By Scott Dorward
Terror Train (USA, 1980)
Stephen Graham Jones’s excellent novel My Heart is a Chainsaw recently made me realise how few slasher films I’ve actually seen. The home video boom of the early ’80s corresponded with my late teens and I did watch almost every horror film I could lay hands on. Still, when it came to slashers, I largely saw the big franchises and a smattering (splattering?) of others. Jade, the protagonist of My Heart is a Chainsaw, writes essays about slasher films for school projects, and I was surprised at how many I had not even heard of. This led me to track down some of these bloody classics to see what I’d missed. Terror Train was probably the best-known of these. It seemed like enough of a genre standout to be worth saving for this challenge.
I’ll offer a brief verdict here because I am going to detail one of of the film’s big reveals later in the review. Stop reading after this if you want to go into the film unspoiled. The short version is that Terror Train feels rather bland alongside other films of the time. It wants to be a murder mystery as well as a slasher and doesn’t really deliver on either. The setting of a party train helps enormously, and there are some suitably weird moments, but on the whole it didn’t do much for me. And then there’s the aspect I’m going to get grumpy about, but let’s save that for after the synopsis….
In a scene that could come from half the teen films of the ’80s, a group of pre-med students play a cruel practical joke on Kenny (Derek MacKinnon), the class weirdo, at a frat party. The pranksters rope Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) into acting as bait. When the macabre prank goes wrong, she is left horrified and Kenny is psychologically scarred. Surely, there will be no repercussions from this.
Cutting forward a few years, the same class of students have organised a Halloween fancy dress party on board an old steam train. Even before the train leaves, one of their number is killed without his friends even realising, and the killer steals his costume.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the killer carefully picks off those partygoers who were involved in the prank. Whatever could be his motivation? Who could the killer be? It’s a total mystery. He does, however, do a good job of covering his tracks, leading to a growing sense of paranoia amongst the survivors. Will the killer get his revenge? Will the final girl save the day? Do we, as the audience, care about any of this?
If there is a saving grace to Terror Train, it is the setting. Basing a horror film around a party is hardly innovative, but one on an old steam locomotive stands out. Also, the use of the party as a hunting ground is neat. Initially, the killer waits until his targets are isolated, in bathrooms or berths. Eventually, however, he hunts in plain sight, counting on the party itself as a distraction. The isolated of crowds is portrayed chillingly. The use of Halloween masks to confuse the identities of killer and victims alike adds to this.
One setting detail that didn’t work is the lack of a two-way radio on the train. It is a necessary conceit to avoid the film coming to a halt after the first body is found, but it still seems unlikely given the necessity of communicating with signal boxes.
Stage magic plays a huge role in Terror Train. The students have hired a magician, played by David Copperfield, to entertain them. His tricks echo the machinations of the killer, making him the prime suspect to be Kenny in disguise. With the killer hiding bodies and adopting disguises, trickery runs through this film.
Of course, the magician is not the killer. This is another piece of misdirection. We finally learn that Kenny is masquerading as his glamorous female assistant. It was at this point that any good will I had towards Terror Train vanished. The trans killer trope has long dogged horror, even before Robert Bloch wrote Psycho. It has shaped the perception of trans people as predators that still poisons discourse today. While Kenny isn’t explicitly trans, it’s hard not to see him as such. This is a trope I never want to see again and it’s a rude shock whenever I stumble across it.
Terror Train was originally pitched as “Halloween on a train”. The problem is that it lacks the suspense of Halloween or the gleeful butchery of many of its peers. For a slasher film, we don’t actually see a lot of slashing. The kills are largely bloodless, mostly carried out off-screen.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether Friday the 13th would have been any kind of success without Tom Savini’s innovative gore effects. Terror Train may provide the answer to this. While it clearly has a better script than any of the Friday the 13th franchise, it is a flat, plodding excuse for a horror film. The story offers a bit more depth than a simple excuse to kill a lot of attractive young people, but that’s just not enough here.
That’s not to say there is nothing good in Terror Train. Having a cast of medical students offers plenty of chances for ghoulish fun with body parts. And the setting of a Halloween party on a steam train, cut off from the outside world, is an engaging one. Hell, I even enjoyed the magic routines.
Still, I found watching Terror Train a joyless experience. Whether it was the lack of tension, the understated kills, or the general misanthropy of its frat boy mentality and pernicious trans stereotyping, I felt like the film was actively trying to stop me liking it. Maybe this is one of those films you simply had to see at the time. I can certainly imagine 15-year-old me liking it a lot more than the old man writing this. Still, I would suggest letting this train leave the station without you.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!