Halloween 2002: Terror Train - Page 1
It's that time of year again for my favorite holiday, so let's ask the musical question ... Got a favorite "Mad Slasher" film for Hallow's Eve?

Halloween [1978] doesn't count; that's a bona fide masterpiece of cinema under any considerations. I'm talking about slasher movies -- low budget teenage exploitation films packed with foul language, dope smoking, beer chugging, bare breasts, and some wacko slinking around driving spikes through people's heads. Halloween is very much a work of art -- I am not interested in "art" with my question. I am talking about trash.

There are some OK choices -- the first Friday the 13th movie [1979], Motel Hell [1980] and it's Norman Rockwell cannibals, the overlooked My Bloody Valentine [1981], Nightmare on Elm Street [1985] before Freddy Kreuger became a lovable muppet, up to the recent self-aware Scream and Urban Legends movies where the characters "know" they are in a horror movie. Even the unforgettable Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974] would be a good pick. Anyone who has paid attention to what the kids have been going to see since John Carpenter's never surpassed Halloween has sat through at least one "Mad Slasher on the Loose" movie [usually on video or cable; I myself don't go to films like these, and first saw this film entirely by chance]. And while it is an often repugnant genre there are some examples of inspiration amidst all of the riot and clamor.

If I had to pick one, Terror Train would be my "favorite", mostly because of how ridiculous it is, yet still managing to succeed by being happy to revel in it's preposterous nature; The filmmakers were aware they were making garbage and stuck within the implied boundaries. As such they made interesting garbage, and it looks like they had fun doing so. Shot on a very modest budget in Canada and featuring no less than scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in her traditional role of embattled resourceful sexy heroine, it was one of many otherwise disreputable movies released between 1979 and 1982 that were a direct result of Halloween's enormous commercial impact. Each entry seemed to fuel the barbarism of the next with more bodies and increasingly graphic brutality. Terror Train is just as barbaric, but because it was made at the beginning of the "dead teenager" cycle it does not entirely follow their inevitable, stultifying formula. The movie has some very effective and intriguing moments, crafted by director Roger Spottiswoode [who had worked as an editor on many of Sam Peckinpah's films, and would go on to helm the 1997 Pierce Brosnan Bond Tomorrow Never Dies] with veteran Stanley Kubrick cameraman John Alcott behind the lens -- one of the people responsible for the look of The Shining, also from 1980; maybe this was his warm-up. It actually turned out better than it probably had to be.

While never a box office hit -- though the movie has developed an inevitable cult following due to Ms. Curtis' presence -- the film and her performance were both good enough to further solidify Jamie Lee as America's favorite damsel in distress for the Reagan years. This time out Curtis appears as one of a group of pre-med student fraternity brothers and their associated girlfriends who play a vicious initiation prank on a geekazoid pledge named Kenny [actor Derek McKinnon, who made exactly one other movie after his big break as a psycho killer run amok]. Kenny goes bonkers, evidently kills someone, and is tossed into a mental ward [though the only onscreen manifestation of the boy's insanity is his apparent fixation with twirling around in his underwear and screaming in an electronically slowed down voice]. His tormentors proceed to party it up & otherwise enjoy college life. Innocent Jamie Lee was of course not "in" on the prank, played along as a favor to her best friend, resents being involved in the tragic fiasco, and even tries to visit poor Kenny in the hospital to apologize. She's always so sweet ...

Flash forward three years; The same bozos are now staging an elaborate "good-bye bash" on a chartered locomotive for New Year's Eve to take them on a Disco Boogie round trip through the isolated Canadian winterland, where they will have no hope of outside help if anything goes wrong. HEY, GOOD IDEA, GUYS. Kenny is of course now out of the mad house, hungry for revenge, engineers an elaborate ruse to get him on board, and the killings start before the party train even rolls out of the station. It's also a costume party, so Kenny dons his victims' identity concealing masks as he murders his way through the principal cast members who were in on the prank [including dressing up as someone's girlfriend, complete with ring and nail polish]. This sets up such amusing moments as when the slutty girlfriend hops into bed with the killer, victims buddying up to the disguised Kenny to have a fatal drink with him, the whole subtext that nobody may really be who they seem, or that it all could be an elaborate prank. We also get an intriguing sequence where the killer lures one of the frat brothers into a bathroom and murders him by smashing his face into a mirror; The body is found by ever reliable Ben Johnson playing the Conductor, who fetches a fellow crew member, returns to the lavatory he locked behind himself, and finds the costumed victim apparently just drunk on the now spotless floor. Huh.

Why is this intriguing? Because the killer not only found time to clean up the blood we saw spattered everywhere and dispose the body, but also had a replacement mirror handy, since when we return to the bathroom after the murder the mirror is is noticeably intact. While that may be a simple continuity error, there are other interesting "touches" that suggest what we are watching might be someone's dream, or nightmare; The train's engineers disappear. They aren't killed, their characters just vanish from the movie. One of the frat brothers is basically knifed in front of a crowd of people and quietly bleeds to death before anyone notices, and then the revelers continue to party as his buddy screams for help. Kenny is able to magically transport his person into train compartments and conceal himself under seats while the character who he is disguised as is in a different part of the train, surrounded by witnesses. Also, out of all magicians to hire, how did they end up booking the one who just may be a psycho killer out to get them? Then again, party organizers Doc [Hart Bochner, looking like he needs someone to beat the shit out of him just for the sake of society] and Mo [some other schnook who's name slips my ability to care; what a pair of names -- Doc and Mo] both remark that they aren't sure just who hired the magician, but agree it was a cool idea anyway. Interesting.

It would be fanciful to inject that these touches were worked in to deliberately to manipulate and confuse the viewers, but I suspect cinematic incompetence is the real culprit. Terror Train's screenplay is strictly pedestrian, the performances either wooden or hysterical, the film making straight forward in it's storytelling [not one deliberately "arty" shot, unless you consider footage of a train rumbling through the night to be arty], and the whole Who done it? premise is non-existent [though the killer's "true identity" is cleverly kept secret until the last possible moment]. We all know it's Kenny, we all know who has been murdered in what order, and thus know who it really is underneath whatever mask he happens to have on. But it is still unsettling, because the question becomes when will he lash out in violence, not if he will. There is also almost nonstop, improbable footage of party-hearty revelers [one of the fetching gals played by a pre-Prince Vanity, billed under her given name] who keep on disco dancing, drinking and smoking dope as the principals are being killed. What the hell is going on here? Are we in fact looking at someone's nightmare? If not, the film doesn't make much sense at times.

I make light of Terror Train, but it is still a fun movie for those with a taste for this kind of entertainment. The setting of an old passenger train makes for all sorts of little darkened compartments and nooks for Kenny to hide in, and the costume party idea allows for two truly creepy moments as the slutty girlfriend snuggles up with the killer in different disguises. One of the masks he dons is supposedly Groucho Marx, but I agree with an online reviewer who points out it's unsettling resemblance to film critic Gene Shalit, and do not believe for a second that it's a coincidence -- they deliberately curled the hair up or something. I am also intrigued by just how Kenny set this all up, right down to having copies of the conductor's passkeys to various compartments and enough familiarity with the train to get about unnoticed between costume changes. Again, interesting ... maybe he is a ghost, or a bogeyman inhabiting the guilt ridden nightmare of Curtis' character.

What I am not intrigued by is the presence of magician David Copperfield playing, you guessed it, a magician, who performs his acts with a disco soundtrack and accompanying light show. Far out. His character is a vain, self centered dirtbag who gets extremely jealous when he isn't the center of attention [typical serial killer trait]. He even starts getting a "thing" for Jamie Lee and floats a rose around in the air for her in the movie's weakest single moment. But this is just a set-up for the red herring introduced when it's discovered that Kenny was a magic buff ... could he be .... The Magician? Copperfield's presence in the film accomplishes three things -- it annoys us, provides a false ending, and kills screen time with his photogenic phony looking face peering intensely while levitating playing cards or whatever: even the forced tension between him and Bochner's equally pig headed Doc is pathetic at best. Cast an actor as a magician next time if you want acting, not an actual magician.

Ben Johnson's presence in the film is much more interesting, mostly because I cannot figure out for the life of me what drew his talent to this script. He probably did it as a favor to Spottiswoode [whom he certainly would have met via their work with Peckinpah in 1972's The Getaway] on his first directorial effort -- Johnson gets top billing even over Ms. Curtis, and has more lines. Other than Jamie Lee he is also the only person in the film who bothers to "act", and manages to eventually conjure up the screen persona that made him such a memorable presence in so many films as a Man of Action [my favorite Ben Johnson role naturally being his appearance in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch from 1969]. You can feel safe around him, and in the film's final moments it is Johnson who gets to bash Kenny in the head with a coal shovel, knock him out the door and into a frozen river to drown. He and Curtis also act surprisingly chummy; they casually touch each other a lot for two people who have supposedly never met and have several decades between their ages. I wonder what directional decision led to that ...

Other oddities; Lots of exposition dialogue between the train's crew members go absolutely nowhere, other than to establish that they work on a train, something that we already know because they are on a train in the first place. The locomotive has no radio on it or other way to signal the outside world for help, always a good idea when hurtling down the tracks at 50 miles per hour through the night on New Year's Eve with a bunch of rowdy frat boys throwing a costume bash. The "comic relief" character is killed off less than ten minutes into the film, and the rest of it is played more or less dead serious; what few jokes are in the script all fall flat. Supporting bit players appear in one scene where they have important lines, then are gone by the next scene and never reappear even though there is no way off the train [kind of like how people wander in and out of dreams inexplicably].

Then there is the strange discussion between Doc and Mo suggesting a homosexual attraction between them that I missed the first couple of times through . It makes one rethink Doc's motivation for being such an utter asshole -- he is "in the closet", resentful, and treats people like shit to vent his frustration ... Come to think of it, there are a lot of images of closets in this movie. It also explains why he snaps after his buddy Mo is killed, but just sort of shouts a lot after the death of his slutty girlfriend. Then there is the cross dressing female impersonator supporting player who turns out to play a pivotal role ... With Jamie Lee's rather androgynous appearance [Ms. Curtis' costume is a pirate, a very male character, and is wearing her hair like a member of Def Leppard], the male frat boy bonding, and Bochner looking misty eyed at Mo in every other shot, I see a subtle, amusingly subversive homosexual subtext at work that is unprecedented for a film like this of it's time. Just conjecture.

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