“It wasn’t just a prank! Doc, he was sick!”
Roger Spottiswoode is not a name on the lips of too many film fans these days. He’s no John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, and certainly no Frank Henenlotter. But even though this man with the oddly remarkable yet totally forgettable name isn’t spoken about in many general horror circles, we can remember him for his feature film directorial debut: 1980’s Terror Train.
Spottiswoode cut his teeth toiling as an editor for the likes of 1970s powerhouse filmmakers Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill (his early editing credits include the controversial revenge classic Straw Dogs and Hill’s Hard Times) before leaping into a journeyman career that would encompass movies like Turner and Hooch and Tomorrow Never Dies, and collecting Emmy gold in 1994 for directing the HBO docudrama And The Band Played On. Terror Train, and its somewhat brutal slayings, proved the perfect vehicle for Spottiswoode (hired as editor as well as director) to show off his ability to cut together violence creatively.
Terror Train has a rather stacked deck when it comes to its cast. In its starring role is Academy Award winner Ben Johnson, continuing the tradition of well-established Hollywood actors being cast in Canadian horror films, like Leslie Nielsen in Prom Night and Glenn Ford in Happy Birthday to Me. Johnson brings an old professional actor’s warmth to his role as the train conductor in little moments peppered throughout; in his introduction in the film, he shares a sweet scene with Maggie, his wheelchair-bound co-worker in which they “dance” to a waltz. Later, he’s as giddy as a kid when he wanders around trying to show off his hokey little card tricks. He makes the character rise off the page, and honestly, the film is better for it.
Starring alongside Johnson is Jamie Lee Curtis, who cemented her status as Final Girl Legacy here, shooting this feature and Prom Night almost simultaneously during the respective winter and summer of 1979. Putting Curtis in the film is a smart choice, as her natural empathy shines through. Hart Bochner, who would later become recognizable as the coked-up executive in Die Hard (and would also direct the brilliant PCU), as prankster Doc, whose antics in the film’s cold open lead to the locomotive bloodbath.
Terror Train was written by the late T.Y. Young, his second of two theatrical features, the other being a long-delayed Christopher Lee sleeper, The Keeper. Young’s script follows the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” slasher film template that served many body-counters of the ’80s but paints a touch of grey morality in the margins to set it apart from other hackier cash-ins. It begins on a chilly New Year’s Eve, when a young pledge called Kenny Hampson (Derek Mackinnon) is lured by his loins to a dark bedroom, thinking he’s going to hook up with the foxy Alana Maxwell (Curtis). Instead, he unknowingly engages in light necrophilia, as the aforementioned Doc has stolen a corpse from a lab and placed it in the bed. Naturally, this sends Kenny spiraling, quite literally, and lands him in an institution. Three years later, the college kids are all aboard a train celebrating the New Year’s holiday when a masked maniac boards, spending the film shifting costumes and laying waste to all the folks who pranked poor Kenny that fateful night. Terror Train is an interesting take on the “lockbox slasher,” in which a group is trapped in a building or secluded location and picked off one by one. The film also doesn’t strain its credulity by having the train crew become aware that something sinister is happening. This gives the back half of the movie a sense of urgency that carries it straight to its no muss, no fuss ending: the killer’s dead, let’s roll some credits.
Terror Train, to its credit, only slightly attempts to sugarcoat and downplay the act committed by its “heroes,” by having Kenny supposedly accidentally murdering someone prior to their transgression. They know what they did was wrong, they’re aware of their responsibility in creating a deeply hurtful traumatic experience in driving Kenny to homicidal insanity. They simply just do not care; collateral damage isn’t their problem. The biggest mouthpiece for this is Jamie Lee Curtis’ Alana. But as the bodies begin adding up, in a kind of desperation, she begins attempting to persuade characters like Doc to simply own up to what they’ve done, even as she’s reminded of her complicity in the matter.
The way Terror Train treats its characters and villains isn’t the only way it shows that it’s operating on a level above the mindless slasher nonsense that sinks so many films in the genre. Specifically, it uses red herrings to conceal not whom the killer is, but who the killer is hiding as. Other revenge-based slashers set up the villains plainly: Harry Warden in My Bloody Valentine was a miner, so naturally that was his costume. Ditto for the maniac in The Prowler, a military man who dresses in fatigues. Here the revenge is based in trickery, so why shouldn’t its villain follow suit and do the same to dole out his just desserts? Terror Train also bucks tradition by having its masked maniac not be bound to one particular outfit. He switches from the iconic Groucho Marx mask to a lizard costume to ultimately being dressed as the Magician’s assistant. One can’t help but think if the film was made a few years later, when franchising became a hotter commodity, the studio might have pressured foolishly into making Kenny’s costume be something “marketable.”
Casting David Copperfield as a magician seems gimmicky, and maybe it was at the time, but what better personality to add to your film than one who specializes in illusions? Everything Kenny does is about sleight of hand. This person is dead, but wait, are they? Is it all one big practice joke? Early in the film, there’s confusion on who hired the magician for the party. Since everyone loves to play coy with each other, they assume that someone else did it; but they didn’t, Kenny did. Doc ends up being the one who states plainly that it’s the Magician who’s killing folks, having altered his appearance. And he has, as the female assistant. The assistant even calls the Magician “Ken.” What’s so interesting is that the movie pulls a sleight of hand without you even realizing it. The film shows Kenny as the assistant several times, openly, but we’re not really focusing on them, we’re watching the Magician–that’s the cleverness. We’re focused elsewhere while they pull off their trick, which comes to its logical conclusion as Carne and the passengers are looking for the Magician–Kenny can take his sweet time going after Alana.
Spottiswoode uses the chilly Canadian landscape to good effect, showing that there’s really no escape once you’ve boarded the train: escape the masked maniac aboard with you, or try and hack it in the remote, frozen landscape outside. The shot of the train first coming to life over the opening credits gives the locomotive a sense of character: it burps its steaming breath into the night sky, ready for its travelers to take a ride from Hell. He also knows how to milk the film’s atmosphere: the train’s cars are filled with the smoky, drunken haze of debauchery and a killer could be around every corner; cinematographer John Alcott’s lensing blankets everything eerily. The most effective stalking sequence is when the cowardly Doc, played with pitch-perfect sneering sweatiness by Hart Bochner, is sequestered in his private cabin, knowing the killer is in there.
The onscreen kills are unsettling and cleverly subtle: when the graduating students are boarding the train, Ed, fulfilling the annoying stereotypical role of “prankster in a slasher film,” is murdered–what makes it disturbing is that not only is his death largely unnoticed, but that the killer manages to sneak into a large group of people and stabs him, his dying body shoved onto the tracks to be run over, the same way a kid would when flattening a copper penny.
It’s not done often, but some slasher villains get their sexual frustration mixed up with their homicidal rage, as in Blood Rage or Splatter University, but despite a naked corpse being used to play a joke on him, none of the violence that Kenny later inflicts has a disgusting sexual bent to it, especially if one considers that Kenny was virginal and will forever associate the act of sexual congress with putrescence. According to a 2008 New York Times article, the type of prank that Doc pulls is in the category of what sociologist Erving Goffman describes as “degradation ceremonies.” The sociological definition of a degradation ceremony “is the process by which to lower a person’s social status within a group or within society in general, for the purposes of shaming that person for violating norms, rules, or laws …” By putting a corpse in Kenny’s bed, Doc and company are sending a message that Kenny is disgusting to them and he deserves a rotting body. It’s horrible, awful behavior by the those involved in the prank, though it’s assuredly behavior that warrants legal action, not vengeful homicide.
A key moment occurs when Kenny pulls off his Groucho Marx mask and shows his face to his intended victim, Jackson, before smashing it into the mirror, as if saying: “You’re going to die and this is why.” The why factors into Kenny’s reaction to the prank and the decisions that ultimately lead to him orchestrating his revenge. The same article elaborates, “… psychologists argued that the sensation of being duped–anger, self-blame, bitterness–was such a singular cocktail that it forced an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness. ‘How much of a dupe am I? Where are my blind spots?’” One could look at the way the obnoxious frat guys are so encouraging to Kenny, landing him a girl that he knows is out of his league, thinking, “this is such an obvious prank.” In that moment, lust is his blind spot. He spends three years institutionalized, cooking up his own little prank, reflecting on his weaknesses in order to punish the fray guys with theirs–it wouldn’t be too hard, after all, he was one of their pledges.
Terror Train is an effective slasher that showcases a killer’s vengeance within the claustrophobic confines of a steam locomotive. Using intoxicants and illusions, Kenny fulfills his bloody plan, as his victims are trapped unknowingly, their festive celebrations transforming into terror. With an engaging cast of unknowns and celebrated veterans, Terror Train rises above slasher clichés in order to entertain, thrill, and chill, daring viewers to climb aboard and take an eventful cinematic ride. ★