Collaboration · Film · Review

Terror Train

Or: I ch-ch-choose you

Don’t waste money on a return fare. You won’t be coming back!

Film: Terror Train (1980)
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner


Three years after a prank went terribly awry, the six college students responsible are targeted by a masked killer at a New Year’s Eve party aboard a moving train.

Childhood pranks in my day were very much tamer than the ones often found in eighties slashers. Given that I grew up in the same era, I can only express relief than none of the dumb shit I did as a dumb kid resulted in fatality and/or a subsequent cat and mouse tale of vengeance. We open the deliciously named Terror Train with an ill-advised (and disgusting) college practical joke involving Jamie Lee Curtis (horror royalty) and a young man called Kenny.

Jamie – AKA Alana Maxwell – acquiesces to a prank designed solely to make a tit out of young Kenny Hampson, a shy and desperately awkward fraternity pledge. On the promise of sex with Alana, Kenny is lured into a bedroom at a party – and discovers a woman’s corpse in her place (stolen from the local medical school by some of the med students). The shock of this event traumatizes poor Kenny so much that he ends up in psychiatric care. After a spectacular scene in which he gets tangled up in some net curtains, one of my biggest childhood fears.

Three years later and our frat/sorority gang are still the worst and are about to embark on a costumed New Year’s party aboard a train. You’ll have to forgive any confusion in this post as I found it hard to keep up with who’s who – but I think we have: Alana and her boyfriend Mo, Alana’s BFF Mitchy and her boyfriend, Doc – the ringleader of the original prank. And two dudes called Jackson and Ed.

Each are sporting their own fancy dress aesthetic so it does get interesting when the killer – BECAUSE OF COURSE THERE’S A KILLER ONBOARD – starts inhabiting each of their disguises to successfully bump them off one by one. We don’t have time to get attached to Ed as he’s the first to be slashed, the killer taking on the character of Groucho Marx to gain entry to the party. From here it all goes pretty much according to slasher movie plan – I have to admit I watched the whole movie on YouTube for free but it was a horrible copy with Polish subtitles and incredibly poor sound.

And it turns out, murder by numbers can be kind of tedious, even when we find ourselves on a train full of arseholes in their very best NYE eleganza. Even super creepy David Copperfield and his glamorous magician’s assistant can’t save this trip. Anyway, we can thank the conductor Carne for being just about the only one with any sense, and he soon surmises that something is amiss on board the train to Hell. Though Alana is soon brought up to speed, especially after she sees Mitchy’s corpse for herself.

Mitchy’s death scene in itself is probably the best as she tries to embark on a quickie with the man she thinks is Jackson, dressed as an alien lizard. Jackson is very much not her boyfriend Doc FYI so you could argue that this is karma, though I don’t believe in slut shaming – and all the men seem incapable of keeping their own dicks in their pants so no judgement here. When ‘Jackson’ gropes her with his cold hand, she quips the Mum-special line ‘Cold hands, warm heart’ – and then realises it’s a severed palm. It doesn’t end well for our girl but I did lament her loss because she was a lot of fun.

So now Alana knows what’s up and she’s clicked that it’s obviously the work of Kenny – no duh – though she convinces herself that he’s The Magician in disguise. She and Carne join forces to lock him up in one of the cabooses, while everybody else has been ushered into one carriage for safety. But you didn’t think it would be that easy did you?

Somewhere along the line there’s also talk about a visit Alana made to Kenny while he was still in psychiatric hospital. She alludes to a murder that he may have been involved in even before the cataclysmic prank sent him over the edge. And of course, once almost every one of the six have popped their clogs, it’s Alana’s turn to face up to Kenny. He reveals his real face – because, dear reader, he’s been in drag underneath the costumes as the goddamn MAGICIAN’S ASSISTANT this whole time – and quips that he’s better at magic than The Magician because “he didn’t know how to cut a woman into pieces.” (I’m not convinced Mr Copperfield hasn’t got a body or two underneath his patio).

Will our Scream Queen make it to the end with the help of kindly old Carne? What will become of Kenny – and will I get my chance to use the line ‘Oh no, they killed Kenny!’ at any point in these proceedings?

Well. This has its moments but it’s very much a poor step-sibling to the bigger hitters of the late-seventies/eighties. It helps and also doesn’t help that Jamie Lee is the lead actress. She’s obviously our shining star but it’s a constant reminder that she’s been in much better horror fare before (and after) – Halloween obvs, Prom Night and The Fog to name a few. She’s very one note here, though you’ll not be surprised that she comes out swinging as always.

Again there are some creative moments, some of the deaths are fun and there’s an interesting motive for the killer but honestly, why mention a murder he was previously involved in before all this and then not expand upon it? It makes no sense. We know next to nothing about Kenny beyond the fact that he was the victim of something not very nice – but was he always destined to become an antagonist regardless?

I don’t regret my journey on the Terror Train but it’s not very memorable. I’d have liked more Mitchy and Alana together, and it does bother me that films from this era always seemed to lean on the cross dressing villain trope. In this case I guess it was more circumstantial but it still doesn’t feel right (if you’ve seen Sleepaway Camp you’ll likely know what I’m talking about).

I am pleased to have had the excuse to climb onboard – I’d never heard of this film before Jill suggested it – but I think I’ll get off at the next stop.

Rating: 2.5 punched tickets out of 5

Did Jill like this one? Would she toot toot her horn for it or lose it going through a tunnel? Find out here.

4 thoughts on “Terror Train

    1. Yeah, it’s horrifying. I love it! I did quite like the prank at the beginning, very dark. All in all I didn’t love this but it was at least creative and JLC is the undisputed Queen of Horror x

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ha ha, I didn’t realize the copy you found had Polish subtitles! This is where I wish I knew more world languages, as I’m pretty intrigued to learn how some of the ’70s and ’80s dialogue translates into Polish. Though I guess magic is universal…or something.


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