Movie review: ‘Terror Train’

ttAnyone worth their horror film salt knows that Jamie Lee Curtis made her breakthrough mark with John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978. It was her first film and she quickly became known as the “Scream Queen” for her horror film roles. Some were good; some not so good. One of the better, but little-remembered ones is “Terror Train” from 1980, three years before her big breakout role in “Trading Places” and the same year as she did “Prom Night.” You can find this one on YouTube.com (click here or search for “Terror Train full movie).

‘Terror Train’
(1980; 97 minutes; rated R; directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Hart Bochner)

WATCH OUT! REVENGE CAN BE MAGICAL

(NOTE: I updated this review by adding some links on March 26, 2016.)

Terror Train” has all the stereotypes of the horror film genre: A killer bent on revenge; college students; an enclosed area where they’re picked off one-by-one; and, of course, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, whose breakout role in “Halloween” two years before “Terror Train” put her in Hollywood’s sights for bigger things to come (try “Trading Places” three years later).

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What’s not stereotypical is that “Terror Train” has a solid, complicated-but-easy plot and an excellent turn by Curtis as the vulnerable but tough-to-kill girl and Hart Bochner as the frat boy at the top of the to-kill list by the confused frat boy-turned homicidal maniac. A good but limited supporting cast that includes co-star Ben Johnson made sure this one isn’t run-of-the-mill.

As “Terror Train” builds to its climax, more stereotypes appear: the wrong person identified as the mysterious killer; the search of a room by one victim who misses the killer; and, best of all, the killer you thought was gone pops back up again – of course after the heroine is left alone at a time you’d think she’d be surrounded by everyone else.

Especially efficient is how the director and screenwriter manage to keep the killer going around unnoticed on the small train. Since it is held during a costume party it would appear easy, but the logistics of keeping it fresh with the audience is more of a difficult task than one might believe.

The story of “Terror Train” is simple: college kids play a prank involving a corpse and a gullible freshman during a party. The freshman goes off the deep end and three years later at another winter party (at least one character wears a Northern Illinois sweatshirt in an early scene) it becomes obvious that he’s back and dealing deadly from the deck of revenge.

In the wake of the 1974 cult horror classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” by director Tobe Hooper, audiences were hit hard with horror flicks by the end of the decade. The “slasher” sub-genre would follow but become more sickeningly graphic. Other genres include zombie movies and vampires. “Halloween” (click here for my review) remained the still the gold standard until equaled 18 years later by Wes “A Nightmare on Elm Street” Craven’s rejuvenation of the genre with “Scream” in 1996.

In “Terror Train,” Curtis, who plays “Alana Maxwell,” does her typically good horror film job: she’s good and maintains the standard she set in “Halloween” as well as bringing some acting chops along the way. Of course Curtis would later shed her “Scream Queen” title for much better acting work in films such as “A Fish Called Wanda” and “The Tailor of Panama” as well as even action biggies such as “True Lies” (click here for my review).

Bochner is no stranger to being a frat boy tormentor (see “Breaking Away”) or the know-it-all jerk who’s a doomed character (see “Die Hard”) and he’s really good at this here as “Doc Manley,” the casually sadistic schemer behind pranks – especially the one at the beginning of the film. Bochner is smooth and collected in this role at least until he knows he’s in the killer’s sights. Bochner has also been in “Say Nothing” and “Company Retreat.”

Johnson, who plays train conductor “Carne,” does an efficient job here as he’s the first to find out about the killer, who manages to deflect detection by getting rid of bodies and switching costumes. Johnson has had much better roles, even when they are smaller such as in “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen and Al McGraw (click here for my review), and has been in “Hang ‘Em High,” “The Wild Bunch,” the original “Red Dawn” (click here for my review), “The Sugarland Express” and “Dillinger” (click here for my review).

Internationally renowned illusionist David Copperfield plays “Ken the Magician” (who else?) and begins to develop the character just as the film begins the killer’s real rampage on the train. He has also voiced himself on TV’s “The Simpsons” but “Terror Train” is his only film role playing a character.

The killer “Kenny Hampson” is played by Derek MacKinnon (he’d later drop the “a” in his last name). MacKinnon is good in his one scene across a table from Curtis, but otherwise has little acting exposure. He has also been in “Breaking All the Rules” in his brief, four-role career (including as “Drag Queen” in “Family Motel” – he did cross-dressing in “Terror Train”).

Where would a horror film be without a supporting cast of doomed characters? Well, here are a few:

Sandee Currie as “Mitchy,” Timothy Webber as “Mo,” Anthony Sherwood as “Jackson” and Howard Busgang as “Ed” (he’s the funniest and does the best supporting job) are the friends who are doomed. Currie, who was in her first movie here, has been in “Curtains;” Webber was in a string of TV roles in his prolific career that continues today; Sherwood in the sci-fi horror cult classic “Scanners;” and Busgang, also in his first film here and who is now a producer, was in “Head Office” (click here for my review).

I’m not sure why my usual source of Box Office Mojo doesn’t list “Terror Train” for the box office ranking in 1980. Wiki reports here that “Terror Train” made $8 million on a budget of $4.2 million. The Box Office Mojo then should have ranked it 70th in U.S. ticket sales, a spot ahead of “Fatso” which brought in $7.6 million. Curtis’ “Prom Night” was 49th with $14.7 million at the box office, while the No. 1 film was “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” with $209.3 million. Here are some films from 1980 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Nadia Rona has a very small and inactive part: she plays “corpse” (from the prank scene at the beginning). Rona has also been in “Street Smart” in her four acting roles and is now better-known for casting or being the casting director for films such as the horrid “The Jackal” (click here for my review) and “The Whole Nine Yards.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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