a shame that the film doesn’t live up to the potential of its setting. A killer loose on a moving train is a frightening scenario, and shouldn’t require all that much assistance in communicating that to an audience. Unlike most horror settings there’s absolutely nowhere to go. Even some of the most isolated locales have an escape, but there are few places to hide and fewer places to run to on a moving locomotive.
The cars are so narrow and the available directions to run so linear that at some point you will have to face the killer. Unless you want to risk running on top of a moving train.
TERROR TRAIN doesn’t capitalize on the potential, and seems satisfied just to have everything make sense. It’s not a completely dumb film, but its oversight of the potential is. It takes us through a whole heap of unexciting nothing, makes us watch a lot of David Copperfield, and then ends with a thud that metaphorically sums up the production better than I ever could.