As Noah Cross once said, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” You can add cheesy third-tier horror movies to that list as well. Terror Train arrived in 1980, during the heyday of drive-in slasher flicks when the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th ruled the horror scene. Like a lot of its contemporaries, it found a basic gimmick, then assumed its work was done and filled in the blanks as quickly as possible. It included a bit of a whodunit in the mix, but beyond that and its vaguely interesting setting, it offered nothing to separate it from the pack. Now it arrives on Blu-ray, a dubious “classic” without much to recommend it beyond name recognition. Hit the jump for the full review.
The storyline tries to move Halloween’s sensibilities to Murder on the Orient Express, which is as good a reason to hack up a bunch of teenagers as any. A fraternity full of vacuous ninnies rents out a train for its big New Year’s Eve party, unaware that a killer has joined their ranks. Three years ago, they almost killed one of their own in a prank gone wrong, and now somebody wants to balance the books. Considering the lethal levels of booze most of them ingest – and considering that everyone dresses in masks and costumes – it’s pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel.
Terror Train scored its biggest coup by convincing then-scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis to come along for the ride. She plays a slightly less inhibited version of Laurie Strode from Halloween – wracked with guilt over the long-ago prank and none too happy at being stuck in an enclosed space with the jerks who talked her into it. The trip also includes a performing magician (David Copperfield, better with the cards than his lines), a dippy brakeman (Steve Michaels) and an old conductor (Ben Johnson) selling RVs in his spare time. Any of them could be the killer, a fact that still doesn’t justify the pointless backstory they all carry around for ready exposition.
Unfortunately, the murderer’s identity holds far less interest than the producers pretend, as does the novelty value of murder on a train. Director Roger Spottiswoode lacks the flair for creativity that the various kills demand, and the train’s tight confines hinder the cinematography in the extreme. We basically get a series of routine murders, delivered with glum aplomb while Curtis slowly connects the dots. A few moments stand out – the first death displays a little cleverness and the leading lady gamely rises above her material – but the rest blend in with the general slasher malaise of the early 1980s. You’d be hard pressed to distinguish one scene from another even a short time after viewing it.
The Blu-ray itself actually brings some interesting elements to the table… not all of them deliberate. The transfer is fairly shoddy, and in fact still shows the scratches and cigarette burns from the original print. Ironically, that actually boosts the nostalgia factor: evoking the joys of the grindhouse that a cleaner image might have destroyed. The extra features add to its guilty pleasure status as well, particularly an almost apologetic interview with executive producer Don Carmody, who goes into great detail about the lean, mean production schedule. Similar interviews with the producer, composer and production designer deliver a decent amount of insight, though the disc contains little else besides the theatrical trailer and a few commercials.
That’s to be expected of course. No one’s camping outside the Best Buy for this release and the reasons why become obvious within the first ten minutes. As slasher films go, it remains little more than a notable footnote: not wretchedly bad, but eminently forgettable regardless. Shout Factory did well by emphasizing its nostalgic roots, but not every old movie is a classic. If anyone thinks otherwise, Terror Train will be more than happy to prove them wrong.