Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

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Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Oct 26, 2015 6:41 am


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Re: Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

#2 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Oct 31, 2015 8:22 am

Major spoilers!:

Terror Train is a fun but rather middle of the road film, with a few weird touches to make it memorable! I think that I like it slightly better than the more celebrated Prom Night. Though both films aren't brilliant their flaws are strangely complementary - Prom Night has far better scenes of stalk-and-slash (particularly the one through the school and into the car) but entirely wastes Jamie Lee Curtis in a weirdly passive character part, while Terror Train builds up absolutely no tension with its strangely listless, goofy tone but at least feels as if it knows what it has in Jamie Lee Curtis and tries to build a, surprisingly brutal (as in the heroine getting punched in the face and slammed around a train carriage!) fight scene in which Curtis can actually get to grips with the killer and let off a couple of trademark screams! Though I think Hart Bochner does manage to out shriek her a couple of times!

Even though I recently enjoyed playing Until Dawn, which features the same kind of 'practical joke gone wrong back in the past' set up, I'm not really that big a fan of that kind of set up to the action in order to explain why a group of kids have a killer after them. No matter how hard the film tries to mitigate for the heroine, or provide shades of responsibility amongst the group of characters, it still ends up with making a group of characters so unlikeable (because they've had to have done something that killed someone, or at least something so cruel that drove another kid or their close relatives homicidally insane!) that either the audience identification character becomes tainted by that cruelty because of their participation, or alternatively just seems a poor judge of character (or just stupid!) for still having stuck around with the same group of bullies for so long after that event! This is one of the reasons why I far prefer the set up of a film like Scream (being inexplicably targeted by a killer, with a final revelatory twist) to, say, I Know What You Did Last Summer. The moral retribution becoming a murderous force brutally killing teens sort of messes up any sense of morality to the film, turning it into a weird tit-for-tat cycle of implicitly suggesting that some people never realise the cruelty of their actions and so need to be killed, but then the killer themselves have gone too far and lose the moral high ground and have to be killed themselves by the 'final girl', who only kills when forced to do so! (the final girl going insane at the end is an optional extra!)

And, boy does this film in its early sections desperately try and make Jamie Lee Curtis's character seem better, despite her central role in the fateful opening prank. Though, and I think this might be a fault of the film, the opening prank is kind of weird and sort of leaves it unclear as to what happens to the kid who gets guided into sharing a bed with a dismembered corpse and then whirls himself up in some net curtains (reminding me a little of the opening of Ratcatcher!), and also leaves open the role that Jamie Lee Curtis had in the action as she plays the beckoning voice so is obviously highly involved in the prank, but then seems slightly concerned by the dead body. But what did she think was in the bed, if not that? Maybe the blow up doll that plays a key distracting role in the final scene! (Which makes for a nicely understated call back moment to the prank that I can only imagine infuriating the killer even more!). So, while we get a number of scenes of Curtis feeling slightly sad about that past event, and chiding her buddies about what they did, her character isn't really completely removed from responsibility either. Though she still doesn't deserve the feckless boyfiend and Hart Bochner's useless characters, who are more truly deserving of death!

There is a goofy weirdness to the opening prank that I can't quite put my finger on, as if the filmmakers have to set the event up but don't want to concretely explain anything or fully define the characters or their relationships to each other at that stage, along with their responsibility in the event. Though I concede that I might just have been distracted by the epilieptically flashing lights in that scene (seriously, who takes hazard warning barriers found on roads, sticks them in their living room and then gets the lights flashing to set a sexy mood?). Also, wouldn't all of those medical students stealing bits and pieces of bodies to prank their fratenity members with have been expelled after the prank went wrong? I would assume that a university wouldn't look kindly on their students, especially medical ones, not being able to show respect for the dead! Instead three years later they are all set to graduate and are still carrying around skeletons with them, albeit fake ones!

That reminds me of something I usually try not to say about horror film characters (so they have to be particularly bad!), but Terror Train has victims so annoying and/or despicable that the killer may actually have a point in wanting to kill them, though I'm slightly taken aback by wondering just how the killer can be bothered to work up the energy to care about these cadaver-bothering med students. Just let them live and they'll destroy themselves or burn out anyway, by the way things are going! I was particularly amused/grateful that the extremely obnoxious comic relief character with terrible jokes (who kind of anticipates the guy who 'gifts' Jason his hockey mask in Friday The 13th Part 3. Though that character is erudite and lovably witty if compared to the guy here!) does not even make it onto the train before they get killed! With the body being thrown under the train, to be crushed as the journey starts, no less! (This reminded me of the first murder in that much later Harper's Island television series, in which the wedding party is going off to the titular island by boat, but a member of the party does not arrive in time, so they set off without them. Only for the audience to see that the chap has been shackled, breathing through an air tank, to the propeller of the boat so that when the 'trip of a lifetime' starts, it immediately begins with the first murder!)

In another example of everything being slightly off with this film, everyone at the start seems weirdly ecstatic to be going on a night time steam train trip! Was that what all the teens were into in early 80s Canada? The trailer and back of the box mention it being New Year's Eve but this time of year is weirdly underplayed in the film itself, with not much being made of the event at all. There is no big party or even say a race against time from the killer intercut with the countdown to the new year, or anything like that at all. Instead we just have David Copperfield doing magic tricks, which he presumably could do at any time of year! (Or at least I don't remember Copperfield saying anything about only being able to perform on New Year's Eve because that was the time when his magical powers were at their most potent, or anything like that!)

Perhaps the filmmakers didn't want to too obviously tie the film to only being able to be played at a particular time of year? Because that worked out terribly for Halloween! :wink:

I have a few other issues with the film. I wish that there had been some kind of movement to have been seen outside of the carriage windows rather than just pitch blackness outside. Maybe showing occasional lights flashing by or gusts of wind rushing past, as while the carriage and actors are being bounced around, I never really got the sense that the train was actually moving anywhere. Just seeing some passing scenery in the actual scenes with actors, rather than just in the interstitial location shots of the train steaming past the camera, would have added a lot more visual interest to the film I think.
However that black void outside the windows did make the late film jump scare work!
Also, far, far too many people are hanging around during the film! There is no tension there and I did briefly hope that the pointless (and stupid for giving everyone hypothermia) scene of everyone being ordered off the train to stand in the snow while it gets checked would have ended by abandoning all the other kids out there in the middle of nowhere in order to narrow the cast down to a big runaway train finale with just our main cast members, but sadly no such luck as they all get back on board and set off again!

And why does the film seemingly focus far more on Ben Johnson's kindly older conductor character? Is it because of the issues above with even the heroine being tainted by the prank? Or because of needing a Donald Pleasance-like father figure character to swoop in to save Jamie Lee Curtis and set the world to rights, Halloween-style? Either way it is strange (though slightly novel) to see the emphasis placed more on the representatives of authority, the service staff and conductor figures, who normally should be the first characters to get killed off in order to fully isolate the kids with the killer. And it is telling that Ben Johnson gets top billing in the film, even over Jamie Lee Curtis!

The pace of this film is all over the place, with a weird stop-start rhythm that keeps strangely undercutting any sense of building menace, and that isn't really helped by the score that feels a bit too lavish (for want of a better word) for some of the action, then doesn't particularly score any of the attack scenes too well when they arrive. The score best fits, and again this feels telling, the David Copperfield magic trick scenes more than any others!

Spoilers for the ending follow:
There was an interesting 'gender' twist on the final reveal, though it does almost get revealed too early with the earlier foreshadowing magic trick in which Copperfield magically disappears with his assistant taking his place, which is something that immediately made me think, to quote Eddie Izzard: "man in a dress!". Though it is a little problematic in combining with the opening sex game prank (and the way that this awful fraternity is forcing all new pledges into having to wear a, quite fetching, combination of bobble hat and yarmulke until they lose their virginity! You have to feel sorry for the people who are still wearing them three years later!) into reducing the killer's motives down from revenge for being bullied to their own sex neuroses.

I kind of suspected that Copperfield wouldn't be killer early on just from the killer's modus operandi! Copperfield's whole magic schtick is built around throwing sheets over things and disappearing them into thin air, whilst the killer doesn't seem bothered about just leaving dead bodies lying about the place for the conductor to find! I could even imagine Copperfield feeling slightly insulted to be presumed to be the killer because of that, as I'm sure that if he had been the killer, he would have tidily left no trace to be found behind him!

But is that intentionally meant to imply that the magic trick loving teen-turned-killer is no David Copperfield? Maybe that is reading too much into things, but I did think it amusing that the only job the poor guy could get was Tootsie-style as a transvestite magician's assistant! That sounds as if it would only drive someone even more murderously homicidal!

In terms of the magic act, I did like the brief moment when the train suddenly breaks and all of the swords that were sticking through the magician's cabinet suddenly fly out and at the camera! Perhaps that's not the best way to have stored those, but it does anticipate the magician's eventual fate! Although maybe he wasn't murdered at all but was just cleaning out the inside of the cabinet when the train started up again and all the swords suddenly flew back into the cabinet! It was all just a horrible accident! :D

The film does do some neat moments where it foreshadows some twist to come or calls back to previous events. While I often love making connections like this in films, sometimes the film does this to a slight fault. Or rather its call backs and foreshadowings get a bit too blunt, especially in the final scene that seems to be pointedly trying to recreate the circumstances of opening prank. However I did think it was amusing that the killer ends up dying mainly because they have a propensity towards flailing around in a circle in such a manner that they get caught up in hanging drapery! That was their ultimate weakness! Nothing as esoteric as Kryptonite, just hanging net curtains!
So its enjoyable, but average. It is no Halloween, but neither is it a Halloween: Resurrection! Worth watching if you either want to see Jamie Lee Curtis kicking ass in her scream queen heyday or David Copperfield doing his magic act (yes, he does the 'passing a metal ring around a levitating person' bit, with Curtis as his glamorous assistant!), but not really if you are looking for the amazing sounding, expectation raising far too high, "Silver Streak meets Halloween" film that the Executive Producer describes in his interview on the disc! (Though he is refreshingly realistic about the final quality of the film and has a very funny anecdote about coming up with the title for the film!)
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sat Oct 31, 2015 8:15 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

#3 Post by Drucker » Sat Oct 31, 2015 5:09 pm

Colin, you are incredibly persuasive while pointing out the film's flaws. I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit. I know the laziest thing you can say about a film was "it was fun" and sort of leave it at that, but compared to what few horror movies, and even fewer "slasher" movies I've seen, this one definitely sticks out as above-average.

The opening scene almost made me give up though, I have to say. Some terrible mixture of Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House buffoonery, it definitely seemed more concerned with setting up a frat-boy atmosphere that was, for the most part, entirely absent in the film. The prank that sets the film's actions in motion felt more surprising than anything else. You would think that if really trying to initiate someone, you would be rooting for them. If, on the other hand, you despised a pledge (like the two characters in Animal House, for example), you may treat them a bit more cruelly. Doc's "humor" isn't really established until a bit later on, so this prank on a pledge seems a bit horrible. I didn't catch that Jamie Lee Curtis seemed to be involved, but perhaps she was!

Another problem, of course, is that, though the twist was pretty easy to figure out, if you really didn't figure out who the killer was until the people in the film do, then there's a good hour between the pre-credit sequence and realizing the murders are connected to them. This is far too long. There are other characters that seem woefully under-developed, considering how quickly they could probably give more backstory. Curtis's departed boyfriend could have been a little more fleshed out, for example. And yes, they really don't explain why the conductor gets such screen time (and I thought he was dead, when it turned out the killer was in a conductor uniform!)

Still, there was plenty of good. The scene where Doc is about to get his throat slashed was brilliantly executed. The movie also does a great job of doing little things that were unexpected. The second murder in the movie, for example, appears it's going to be the blonde woman, but as that plan gets a little disrupted, the killer has no problem improvising a bit, and killing someone else. Then, the conductor tries to keep everything quiet for a little, allowing the plot to continue, instead of stopping it, rounding everyone up, and trying to get to the bottom of the murder mystery. In fact, I'd say one of the best scenes in the film is when the crew goes to check on the first body, and the killer has covered it up. I wish they'd played on that a little longer, actually. Allowing murders to happen, be discovered, and then covered up, driving the conductor crazy...that would have been a great touch.

I suppose the surrounding cast of characters is mostly under-used, but it's hard to think of how you could have done a good job of bringing 30-some odd people into the central plot of a film like this (Scream does an excellent job of this, with schoolmates and random people at parties dropping in and out of the film in a great way.) Another thing I enjoyed was since this was on a train, and the people really are trapped as it's moving, with no real way to communicate car to car, scenes where people are trapped against, say, a door or are up against the wall make a lot more sense than someone running upstairs instead of out of a house, in other slasher films.

Overall, this was a winner in my book. Just the right amount of gore, a motivation that pretty much made sense, and enough of a mystery/what the fuck is going on to keep me interested.

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Re: Terror Train (Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

#4 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Oct 31, 2015 7:27 pm

It is definitely a great setting for a horror film, but the problem is that the film doesn't really feel as if it capitalises on that 'trapped with a killer' element at all really, except perhaps for the idea that sleeper berth compartments are either holding potential dead bodies or canoodling lovers! There also do not feel to be any off limits areas either apart from that bathroom briefly, as Jamie Lee Curtis is still breathlessly charging back and forth from the front to the back of the train even in the final act of the picture, and there is never any sense that the train is going out of control and needs to somehow be stopped. Terror Train is competent and fine as a film, but I'm left feeling that there could have been so much more that could have been done in all areas, and the location in particular stands out for this, but there is a sense of the film being either unambitious or constrained by budget (or both) from doing something such as having a view outside of the windows, or any action to do with messing about with the train more than being able to stop it that once.

In train horror terms it doesn't really bear comparison to the fantastic Horror Express, which really does capitalise on the claustrophobia of an unescapable train with a brain sucking monster (and his growing army of zombified victims) slowly making certain carriages off limits and confining the rest of the passengers to a steadily smaller safe spot. It also has a brief pause, but for the point of introducing Telly Savalas and his band of Cossacks onto the train and for a slight but welcome political point about colonialism and politics in Savalas's treatment of the passengers! And it knows that any action or horror film set on a train has to have at least the potential of a train crash finale, preferably due to a collapsing bridge as well!

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