Terror Train was the third horror movie released in 1980 featuring Jamie Lee Curtis solidifying her stature as a scream queen. About 90 percent of the movie is set on a train that has been rented by a college fraternity who attend a college in the Midwest but soon find out there is a killer on board and they’re out for revenge.
In the prologue, over Christmas vacation the frat pulls a prank on a pledge Kenny Hampson (Derek MacKinnon) by making him think he’s going to make out with Alana Maxwell (Curtis). What neither know is the extent of the prank as Alana goes along with it reluctantly, but is soon just as horrified as Kenny when she sees what the frat boys have done. Kenny went to a room thinking he was going to have sex with Alana who hid behind the head of the bed. What’s in bed with Kenny is actually the dead body of a middle-aged woman one of the frat boys, Doc (Hart Bochner), stole from the university’s med school.
Kenny begins to freak out as the frat boys rush in to the room to make fun and laugh at him. When Alana finally sees the dead body, she is just as upset and horrified. Kenny is sent to a pscyhiatric hospital and has to drop out of school. Regardless of the theft of a body from the med school using in a fraternity hazing, none of the frat boys who participated are really disciplined.
Time carries on for the next three years and they are now seniors planning one last hoorah as they have chartered a passenger train for New Year’s Eve celebration. The frat members and their sorority sisters are all dressed up in costumes for the party. Also on the train are the aging train conductor, Carne (Ben Johnson), who while not really looking forward to the college kids, understand they’re just a bunch of young people having fun and they’ve paid for the use of the train. There’s also a magician (David Copperfield) and his assistant. However, it isn’t until they are on the tracks that Doc, now a pre-med student and leader of the frat, mentions that he didn’t know a magician was hired.
The magician wows the crowd and even seems to flirt with Alana who’s on a rocky relationship with her boyfriend, Mo (Timothy Webber). But the killer already strikes before anyone has boarded. Prankster frat member Ed (Timothy Busgang) is stabbed by a sword, but most people assume he’s just goofing off even when he falls dead on the ground in front of them. The killer takes the Groucho Marx costume he has off and boards the train wearing it.
The twist here is that the killer can lurk among all the college students because they’re always wearing a mask. He is first approached by frat boy Jackson (Anthony Sherwood) thinking he’s Ed to get some drinks. But Jackson is killed and stashed in a bathroom that is locked. When Carne checks on the bathroom after being told it’s locked, he notices Jackson’s body as he dressed as a big lizard with blood all over the place. But when he tries to show it to his co-workers, the killers has dressed in the lizard costume and conscious. Carne is told that he was just drunk. Yet Carne thinks something is off.
There’s a certain feel of claustrophobia as they are all on a train with nowhere really to go. And they don’t really know who to suspect since many people are in costume. Alana begins to suspect it’s Kenny but Doc doesn’t believe her. Could the magician be behind it all? He uses a switchblade during a card trick. It’s all about illusion. What you see, what you don’t see and what you think you saw. After a while, it becomes pretty obvious and the reveal has been criticized by contemporary audience for perpetuating a stereotype that seemed to be common in several horrors and thrillers at the time.
Like a lot of horror movies of the era, Terror Train was filmed in Canada to take advantage of the tax shelters the Great White North offered. The movie was filmed in and around Montreal and other parts of Quebec. Bochner, Busgang, MacKinnon, Sherwood and Webber are all Canadian-born actors. The movie was filmed over about five years in the late fall of 1979 ending two days before Christmas. Produced a budget of $3.5 million, it was distributed by 20th Century Studios which hadn’t released a slasher up to that time.
The movie grossed $8 million and got mixed reviews. Of all three movies featuring Curtis, this is my least favorite, even though I think it’s clever how the killer keeps taking on different costume. Also, the use of lighting in the trains adds to the tone. The ending is rather anti-climatic and the reveal of the killer follows the Law of the Most Extraneous Character. Even though I guess you could argue philosophically that there’s always a dangerous person lurking amongst us all hiding in plain sight.
What’s amazing is seeing the talent when they were younger. Copperfield was only 23 when filming but already was appearing on TV doing his tricks for wowed audiences. Bochner had just appeared in a crucial supporting role in the Oscar-winning Breaking Away. He would later appeared in Die Hard in a very memorable role. He later returned to the slasher genre with Urban Legend: Final Cut and even directed the cult-comedy classic PCU.
Also in the director’s chair is Roger Spottiswoode who would go on to direct Turner & Hooch as well as the infamously bad Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. But he was able to rebound and direct blockbusters such as the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action movie The 6th Day. Rounding out the cast along with Johnson, who had won an Oscar for The Last Picture Show, was a young actress and singer credited as D.D. Winters. She would later go on to call herself Vanity and work with Prince, releasing the 1982 hit song “Nasty Girl.” She would continue to act in movies like The Last Dragon and Action Jackson as well as date Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue. She would later become a born-again Christian in the 1990s and become an evangelist.
After appearing in horrors and thrillers, Curtis was later cast as Ophelia in Trading Places alongside Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Even though she was branching out into other genres, the movie has a nod to Terror Train as a sequence takes place on a passenger train on New Year’s Eve where many of the passengers are dressed in costumes.
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