By the time the golden age of the slasher movie was in full swing, Jamie Lee Curtis was already a bona-fide scream queen. Her role as the archetypical final girl, Laurie Strode, in 1978’s Halloween put her on the map, and she had parts in no fewer than three horror classics released in 1980. Given that she made the box office successes The Fog and Prom Night in the same year, it’s no surprise that her other 1980 slasher film, a Canadian schlockfest about a group of med-school students on a train for a New Year’s Eve party called Terror Train, has flown under the radar.
Terror Train stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana Maxwell, a young medical school student who, at the beginning of the film, pretends to seduce one of her classmates named Kenny Hampson (Derek MacKinnon from Breaking all the Rules). The set-up is all part of a prank orchestrated by fellow student Doc Manley (Die Hard’s Hart Bochner) that tricks Kenny into crawling into bed with a cadaver and subsequently sends him to a mental institution. Three years later, Doc throws a big New Year’s Eve costume party for the group of friends aboard a train as a last hurrah before they graduate, complete with a magician (played by real-life illusionist David Copperfield) and a band (credited as Crime, but not the seventies punk band from San Francisco). As the train is leaving, a student named Ed (The Funny Farm’s Howard Busgang) is killed and his Groucho Marx costume is taken by his murderer, who then boards the train. Hiding in costume, the killer begins to pick off unsuspecting partygoers, leaving bodies to be found by Carne the train conductor (Ben Johnson from The Town That Dreaded Sundown). The resourceful Alana figures it out and suspects that Kenny is somewhere aboard the train, exacting his revenge on his tormentors. Carne and Alana try to stay one step ahead of the killer in an effort to stop him before the masked murderer claims any more victims.
Terror Train was the first feature film by Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode, who would go on to have a successful career with both comedies (Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and action films (The 6th Day, Tomorrow Never Dies). The script, written by T.Y. Drake (The Keeper), is a variation on the revenge killer theme of Prom Night with the action moved from a high school dance to the confinement of a moving train. Like many slasher films of the era, Terror Train looks dated and awkward at times, but Spottiswoode’s talent as a director is on full display in this understated classic.
Although it comes off as a mystery-slasher, there is very little mystery to Terror Train; he may be wearing a mask, but the killer’s identity is obvious from the first few minutes of the film, especially for those viewers who are familiar with Prom Night. For this reason, Terror Train is more of a slasher, a fact which puts Curtis (and her lungs) squarely into her element. It takes a while for the body count to really start to rise but, once it gets going, the ride is worth it; the killer swaps costumes with his victims so that the viewer knows who he is, yet the passengers do not. This little Hitchcock show-them-the-bomb trick gives Terror Train a shot of suspense added to the horror, making it seem not unlike a Brian De Palma picture.
A big reason as to why Terror Train is effective as a horror film is the cinematography of John Alcott, who cut his teeth working with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Shot on a real train, Alcott’s photography is dark and mysterious yet not film noir-ish. His use of angles and lenses successfully captures the claustrophobic feel of the moving train, giving the viewer the impression of traveling with the victims instead of simply observing them. The constantly camera follows the characters through tiny restrooms and tight sleeping cars, closing the viewer inside the compartments with them. Thanks to Alcott, the cinematography in Terror Train is stylish and impressive, and the film raises the bar for the quality of films in the slasher sub-genre.
Jamie Lee Curtis had a banner year in 1980 with three great horror films, yet would seemingly try to distance herself from the genre later on in her career (with the notable exception of the Halloween franchise, to which she returned several times). Even though she would be catapulted to superstardom doing mainstream films like A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies and Freaky Friday, her reputation as a full-fledged scream queen remains, and Terror Train is one of her finest performances.