Retro Review: ‘Terror Train’

As any horror fan worth their weight in fear will tell you, Jamie Lee Curtis is an undoubted icon of the genre. Like Vincent Price before her, she is rightly idolized by lovers of scary movies, but also carries a sense of respectability with the laypeople as well. There is of course her groundbreaking work in the Halloween franchise, but also the likes of Prom Night, The Fog, Road Games, and 1980’s oft-overlooked Terror Train.

At a New Year’s Eve frat party, Alana is reluctantly pulled into a break which leaves her awkward classmate Kenny traumatized by a stolen corpse from the medical lab. Three years later the fraternities and sororities that participated in the fateful party hold a costume party aboard a train, but someone in a stolen costume sneaks into the festivities. Alana tries to have a good time, but she ends up in the center of the subtly growing threat. Naturally, Kenny starts his path of revenge and it is only a matter of time before the bodies start piling up.

The film was 20th Century Fox’s first foray into the slasher genre, helmed by a first time director in Roger Spottiswoode. It is clear that the powers that be went full-steam ahead on Terror Train with top notch production values. Spottiswoode takes full advantage of this and directs this suspenseful slasher like a pro. With the claustrophobia-inducing main setpiece constantly filled with something going on and and a psycho lurking around in hiding a good scare scene can come from anywhere. Where the film does falter is in its tone and pacing, as it tries to be both an Agatha Christie inspired mystery and a slasher film and often takes far too long trying to figure out which one it is really trying for. But by the end it does straighten the course for a strong finish even if the villain is not exactly going to be a contender among the best in 80’s horror. The rookie filmmaker finds a way to bring the best out of his cast which includes young inexperienced actors, veterans like Ben Johnson, and even a non-actor in David Copperfield. At the center of this ensemble is Jamie Lee Curtis who effortlessly carries the flick as its undoubted star. She is at once the final girl archetype while still displaying a wisdom and strength beyond her character’s years.

One of the more underrated horror flicks from Curtis’ filmography Terror Train is seemingly in the midst of a bit of a resurgence. It may not be the best movie, but it is worth a watch if for nothing else than Jamie Lee Curtis’ acting and the slick cinematography from the great John Alcott. Perhaps with a more menacing villain Terror Train would have made a bigger impact on the mass audiences upon its initial release, but it is an entertaining horror movie nonetheless.