Friday, January 3, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Climb Aboard The Murder Train

For the crossover review of this film over at Kinemalogue, click here.
For our podcast episode about this film, click here.

Year: 1980
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Derek MacKinnon, Ben Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

You didn't think I would kick off 2014 with just one 1980 slasher set on New Year's Eve, did you? (Seriously, what is it with these things?) Terror Train, an early slasher that came out a solid two months before New Year's Evil, is everything that film is not. Namely - Canadian.

It has been a long-standing belief held by the horror community at large that Canadian slashers are just magically better than their American counterparts. Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, Visiting Hours, Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine... All Canadian, all viewed as classics of the form by one group or another.

Terror Train has mostly been forgotten by all but a select few, but for those who make the journey, it is a true delight. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis in her second Canadian slasher of the year (the first being Paul Lynch's Prom Night), her presence alone is enough to boost this flick to the upper tier.

And though her presence is a great gift, Terror Train is good enough that it could have almost survived without her. But as it is, she is here - a great anchor to a pretty terrific slasher.

The film is worth it for the opening titles alone.

It's New Year's Eve and the brothers of Sigma Phi have planned the prank of the year - at their bonfire, resident virgin and Mick Jagger lookalike Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) is going to be lured into a room by the prospect of getting it on with Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis). Although she is reluctant, she goes along with it and Kenny is tricked into kissing the corpse of a dead woman one of the med students lifted from the morgue.

He should have known that nobody in a slasher movie gets to have sex with Jamie Lee. She's the Final Girl, for crying out loud. This is sacred business.

Whaddya know but things went terribly wrong and Kenny was committed to the local hospital.

Cut to three years later as the frat sets off on yet another New Year's Eve party, this time a masquerade (dun dun dun) on a train. I hope they know where the train is going cuz I sure as hell don't. We Meet the Meat in a whirling jumble of shouting and as such, have no idea what anybody's name is until about the time that they die. But I, your ever dutiful scribe, have compiled a comprehensive list here.

There's Mitchy (Sandee Currie, also of Curtains and no other film outside of the 80's), Alana's best friend who's sore about her graduating early but supportive of her success; Doc (Hart Bochner), Mitchy's douchey prankster boyfriend and the man behind the scheme that destroyed Kenny; Mo (Timothy Webber), Doc's best friend and Alana's boyfriend who convinced her to come under false pretenses despite her immense hatred of Doc and the frat boys. Their endless combinations and interactions fuel the first third of the plot and are surprisingly compelling as a narrative, not just filler between the death scenes.

Also on board are Pet (Joy Boushel of the Labor Day-themed Canadian production Humongous), a skanky blonde whose terrible costume is just giant pants pulled all the way up to her shoulders; Jackson (Anthony Sherwood), the token black fellow; the Conductor (Ben Johnson) who likes to cockblock with card tricks; and Ken the Magician (the David Copperfield), the hired entertainment. Oh and Ed (Howard Busgang), the merry prankster who never actually makes it on board due to that pesky saber in his gut, the poor bastard.

At least he got to wear this cool mask before he kicked it.

And off we go! The first half hour or so is a whirl of college partying, parlor magic tricks (at the hands of at least three characters), and that old slasher standby - impressions. Was this an 80's thing that I don't understand or did every slasher writer have recurring nightmares about Saturday Night Live?

It's fairly demure and bloodless, so for a while the whole thing seems like a bust. I mean, come on, raising a knife and cutting away might have worked in the 60's, but you gotta keep up with the times, man!

However, once Mitchy dies (spoilers? no.), the gloves come off. It doesn't get more gory, but Terror Train pulls out all the stops and becomes a secretly pretty great murder mystery thriller. The setup is brilliant - having the movie on the train means it's chock full of cramped, sinewy, and ill-lit corridors. Not to mention isolation is built into the scenario.

It's a terminally cheesy slasher, but once the tension kicks in a sense of overwhelming dread inhabits the film. In fact, it's one of the only slasher films to be genuinely scary - to any degree - without resorting to cheap jump frights.

Nope. Nothing wrong here.

And the twist. The twist. I would be a loathsome heathen if I were to reveal it here (nope, not even in white text - mum's the word), but it's a brilliant little thing. At once absolutely obvious and completely mind-boggling. It's exactly what you expected but from such a totally confounding direction that it leaves you completely blindsided.

Not to talk it up. I don't want anyone to go in with expectations. Maybe it sucks. Maybe it doesn't exist. Who knows?

Phew. Got outta that one.

Terror Train has a lot going for it. The killer displays a sense of humor rarely seen in the usual crew of silent murder machines and Jamie Lee Curtis always has wattage as a star. She commands the camera from the very first second she's onscreen - buried in the middle of a crowd shot.

This film is a great one-off that I'm glad stands alone, one solid glittering structure among the teetering and mouldering franchises. Although I would pay good money to see Terror Train IV: The Little Engine That Could... KILL.

This time, he's really steamed!

Killer: Kenny Hampson (Derek MacKinnon)
Final Girl: Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis)
Best Kill: You know those boxes magicians use when they pretend to stab swords into people? Well this time it's not pretend.
Sign of the Times: No 2013 teenager would be so pumped to ride a train, believe you me.
Scariest Moment: Alana is trapped in a caged area while the killer stabs through the grate with an iron pole.
Weirdest Moment: The conductor dances in the train office while a woman in a wheelchair rolls from side to side.
Champion Dialogue: "I never saw anybody so dead as that."
Body Count: 11; including the killer.
  1. Ed is impaled by a saber and pushed under a train.
  2. Jackson's head is slammed into a mirror.
  3. Mitchy is strangled offscreen.
  4. Mo is stabbed during a blackout.
  5. Walter the Engineer suffers a head wound.
  6. Shovels the Locomotive Fireman dies offscreen. 
  7. Doc is decapitated offscreen.
  8. Donnly gets a sword in the stomach.
  9. Ken the Magician is impaled inside his own box of swords.
  10. Charley is killed offscreen.
  11. Kenny is hit with a shovel and knocked into the icy river. 
TL;DR: Terror Train doesn't have much in the way of gore, but what it does have is a taut thriller with Jamie Lee Curtis, so what does blood matter?
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1232

1 comment:

  1. Just watched this the other day. Such a good slasher. Love Ben Johnson and Jamie Lee Curtis, great performances. A good slasher to show people who don't normally love slashers I think cause the film is intriguing, the lead characters are likable, and the kills aren't too gory either.