Released at the height of the slasher craze in October 1980, Terror Train remains one of the best. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, this Canadian chiller has plenty of atmosphere and a number of good scares and set pieces.
Spottiswoode had previously worked as film editor on several Sam Peckinpah classics including 1971's brutal Straw Dogs as well as 1972's expertly paced actioner The Getaway.
Cinematography was handled by John Alcott of A Clockwork Orange fame, and the photography is particularly stylish for such traditional stalk 'n slash. (Alcott had also worked on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining the same year.)
Filmed in Montreal on an actual reconverted train in just over a three week period, Terror Train was a rushed and problematic shoot which required the strong talents of Alcott and Spottiswoode to transcend production difficulties and secure a place for the project as one of the subgenre's more enjoyable outings.
Fresh from her work on Paul Lynch's Prom Night, lung powered Jamie Lee Curtis heads up the frisky cast in Train and was well on her way to becoming THE undisputed scream queen of that horror-heavy time.
Popular magician and visual trickster David Copperfield climbed on board the cast of Train as the lounge act.
While most of the students of Sigma Phi are celebrating their freshman year, some of them are
playing an elaborate prank on Kenny Hampson (Derek MacKinnon), a shy and extremely awkward young man.
The feisty group is comprised of Alana (Jamie LeeCurtis), Doc (Hart Bochner), Mitchy (Sandee Currie AKA Sandra Warren), Jack (Anthony Sherwood), Mo (Timothy Webber), and Ed (Howard Busgang).
Telling Kenny that Alana wants to sleep with him, they encourage their fragile subject up to a bedroom where his lovely consort is supposedly waiting for him. Kenny undresses - but when he pulls the curtain on the canopied bed...he finds a horrific sight.
There is an actual corpse in the bed (one of the students has had access to the college's medical morgue). Needless to say, poor Kenny is pushed mercilessly from (decidedly) nerd territory into the lonely abyss of looniness. In other words, he goes terribly insane...
All aboard! Three years later, said students (now seniors) are preparing for an elaborate graduation masquerade party on a chartered steam train. Ed, the school joker, is dressed in a Groucho Marx outfit.
In the snowy cold, the last bunch of students are getting on the train, when they see poor Ed falling to the ground with a sword through him.
Everyone naturally thinks this is a prank and they laugh it off. But it's no joke. A killer is among them - and he changes into Ed's costume and dumps the body on the tracks.
On the locomotive, everyone is in good spirits. Hired for the entertainment is a mysterious magician named Ken (David Copperfield) and his pretty assistant.
Among the revelers are a beautiful young girl played by rock star Prince's then-protege and main squeeze, sex crooner Vanity (billed D.D. Winters in the credits). In a car to themselves, the group of friends discuss the prank on Kenny and how they were almost expelled from school because of it.
Alana comes in and tells them it's not funny, because the poor kid was put in a hospital. It was three years ago, however...so they forget about it and open some champagne.
Because the killer is wearing the Groucho costume, no one knows that Ed is missing. "Groucho" tries to entice Mitchy into a bathroom but Jack comes along dressed in a lizard disguise and distracts them.
Mitchy disappears and Jack unwittingly invites the person he thinks is Ed into the bathroom for a drink. The killer promptly smashes Jack's head against the mirror.
Two couples are hanging out together. Doc and Mitchy, and Mo and Alana are smoking pot and enjoying themselves. Alana thinks the party was her boyfriend's idea, but Doc tells her he came up with it. Upset that she didn't know, Alana leaves the cabin.
She's annoyed because she doesn't fully trust Doc and thinks that anytime he wants to have fun, someone gets hurt. Mo follows her and as he leaves, he turns around and tells Doc "I'll get you for this." Alana tries to use the bathroom but the door is locked and she notices that someone broke a bottle inside.
Later, the seniors are treated to a kind of disco magic show from Ken and his assistant. Doc and Mo are perplexed because neither of them hired the entertainer.
Carne the conductor (Ben Johnson) uses a key to open the locked bathroom and finds Jack's body. When he brings another crewmember back to take a look, the killer has cleaned up the blood and changed into Jack's costume. Slumped on the floor, he looks up in a groggy state and appears to be drunk.
Now dressed as a lizard, he goes after Mitchy. He strangles her and cuts her throat in one of the sleeping compartments. This time, the conductor finds the body and shows Alana. When Mo is discovered dead, the train is brought to a halt. Everyone is told to get off so the crew can search for the killer and take a roll call.
Meanwhile, Doc and Alana have figured out that everyone killed was in on the prank three years before...and that Kenny Hampson must be the killer. Looking through a yearbook, they discover that he wanted to be a magician. Alana wants to warn the others - but Doc locks himself in a cabin, telling her "every man for himself." Nice.
However, he isn't so sure he's safe. He becomes paranoid, believing that the killer is in the room with him. Slowly he gets up and checks all the closets and cabinets. There's nothing there.
When he sits down on the seat in the cabin, he thinks he sees something under the bed across from him. As he leaps up to check it out, a hand grabs his leg from under the seat.
Doc scrambles to get away. The killer puts his hand on his shoulder and for a second, Doc thinks it's Mitchy. He's killed when his neck is cut open.
As the train is loaded with passengers again, Alana finds Carne and tells him the magician is the killer. She takes him back to Doc's cabin to show him the yearbook. When they enter the room, they find a bloody mess. Carne opens an overhead compartment and Doc's decapitated body falls out followed by his head.
Ken's magic helper is concerned and expresses her concern for their safety to him. He tells her that she shouldn't have left the car. While the magician is in a back room preparing his act, Carne manages to get the assistant away from him.
The conductor then seals off the car. When he returns later, Ken has disappeared.
Having successfully herded the students safely to one end of the train, they begin the search for the magician but can't find him. Alana is in a cabin by herself. The killer is now wearing Doc's monk costume and a grotesque mask.
Carrying an ax, he enters the room and strikes at her. But Alana had put a doll in her place - and she comes up from behind and stabs him with a sword. He recovers and chases her into the conductor's car.
Alana is unable to go any further...and he catches up to her and slams her head against the wall. Alana breaks free and runs into an office in the car (which is caged off) and locks the door.
The killer taunts her by shaking the cage...but Alana manages to pick up a letter opener and stab him in the face. (This by the way is one of the best chase scenes of the post-Halloween slasher era.) She makes it out of the train car and calls out Kenny's name.
As he tries to strangle her between cars, Alana kicks him and knocks him off the train...or so she thinks. She goes into the magician's cabin to look around - and to her horror, she finds his dismembered body stuffed in a suitcase.
Alana runs to tell Carne, who appears to be sitting at his desk. He's got his head down and she tells him that she doesn't know who the killer is anymore. The conductor suddenly grabs her violently. He lifts his head and is wearing a translucent mask.
When he takes it off, Alana see that it is indeed Kenny. He HAD been on the train all along...but disguised as the magician's female assistant!
Alana tries to apologize to him for the prank and he asks if she'll kiss him. She lets him...but thinking back to his traumatic experience, Kenny goes bonkers. Carne arrives and knocks him with a shovel. Kenny's body falls out of the train to the snow below and he is finally killed.
The novelty of the killer donning different disguises throughout Terror Train elevates the film above others from the period.
The various party costumes are clearly a key to the overall success of this spunky slasher. While the audience primarily knows at any given point which mask the psycho has donned, the main players do not. And it imbues the bloody journey with a built-in suspense that works to its favor.
The confined space of a locomotive speeding through the night - and shots of the snowy landscape are particularly effective.
The direction by Roger Spottiswoode is assured and there's a rather cold, metallic feel about this one. Cinematographer John Alcott and Spottiswoode perfectly capture a sort of 'unprotected' vibe of travelling on an old train through the deep frigid night. Rattling. Alone. Afraid.
Jamie Lee Curtis is at the top of her game. Throw in the self-absorbed college snots, D. D. Winters AKA "Nasty Girl" Prince squeeze Vanity, lovely Sandee Curree (also good in Curtains) - and it all adds up to make this film a definite winner.
You can't go wrong booking a ticket on Terror Train.