All Aboard! Roger Spottiswoode’s ‘Terror Train’ Turns 40

It’s simply not possible to overstate Jamie Lee Curtis’ place in horror history. She’s legendary, a HUGE part of my horror upbringing. She was once signing her children’s book at a local bookstore about 30 miles from where I live. I contemplated taking my Terror Train poster for her to sign, but my wife very wisely stated, “She’s there to promote her book, not sign horror movie memorabilia.” As much as I hated to admit it, she was right.

Looking back 40 plus years, I realize that she was an integral part of one of the most prolific subgenres ever, the slasher film, from the perfect storm of her girl next door look, a Hollywood pedigree, and an audience with an insatiable appetite for masked killers. The original final girl and the original Halloween (1978) started it all. She seemed to be John Carpenter’s lucky penny, so much so that it’s easy to forget that she did two other slasher films in Canada the following year between Halloween and The Fog (1980 – read our retro review here). Those two films are Prom Night and Terror Train, which was released on October 3, 1980. Both are high recommends, but the latter is my personal favorite.

Terror Train took the slasher formula and changed it up a bit. The setting wasn’t suburbia or a boy scout camp, but a moving train charging through blinding snow and only giving the possible victims the recourse of running in one straight line to escape. It added to a feeling of claustrophobia and amped up the fear, and oddly gave it somewhat of a classier feel like a contemporary take on Murder of the Orient Express. This retrospective will be spoiler free, but a few plot details are necessary.

Legendary actor Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show, The Wild Bunch, Red Dawn) doesn’t seem unhappy to be here. Slasher and horror films have become infamous as a last paycheck for once A-List Hollywood stars. Johnson took this role because he liked the director’s work on some Sam Peckinpah films. Not too shabby. Johnson has an unmistakable voice that is instantly recognizable for something he’s been in that everyone has seen. He’s the anchor of the film, up there with Donald Pleasence for adding some gravitas. Another notable mention is Vanity (The Last Dragon, Action Jackson), Prince’s former muse. She’s credited here as D.D. Winter, and about 4 years away from superstardom.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Alana, a college girl very different from Laurie Strode. She’s self confident and looks like she could probably get a table at Studio 54. After a horrible prank at a frat party, the film flashes forward three years as Alana and her friends are on the eve of graduation. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, they board a train for a costume party complete with on board entertainment. While all the college kids drink, smoke, and trade dates, the Train Conductor realizes that something is terribly amiss.

David Copperfield pretty much plays himself in this as The Magician. I don’t really know if the magician is as well known as he used to be. I can only compare him to the likes of David Blaine. Back when the slasher archetype was being built, a guy like Copperfield was a gamble. Would he be the geek that’s as good as dead? No. He’s way too good looking and suave for that. That means he must be the killer. Back when I saw it, I just though it was cool that he was in it. Now that I’m older and much more slasher savvy, it was a brilliant choice adding him to the mix, because even now I’m still asking those questions about a character like him. He’s a total wild card.

As the body count increases, potential suspects get taken out. When it finally reaches the reveal, it may have been something you would’ve seen coming, but definitely not in the form that it does. Terror Train was engineered to be a slasher film, and it’s a darn good one, but it’s well crafted and in no way a cash in on what was making money at the time. I’m always a little puzzled that it doesn’t get more notoriety than it does. This and Prom Night are the other horror films that Jamie Lee Curtis did, but in reality, it’s the ultimate scream queen at the height of her powers. As of this writing, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

About Kevin Scott

Parents who were not film savvy and completely unprepared for choosing child appropriate viewing material were the catalyst that fueled my lifelong love affair with horror, exploitation, blaxploitation, low budget action, and pretty much anything that had to be turned off when my grandparents visited. I turned out okay for the most part, so how bad could all these films actually be?

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