Roger Spottiswoode has had one of the more checkered careers in his field — from the sublime (Under Fire, And the Band Played On) to the ridiculous (Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). At least Spottiswoode began with a bang. His debut, Terror Train, is one of the more clever and resonant of the multitudinous slasher entries of the early ’80s. Sort of a cross between Murder on the Orient Express and the same year’s The Burning, it unfolds almost entirely aboard a moving train, rented by a bunch of pre-med students for a costume party. This setting allows the killer to cut a swath through the mostly drunk and stoned kids, climbing into their costumes after the brutal deed is done. At one point, the murderer even fools the train conductor (dependable old Ben Johnson, a long way from John Ford) into believing that a discovered corpse is merely dead drunk.
Terror Train ranks among the horror films I saw on cable at an impressionable age (I believe it was only the second R-rated movie I’d ever seen, The Final Conflict being the first); it has therefore gathered some nostalgic gravitas in my memory, but the relevant question is how well it has held up in the intervening 25 years. Some moments, such as a blatantly fake severed head, inspire more of a cringe than a flinch. And Jamie Lee Curtis, her early-’80s scream-queen career well under way, is stuck with a rather ill-defined and goody-goody character. Her Alana is essentially an undergraduate Laurie Strode, a little more comfortable with boys and booze but still boringly virtuous. Given the movie’s moral landscape, though, she needs to stand apart decisively from the act of cruelty that sets the whole rickety plot in motion.
And it’s a doozy. Three years prior, in the movie’s pre-credits sequence, dorkish frat pledge Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) is led into a bedroom bedecked with blinking lights and silk, with the promise of an exciting evening (or, more likely, an exciting two minutes) with Alana. She has been instructed to hide and urge Kenny into bed with what looks like a mannequin but isn’t. Alana is complicit in the prank without really knowing its extent: it turns out Kenny will be hitting the sheets with a fresh cadaver (ah, those irrepressible med students), the reveal of which drives him insane. Spottiswoode shoots this sequence as a whirling, frightening montage of laughing faces and Kenny’s twisting body caught up in the silk drapery of the canopy bed. As far as the IMDb can determine, Derek McKinnon plied his trade in only one other movie — as a hairdresser in the Canadian teen comedy Breaking All the Rules — and it’s a shame, because his transition from hopeful horniness to spastic horror is about as graceful, and disturbing, a slice of acting as any I’ve seen in a slasher film.
Back to the train. The prank, we learn, was the brainchild of smug frat boy Doc, played with exquisite shifty panache by Hart Bochner, who, as any fan of 1988’s Die Hard knows, specializes in assholes insulated from the realities of peril by their own bubble of self-satisfied entitlement. (In that film, Bochner was the bearded, coke-snorting yuppie who thought he could walk in and do a deal with Alan Rickman, who managed to look both bemused and fascinated by the idiot sitting before him.) Alana finds Doc disgusting; everyone else finds him lovably disgusting, because he may be a prick, but he’s a prick who knows how to throw a party. And the party aboard the train is also his brainchild. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Doc has delivered himself, and everyone involved in the prank on Kenny, into the ungentle hands of a vengeful Kenny, or at least someone killing on his behalf (the movie offers at least one red herring in the form of David Copperfield, who plays the magician entertaining the students at the party).
The killer warms up by sticking a sword through a strenuously unfunny Groucho Marx wannabe, to the relief of everyone in the audience, then dons the Groucho disguise himself and boards the train. It’s established early on that the train has no radio, so I guess that explains why nobody finds the corpse on the tracks and alerts Ben Johnson. The fact that nobody on the train can tell the obvious difference between the loudmouth dead Groucho and the silent killer Groucho is likewise explained by the presence of sex and drugs (not to mention disco). Everyone is simply too wasted, or too eager to get wasted or laid, to pay much attention to oddly-behaving people in costume. Soon, Killer Groucho becomes Killer Lizard, and Killer Lizard becomes someone who can sneak in and out of a magic performance and leave Doc’s best friend gut-slashed in his wake. This wakes Doc up, and Bochner ramps his game up to give one of the great unsung paranoid performances — locking himself inside one of the train’s compartments, flailing around to make sure the killer isn’t in there with him, and then…
Well, what we know better than we know our own names is that the contest will come down to Jamie Lee and the killer. The revelation of the killer’s hide-in-plain-sight disguise is amusing in retrospect, and makes subsequent viewings interesting, though McKinnon is obviously dubbed in some scenes to preserve the illusion. (In a Lois Siegel documentary from 1993, McKinnon turns up and sheds some light on why he was so convincing in his dual role. Look the director up; even to reveal the documentary’s name would give away the secret.) And Terror Train, from its mask-switching conceit to the ongoing magic show, is all about illusion. It also gets a lot of mileage out of the guilt of the victims, especially poor doomed Doc (I wished for a more prolonged and interpersonal confrontation between him and the killer, who you’d think would want to make Doc suffer far more than he does) and conscientious Alana.
I suppose the movie is just a little more skillfully done than many of its contemporaries, and whatever esteem I have for it is largely nostalgic, but at least it tries to be different, even if only in a high-concept way. You know all those Die Hard rip-offs that were billed as “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a boat”? Well, this is kind of The Burning on a train.