(1980) Directed by Roger Spottiswoode; Written by: T.Y. Drake; Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, Derek McKinnon and David Copperfield.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Why do I love Canada so much? Is it the gorgeous scenery? The poutine? Tim Hortons? A reputation for residents who are unswervingly polite? Or is it something else I can’t quite put my finger on? Several excursions to my friendly neighbor to the north have neither confirmed nor denied these questions. Whatever it is, I can’t deny Canada’s many contributions to film over the years. As such, I’m delighted to be a part of the O Canada Blogathon, co-hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. My entry for the blogathon, Terror Train, is perhaps not the finest example of Canadian filmmaking, but it exemplifies the collaborative effort of some talented individuals to give us a few moderate chills and thrills, and heck, you can’t take that away.
Terror Train marked the directorial debut of Canadian-born Roger Spottiswoode, who went on to a successful, albeit uneven, career in Hollywood (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, anyone?). Filming took place in Quebec, which provided a suitably icy setting for the proceedings of this slasher flick on a train. The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, when a group of drunken pre-med students stage a mean-spirited prank for one of their naïve peers. After freshman Kenny, lured by the promise of casual sex, discovers a female cadaver in bed, the ensuing trauma of viewing the dismembered body sends him into a maniacal frenzy (Yeah, the psychology is a bit hazy). The story jumps ahead three years, and the students, sans Kenny, are taking a train trip to celebrate their impending graduation, but they’re accompanied by one uninvited passenger. Kenny’s returned, and wants revenge against his former classmates, wearing a mask that’s supposed to resemble Groucho Marx, but looks more like Gene Shalit. Over the next 90 minutes, he switches disguises as frequently as celebrity marriages dissolve, leaving us guessing where he’ll strike next.
You be the judge.
Jamie Lee Curtis, following the heels of Halloween, The Fog, and the Canadian production Prom Night, was rapidly becoming a hot property, solidifying her reputation, for good or ill, as a “scream queen.” Her character, Alana, was a co-conspirator in the freshman incident, along with current boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), and Doc (Hart Bochner), who still holds a flame for her. Curtis does the best she can with her underwritten character – the extent of her development is remorse for the cruel trick that was played on one of her fellow freshmen, and ambivalence for Mo.
Ben Johnson co-stars as Carne, the conductor with a heart of gold and a brain of sand. It’s hard to believe that he’s climbed the ranks to his position, considering his irresponsible, inept behavior. Pop quiz… You’re the conductor of a train, halfway through the middle of nowhere, and you’re the first to discover a body in one of the restrooms. What should you do first: A, Assemble the staff immediately to begin a thorough search for the killer; B, Lock up the restroom and task a trusted staff member to guard the entrance; C, Both A and B; or D, Walk away from the crime scene and pour yourself a stiff drink? If you chose D, then you might have what it takes to be the train conductor in this movie. Despite his character’s ample flaws, Johnson’s amiable performance shines through, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Carne is a dim bulb.
David Copperfield appears as (wait for it…) The Magician. He joins the party under mysterious circumstances and becomes an early suspect, but his role is primarily an excuse to perform his shtick to an amazed crowd. His scenes provide a couple fun interludes, but let’s face it, if David Copperfield is the highlight of your slasher movie, you have big problems. Despite his skills of prestidigitation, he can’t make a boom mic disappear in one scene.
One of Terror Train’s biggest offenses is the paucity of details throughout. The characters are vague sketches of college students. We have no idea what school they’re from, where they’re coming from, or where they’re going to (probably a deliberate effort by the filmmakers to convince us that the film’s events take place in the States, and not Canada). What follows is an exercise in boredom, without a single interesting conversation among them. The net effect is, there’s no one to really care about as the characters are picked off one by one. As if to add insult to injury, the aptly named group Crime, perform their non-hits, including one particularly obnoxious ditty, titled “Funky Love.”
To its credit, Terror Train features some impressive cinematography by John Alcott, known for his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, which is easily the best thing about this film. Alcott captures the dark, claustrophobic confines of the train, and the exterior shots of the train speeding along the tracks through a wintry night landscape add to the feeling of isolation. The film has all the right elements for a murder mystery including people trapped in a confined space, a revenge plot and jealous lovers, but somehow gets none of it right. What follows is an exercise in boredom (Tedium Train?). Admittedly, the slasher genre is not my usual cup of tea, but fans would be better served by the superior Canadian production Black Christmas.
This post is also a part of Pre'Ween 2014, sponsored by Movies at Dog Farm.