The movie begins with the Prank Gone Wrong. A group of frat boys, led by a medical student everyone calls Doc, trick a nerdy Freshmen pledge named Kenny into thinking that he's about to score with the lovely Alana. Kenny strips down to his tighty whities and slinks into bed, cozying up to a supple, womanly figure draped in a bed sheet. As Alana stands off screen begging for him to kiss her, Kenny makes his move, only to discover that it isn't Alana beneath that bed sheet. It's the limbless, off-color corpse of a woman. This naturally causes Kenny to have a massive freak-out, leading to his hospitalization in a mental institution.
An unspecified amount of time later, Doc, his girlfriend Mitchy, Alana and her boyfriend Moe, and about four dozen other students board a train for a once in a lifetime pre-graduation bash. There's booze, food, a couple of New Wave bands and even a magician. Everything is set for this to be one hell of a party. There's only one problem. Someone else is aboard the train. Someone who doesn't belong there. Someone eager to spill blood.
TERROR TRAIN is often lumped in with PROM NIGHT in discussions of the slasher film. I understand why. Both belong to the first wave of slasher films, both were released in 1980, and both star Jamie Lee Curtis. But the odd thing is, while TERROR TRAIN is the better of the two films, PROM NIGHT is the one people remember more, or at least more fondly. If I asked you what the stand out moment in PROM NIGHT was, there's a damn good chance that you'll tell me all about the scene in which a disembodied head skids across a busy dance floor while dozens of teens scream in shock. That's an impactful, memorable scene, one that just screams “1980's slasher film”. TERROR TRAIN doesn't really have a scene that's comparable to that. It's a film more invested in trying to tell a good twisty-turny murder mystery than it is about sending its audience into a gore-induced paroxysm of glee.
That is both the blessing and the curse of this film, because while the more serious minded nature of the narrative makes TERROR TRAIN into a film you can become genuinely invested in, the tropes and mechanisms of the slasher film require leaps of logic so large that they can, at a moment's notice, reduce even the most genuine attempt at drama to little more than a bad joke.
The entirety of this film (after the opening set-up) is set on a train. This accomplishes the seclusion that is a necessary component of the slasher film (most slasher films are set in an isolated environment, all the better to avoid police interference while heightening the chances of any one particular character coming across the killer), but it creates a strange limbo in terms of story logic. There are only two directions you can move on a train, forwards or backwards. It's never clear where exactly we are on the train, how many cars there are or where any one character is in relation to another. So when characters need to be killed off to move the story along, it's always a crap shoot over whether or not those murders could have even been pulled off to begin with, let alone exactly where they are occurring in the first place.
To better illustrate this, at one point they decide to lock the car they think is housing the killer. We can assume from the direction the characters are ushered out of the train car, this car lies somewhere in the middle of the procession, but there are several scenes after the lock down that feature characters at the FRONT of the train, even though we saw them moving towards the BACK of the train. Worse, when the conductor and his crew search the locked train car, one of the exits appears to be at the very end of the train with no other cars behind it. Simply put, the geographic reality of this film leaves a lot to be desired.
There's also little annoyances here and there, like the way the killer locks a bathroom door from the inside so no one can discover a corpse. How the hell did they accomplish that? Maybe that's why the magician in the film (played by David Copperfield) seems to possess actual, literal magical powers. He can pull off a disappearance in a crowded train car only to appear standing with the audience 20 feet away. This magician is the only red herring the film offers up and even then, the idea that the magician is somehow Kenny, the tormented pledge-turned-nutjob, falls apart the second you compare their faces. The film also sets up sub-plots that go nowhere. While all of the characters in TERROR TRAIN manage to be likeable and believable, absolutely nothing is done to give them actual lives outside of that train. The most interesting bit of characterization in the entire film is the way Doc goes out of his way to put Moe in a sticky situation with a drunk floozy in hopes of breaking up Moe's relationship with Alana. Why does he do that? Well, the film hints at a homosexual attraction. It gives Doc a profoundly out-of-character moment where he tells Moe that if his relationship with Alana ever goes south, Moe can always be with him. Moe laughs it off as just some bro talk, but Hart Bochner's delivery in that scene sells it as something far more tender and well-meaning. All of the characterization and personality building happens in the periphery of the main narrative. So if you don't care about these people within the first five minutes, chances are you won't care at all.
But despite some character shortcomings and logical flops, the central murder mystery of TERROR TRAIN is really compelling, absorbing stuff. It's a compact, focused and well paced thriller that contains more than a few genuinely spooky moments. It also has balls. Like DEEP RED, you could easily spot the murderer if you just pay close enough attention. The film doesn't even really go out of its way to hide that reveal. It's a testament to how interesting the central plot device of a killer jumping from costume to costume in the middle of this giant costume ball/New Year's Eve party actually is and just how well director Roger Spottiswoode pulls off his misdirections. The costumes are meant to hide the identity of the killer from the audience, but there are several scenes in the film where the killer stands in plain view with only the most minuscule amount of costuming on, face completely unhidden, but because of the way the film conditions us to regard as a threat any character whose face CANNOT be seen, it never occurs to us to actually pay attention to the characters whose faces CAN be seen.
I mentioned that the characters are all likeable and believable, and they really are. The cast of characters on display here are not your normal, grating slasher stereotypes. The comic relief character dies well before the train departs and each character is given an internal motivation that remains constant throughout, if a bit stifled in favor of plot momentum. The score is a PSYCHO-inspired, perfectly serviceable creation and the film contains relatively little excess gore. But the real star on display here is Spottiswoode. TERROR TRAIN is a good looking film (thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer John Alcott, a frequent collaborator of Stanley Kubrick), awash in low key lighting and deep, impenetrable shadows. The film feels like it was visually inspired by HALLOWEEN, unlike films such as FRIDAY THE 13TH which failed to recognize that it wasn't the formulaic structure that made that film great, but the look and feel of it. TERROR TRAIN has its fair share of cheap jump scares, but it also has a definite, effective mood and a genuine understanding of the importance of atmosphere. It might be too anemic and a tad too quiet for those who want more of a body count film, but if you're looking for a good, tense ride on the Murder Mystery Express, you could do far, far worse than spending 100 minutes with TERROR TRAIN.