.As a last hurrah to their college years, the soon-graduating pre-med students of the Sigma Phi fraternity throw a New Year's Eve costume party aboard a train. But soon a killer taking the disguises of his victims targets six partiers responsible for a cruel pledge prank years prior.
This IMDB trivia tidbit is telling: "The idea for Terror Train came from a dream of writer Daniel Grodnik. One weekend night after seeing the films Halloween (1978) and Silver Streak (1976), Dan woke up and said to his wife, "What do you think about putting Halloween on a train? His wife answered, "That's terrible." He jotted down "Terrible Train" on a piece of paper on his nightstand. In the morning he changed the title to TERROR TRAIN, wrote up 22 pages, and made a deal on it with Sandy Howard's company at 3 in the afternoon."
Grodnik's wife was at least half right as Roger Spottiswoode's directorial debut, Terror Train, proves lightning doesn't strike the same spot twice in this regard. Along with Paul Lynch's Prom Night, this boom times slasher is Jaime Lee Curtis's other Canadian maniac tango from 1980. While Prom Night has an effortless purity in its now formulaic, dead horse style and story; Terror Train almost always feels labored as it wades along. Well, I shouldn't be that harsh, the opening attention grabber depicting the prank involving a first time sexual encounter with a cadaver that drove a frat pledge to literal insanity and the climatic face-off between Curtis and the masked axeman are definitely solid highlights. The former is by far the single bloodiest and most uncomfortable encounter in a Jaime Lee horror turn. It's just that the in-between sags too quickly as we bounce between the party-goer's night of "magical" debauchery and the going-ons with the Conductor played by the late Oscar winner Ben Johnson.
These sequences involving the oddly blasé Conductor ultimately hurt our identification with the young adults up for the slaughter. The aspect of seeing ourselves and those we know or have known on-screen is one of the keys to a positive slasher experience and aside from the initial introduction there's not much to Terror Train's characters--and this dug the subgenre's first grave--besides being potential victims stamped out in either guy or girl molds. One could levy such a charge upon Prom Night, but its focus is more concise with caring performances. One clear example in Lynch's film is the scene after Jude and Slick's decision to break Slick's van's suspension. Although not mentioned, there's a palpable chemistry that calls to a budding relationship which might even result in matrimony before the whole neck-stabbing-exploding-van unfortunateness. Spottiswoode's stuffy locomotive slasher never has this on a consistent basis, even with Curtis, besides a well-executed "tie back" at the film's finale. I say "stuffy" because the actors usually look to have a gloss of oily sweat glistening on their brow and act with an urgency to stand in front of a fan at the shout of cut. Perhaps the confined rail cars got rather steamy?
In the end, Terror Train is tougher freight to haul than it ought to be. The mostly unmenacing killer is who you'll peg all along, a young David Copperfield performing and "acting" is simply weird, Spottiswoode's direction is cramped like the train's corridors, and that damn long middle portion is better served vacuuming your TV room to then sit back down for the bloody conclusion. The best way to put it is I watched Prom Night in total three times over three consecutive nights; it took three sit downs to finally get through one whirl with Terror Train. Naturally, this flick has been re-adapted into the 2008 "torture porn" Train directed by Gideon Raff and what looks like a straight remake still in development. For better "rail horror", check out Eugenio Martín's underappreciated Horror Express from 1972.