Judge Patrick Bromley prefers the Soul Train.
Our review of Terror Train, published October 7th, 2004, is also available.
The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die.
As a big fan of horror movies, I've seen more than my share of '80s slashers, but somehow 1980's Terror Train—the final third of Jamie Lee Curtis' "scream queen" trilogy (which also included Halloween and Prom Night—has always escaped me. That's now been rectified, thanks to the new Blu-ray courtesy of the great Scream Factory label.
Facts of the Case
Three years after participating in a mean-spirited prank that left one of their classmates institutionalized, six fraternity and sorority members board a train for a costume party. There's Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies), the good girl; Doc (Hart Bochner, Die Hard), the prank's ringleader and alpha male of the group; Mitchy (Sandee Currie, Curtains), Doc's girlfriend; Ed (Howard Busgang, Killer Party), the class clown, and more. One by one, the group is slowly picked off by a masked killer who keeps taking on the latest victim. Will they be able to figure out who's behind the murders before they're the next victim? And what's David Copperfield doing on the train?
As '80s slashers go, Terror Train is surprisingly good. It offers a unique setting, a strong cast of recognizable faces (in addition to Curtis and David Copperfield, there's Hart "Don't Call Me Ellis" Bochner and Purple Rain's Vanity, acting under the name D.D. Winters) and strong, stylish direction from Roger Spottiswoode in his first outing as director. It's not reinventing the wheel—after all, the setup is basically the same as Prom Night (and about a dozen other '80s slashers)—but where the movie goes with that premise feels a little different, a little better, even a little classier than most horror movies of the same period.
Yes, it has all of the trappings of '80s horror—horny teenagers, masked killer, gratuitous bloodshed, Jamie Lee Curtis. But it's evident that director Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) is really trying to bring some artistry to the proceedings and make more than just another Halloween clone. While the claustrophobia of the setting is never really exploited for maximum effect, putting the movie aboard a train is a clever conceit, adding to the mystery of the identity of the killer's by virtue of the allusions to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Director of Photography John Alcott does his best to make the most of the darkness, often backlighting figures or shooting into a smokestack for images that are haunting and beautiful. In a genre defined by excess, the movie is quite restrained: there is little to no gratuitous nudity and it's largely bloodless, too (with a few exceptions), emphasizing suspense and scares over the kind of gore that defines so many entries in the genre—and further proof that Spottiswoode looked primarily to Halloween as his inspiration. However, this has the negative effect of making the few moments of onscreen violence feel totally out of place, as though they were inserted after the fact (like John Carpenter's The Fog) as a way of keeping audiences expecting that sort of thing happy.
One of the fun surprises of Terror Train is the way that it incorporates magic as a running theme. Not only does it offer one of the few (only?) opportunities to watch David Copperfield act in a major role in a Hollywood movie, but speaks to the sleight-of-hand nature of slasher mysteries. The best ones are like magic trick themselves, distracting us with show off-y stuff (in slasher movies, it's blood and attractive young people) to keep us from figuring out just how it was all done. Like Tobe Hooper's excellent and underrated The Funhouse, Terror Train reminds us that there can be a sense of fun in scary movies. The construction can be sloppy at times, the scares are pretty predictable and the "twist" varies from lame and obvious to gloriously nutty, but the movie has its heart in the right place. In a genre fraught with cynicism during the '80s, it's great to see something that isn't just looking to cash in. Terror Train wants to be its own thing, and to be as good as it possibly can be.
Scream Factory continues to do no wrong with their catalogue, which consists of established classics, cult movies and rare, unearthed gems (and some not-so gems) given A-list treatment. Terror Train is a pretty minor entry in the canon of '80s horror, but the studio has lavished the same attention on it as they did on the Halloween sequels. For us horror fans, it's such a treat. The movie gets a full 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and looks very good for a movie that's over 30 years old. There is a good deal of softness in some shots and a lot of visible specks in the print, but also a fair amount of fine detail and a nice layer of grain over the whole thing that makes it look a lot like film. It's not as polished as a lot of other titles on Blu-ray, but there's something that's just right about the presentation—it may not be perfect, but this is way Terror Train should look. The lossless 2.0 audio track is fairly thin, with most of the activity relegated to the front and center channels, but it gets the job done.
The bonus features section on Terror Train is less extensive than other Scream Factory releases—there is no commentary track, for example—but fans of the movie will still find enough to enjoy in the supplements to make the disc worth owning. In addition to the original trailer and some TV spots, there are several interviews with several creative personnel, including producers Daniel Grodnik and Don Carmody, composer John Mills-Cockell and production designer Glenn Bydwell. There is a sense from everyone interviewed that they took their work seriously and really tried to make Terror Train more than just disposable '80s genre fodder; even if that's pretty much what it ends up being, there is an art to it that suggests everyone's heart was in the right place. A collection of production stills has been included, as has a standard definition DVD of the movie.
Terror Train is not a classic of the horror genre, but it is a solid little entry that should be required viewing for fans of '80s slashers. It's exactly the kind of movie that deserves the added attention that Scream Factory's Blu-ray will bring to it, and offers more ingenuity and artistry than the majority of genre entries of the time. It's no Halloween, but it's better than Prom Night. For what that's worth.
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