Judge Brett Cullum is leavin'... (Leavin'!) ...oooohhhhhhOn that midnight train to terror... (Leavin' on that midnight terror train....)
Our review of Terror Train (Blu-ray), published March 8th, 2013, is also available.
The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die.
Jamie Lee Curtis stars in this slasher flick, which has often been labeled "Halloween on a train." Truth is Terror Train owes more to Prom Night than Carpenter's seminal classic, but thankfully does not have a disco score. Unfortunately, it does mark the only movie appearance of magician David Copperfield—which already makes it a pretty scary idea! Too bad "the little fright flick that could" really didn't do much in the end. But this movie, along with Halloween, Halloween II, Prom Night, and The Fog, earned Jamie Lee her "scream queen" title. It's definitely more cheesy than frightening—yet I have a soft spot for this amiable genre piece that follows all the rules of horror films. It's a fun ride, even if you snicker more than scream.
Facts of the Case
A freshman fraternity prank at a New Year's Eve party goes horribly wrong, and the intended victim is left a screaming, flailing mess. Flash forward to three years later, and the whole gang is boarding a train to celebrate their graduation via a New Year's Eve costume party. Everything goes great until party guests who share a past start getting bumped off one by one. There's a killer onboard, and he's going to make sure that this is one party nobody survives. Could it be the former frat pledge who's decided to swing the axe rather than grind it? How about that cocky creepy magician who nobody seems to have hired? Worse still, the killer is using the costumes of his victims, so nobody's ever sure who's under the mask. Can Jamie Lee Curtis and the kindly conductor stop the madness before its too late?
Terror Train was given a pretty decent budget for 1979, and was shot on location in Montreal for three weeks on board a converted train. Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies, The 6th Day) made his directorial debut, and famed kubrick cinematographer john alcott (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) sat behind the lens. Jamie Lee Curtis headed up a cast of great-looking teens, including Hart Bochner (Supergirl) and prince babe vanity (Action Jackson—here billed by her real name, Denise D. Winters). Also onboard was Academy Award winner Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show and over 300 other movie credits) as Carne the conductor.
"Slasher" flicks generally follow a cookie-cutter template that varies little from movie to movie, and Terror Train did little more than copy the successes of other films. Ten people die in the flick, and our victims have few places to run or hide—since they're trapped on a train plowing through Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter. It definitely loses some steam in the middle and makes some odd choices in pacing, but the climax is pretty intense and effective, with Jamie Lee screaming and fighting for all she's worth. Unfortunately, savvy viewers should quickly identify the killer—considering the prologue tells you who's gone insane, it's not a difficult task. What the movie does offer are some very well-photographed sequences, and a chance to see Curtis in peak form (and dressed as a fetching pirate). Surprisingly, although one of the victims dies during David Copperfield's magic show, it's not from boredom.
The DVD is a flipper disc that allows you to chose widescreen or full screen options. The visual transfer is amazingly well done, although the age of the film denies it a chance for perfection. Even though it comes close to great, there are some washed-out sequences and a mild wash of grain present at certain points. The good news is the movie never looked this good (even in the cinema), and finally the camera work is lushly represented in a home format. The soundtrack was originally mono, so the stereo mix is not all that impressive. Any part that was dubbed seems to be especially problematic, and I noticed that every re-recorded line stuck out like a sore thumb. Interestingly the package of the movie is done in orange and black, and there is a photo on the back that implies the movie occurs on Halloween, even though it's a New Year's party.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's not that scary, and many people will find this title simply a by-the-numbers horror movie. It fights to have a classical feel with a swooping symphonic score and pretty cinematography, but its staid, hoary trappings undermine much of its flair. David Copperfield comes off as a geek rather than as a menacing presence, and you wonder how he ever bagged a supermodel. Is he that good at hypnosis?
For all its flaws Terror Train is still a fun, entertaining ride. Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Johnson save the movie with convincing performances, and the frenetic climax makes up for the plodding first hour. The movie plays by the rules, but it's still a good example of why those rules were made in the first place—they were effective. Any night you want a pretty good horror movie, you could do a lot worse than climbing aboard this train. Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees only got one mask each, but this killer gets to make over his look with each victim. Probably the most effective guise is the Groucho Marx costume, because it features a beloved comedy figure wielding a sharp object. The train was a good idea, and the Canadian landscape adds a lot to the creep factor. It's hardly a horror classic, but it has the feel of one in many ways.
Fox delivers an eye-popping transfer for a movie that should have genre fans excited. Terror Train may be predictable, but it certainly aspired to be more than the sum of its parts. Everybody who worked on it is free to go with one notable exception. The guy who decided to put a "love theme" over the end credits needs to do some community service.
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