Review: Terror Train (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #780

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 3, 1980
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: Canada, United States
Budget: $4,200,000
Box Office: $8,000,000
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Producer: Harold Greenberg
Screenplay: T.Y. Drake, Daniel Grodnik (uncredited), Judith Rascoe (uncredited)
Special Effects: Joe Elsner
Cinematography: John Alcott
Score: John Mills-Cockell
Editing: Anne Henderson
Studios: Astral Bellevue Pathé, Sandy Howard Productions, Triple T Productions
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Sandee Currie, Timothy Webber, Derek MacKinnon, Anthony Sherwood, Joy Boushel, D.D. Winters, Greg Swanson, Howard Busgang, David Copperfield

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Olivia Newton John “Physical”

[2] SylvesterDo Ya Wanna Funk”

[3] John Mills-Cockell “Terror Train”

[4] PilotMagic”

[5] John Mills-Cockell “Danger on The Rails”

[6] Elvis Presley “Mystery Train”

When I mention the name Jamie Lee Curtis, what are the first two words that spring to mind? For me, it would have to be “The body” as this was generally how she was referred to during the eighties. Put together seemingly by the gods, Curtis had curves so supple and perfect that it felt positively obscene not to ogle.

Indeed, with the exception of perhaps Linnea Quigley, nobody looked more fetching in pink leg warmers and matching leotard. I’ve lost count of the amount of pounds of fat that I shed watching her fitness video as a teenager, none of which was body mass I hasten to add, and oddly enough one bicep in particular really benefited from such workouts.

Another two words never far from the fray when talking about Curtis are Laurie Strode as it was her all-inclusive performance for John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, that elevated her to stardom pretty much overnight. It also provided her another label that she was never fully comfortable with.

Whether she liked it or not (and bear in mind that she’s openly admitted that horror movies scare her too witless to watch), Curtis was now regarded as a scream queen and would go on to become known as The Queen of Screams. Given that Carpenter’s film was so instrumental in the formulation of eighties slasher, it seemed a no-brainer to recruit her for other suchlike offerings and the offers soon started pouring in.

There appeared two paths she could take from here. Second tier slashers such as Paul Lynch’s Prom Night and Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train made the very most of her plucky heroine image and her name on the poster alone ensured both punched well above their weight. Meanwhile, Richard Franklin’s Road Games and Carpenter’s The Fog cast her as a hitchhiker, much to the delight of fellow mustachios Stacy Keach and Tom Atkins, who were only too glad to teach this young lady “the rules of the road”.

With Tom Selleck already licking his lips and millions of disposable teens chanting her name in auditoriums the world over, the time was nigh for Jamie Lee to pledge her allegiance to one camp or the other. So what did she do? She chose neither.

To be fair, her turn as Ophelia in John Landis’ Trading Places bagged her a well deserved Best Supporting Actress BAFTA and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. But that was scant consolation to the droves of horror buffs who desired only to watch her lungs jiggle and tonsils wiggle. I feel obliged to give Curtis her dues for occasionally returning to her roots, even if that entails attaching her fine name to Rick Rosenthal’s risible litter runt, Halloween Resurrection.

And who could forget the sultry lap dance she put on for her husband in James Cameron’s True Lies? This alone proved two things to me – that she has no problem with sending herself up and that she still very much possesses “the body”. She may be approaching the big 6-0 as we speak, but I reckon she could still rock a pair of pink leg warmers.

Terror Train pulled into the station mere months after Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th set the pace and was therefore practically guaranteed exposure. $8m in box-office receipts, against a budget of half that, seemed reasonable enough, but the general consensus was that Spottiswoode’s effort lacked both spunk and steam. The Canadian-American filmmaker later went on to direct such crowd-pleasing fare as Air America, Turner & Hooch and lesser Bond vehicle, Tomorrow Never Dies but here he was still wet behind his ears and, like the similarly uninspiring Prom Night, I always considered his debut feature more like a seventies flick than product of the eighties.

It all just felt so damned antiquated and, as I recently paid my fare a second time three decades on, I was dismayed to learn that not a tremendous deal has changed. Given that rose-tinted spectacles must be worn at all times when revisiting one’s childhood, I’d hoped that the playing field would had been leveled, so to speak. Alas, it just feels like it departed the platform too early. Another twelve months and perhaps it wouldn’t have been so timid with the brutalities and, its females, been more inclined to shed some linen. Without such quick wins at its disposal, the journey to our destination is a painfully long and unromantic one. Harsh words I know and I’m not suggesting you avoid Terror Train like the plague before we’ve even boarded, but if your memories of Spottiswoode’s film are sketchy, then there’s likely sound reason for that.

Anyhoots, not trying to come across all Fat Controller, but ALL ABOARD… THE NIGHT TRAIN! You’ve chosen a marvelous time to travel as tonight promises to be a special night aboard the train to nowhere. Sometimes, it’s not where you’re going but how you get there that matters and what better Eve than New Year’s to let your hair down in one of our luxurious carriages. Food and beverages will be made available and at a nominal cost, while anyone with a hankering for feeling the groove tremors will be pleased to learn that we have our own on-board discotheque and have even booked a magic act to usher us into what I would presume to be 1981.

Some call him a magician, others an illusionist. I call him out for looking suspiciously like David Copperfield. I’d recognize that sleight of hand anywhere, that playful twinkle in his eye which says “I could make those feeble bra straps snap using only the power of suggestion… and may just do so”. I know one thing – if this train ride into the icy wilderness is good enough for Copperfield or any Copperfield-inspired tribute acts, then it’s good enough for me dagnabbit.

One thing before we depart – do you reckon the dude on the platform is alright? You know, the joker in the Groucho Marx mask, doubled over and clutching a spear in his belly. It could’ve been just the wind but I swear his final words before the conductor blew his whistle were “you’re all going to die”. Fuck it, I’ll just hang with Copperfield. Don’t go much on his glamorous assistant however.

Now that the train is in motion, I guess it would be rude not to introduce you to a handful of your fellow passengers and they shouldn’t prove too tough to point out in the crowd. The guy in the monk costume is Doc and the chick in the witch outfit he’s ignoring is his girlfriend Mitchy.

Now, Mitchy also happens to be best friends with Alana and that’s her over there in full swashbuckle attire. Alana’s dating Mo and, judging by the bright yellow beak, I presume he’s here as… I dunno… Birdman? Fret not if it all appears a little too Caucasian as the cat with the lizard scales is tonight’s token negro, obviously named Jackson.

Alas for Jackson, the action must end here and it’s back to the Black Lagoon for our amphibious friend, by way of extended restroom visit. Not wishing to put the willies up you, but I swear blind he was closely followed in by Groucho. You know what that means don’t you? Likely bum sex and, considering it’s been occupied for almost an hour now, I’d say they’re in danger of doing one another permanent damage. The last thing you need to be dealing with on a long distance trip into the unknown is rectal tearing.

Better let the conductor, Carne, know what’s going down on his watch. It only takes one wayward reptile to spoil the party for everyone and they’re starting to grow weary of Copperfield. Quick David, pull a sheet of acid from your sleeve before it all goes Bugsy Malone. You ever been hit in the eye with a sausage roll? Neither have I, let’s keep it that way shall we?

A little more about Alana as I can’t find Mitchy anywhere and that makes her easily the friskiest kitten left on the carriage. From what I hear, she’s not particularly fussy, and the word on the tracks is that she gives good hazing. According to common folklore, she gave that dweeby guy from school, Kenny Hampson, a night he’s pledged his vitriolic oath never to forget. It’s just grape vine stuff of course, as nobody has seen hide nor hair of Kenny since that fateful night.

Rumor has it that he misinterpreted the line on the flyer that said “Bring a stiffy” and got swept away in all the excitement. After untangling the distressed teen from the four-poster drapes, it was deemed best for all involved that Kenny be institutionalized immediately. Apparently, the whole ordeal reminded him of the time he got snagged up in his mother’s washing line and spent six hours hung out to dry. Poor Kenny couldn’t handle another suchlike setback and his marbles scattered wide and far. That reminds me, I wonder if the old nutbag’s been released yet.

I interrupt this broadcast to bring you tidings of great peril. You see, while on one of his bi-hourly sweeps, Carne happened across what appeared to be a couple of dead bodies. Keep it to yourself for the time being as the last thing we need is widespread panic. Besides, one of them, the lizard man, appears to have made a miraculous recovery and kindly cleared up all the blood and shattered glass in the restroom.

Regrettably, I’m not getting a pulse on our love witch, Mitchy, although I’m not altogether certain that I’m checking in the right place you know. My stethoscope is certainly picking up some kind of reverb, but all signs point directly back to my groin. Must be defective. Come to think of it, I did spot some dame in a nurse outfit. Which reminds me, I really must get that full check up.

If you ask me, whoever came up with the bright idea of making this a mobile costume party deserves to be locked up in Copperfield’s trick trunk until which time as we arrive at our destination. Everywhere I look, my sore eyes are greeted by a sea of shady characters and any one of them could be our killer, when you think of it.

Fancy dress may be a wonderful way to engage in low-key mingling, but it’s also a rather splendid way to keep your identity under wraps, while continuing to prune the guest list. Thank the heavens nobody had the bright idea of coming in a William Shatner mask. I’m not sure my poor ticker could take any more excitement right now.

Okay, so perhaps excitement isn’t the word I’m looking for here. How does mild diversion grab you? Don’t get me wrong, not since Murder on The Orient Express have I felt such vague intrigue or moderate consternation aboard a locomotive and I likely won’t again until Runaway Train a full five years from now.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the hard work that has gone into making my ride on the misery line pleasurable and booking Copperfield as the entertainment was an inspired choice, at least until the big puff of smoke. But I’d really be terribly grateful if you’d let me off now. Pretty please? With cherry sprinkles? Okay, one quick hand job before we arrive at the station, but I formally request the lizard talons as my designated mitten.

I do hope you’ve faintly enjoyed your time aboard the Terror Train and would like to thank the mostly accommodating Roger Spottiswoode for making the whole so-so gig possible. Don’t forget to mind the gap as you disembark and I’ll see you on our next planned expedition, which should be approximately 2054 by my estimations.

Until that day arrives, I shall remember this trip most fondly for the time I got to spend with a certain pouting pirate with a knockout set of “ten-pins” and, of course, the one and only David Copperfield. Speak of the devil, you can come out now David. David? Dave? Not trying to be a dick here, but the whole “now you see me” trick is getting a little old now, my good man. Dave? Dave? DAAAVE!!!”

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Marvel at the off-screen violence. Wince as another victim presumably bites the dust, although we can’t quite be certain. Cringe as another bloody aftermath is depicted, using the bare minimum corn syrup. Vomit as we are exposed fleetingly to a decapitated head, just to ramp things up to an R. Curse the fact that Tom Savini never got an invite. Curse also the fact that none of the ladies have the common courtesy to take their tops off. Console yourself with the fact that both Jamie Lee Curtis and Sandee Currie have elected to step out in transparent blouses. Where the hell’s Copperfield when you need him?

Read Halloween (1978) Appraisal
Read Prom Night (1980) Appraisal
Read The Prowler Appraisal
Read Graduation Day Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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