Terror Train (1980)
In the shadow of Halloween comes another slasher film but this one has a few legs up on many of the thrillers that populated movie screens across North America and beyond at the time. It stars the premier scream queen of the era, Jamie Lee Curtis and an Oscar winner who never gets caught acting. It’s Ben Johnson on board as the train’s head conductor. It’s also the debut directorial effort for Roger Spottiswoode who has gone on to a long career of varying success.
It’s a New Year’s Eve setting when the past comes back to haunt a group of graduating med students who pulled a not so funny hazing prank on an unsuspecting student during their first year of university. It’s a prank that left emotional scars as well on Jamie Lee Curtis who had no idea how far the joke was to go when a virginal teen thinks he’s going to bed his first girl only to discover his tormentors have put an autopsy specimen in his bed.
Fast forward to the present as the cast is boarding a party train overseen by Ben Johnson and featuring a magical act from the one and only David Copperfield who may be more than a red herring as the bodies begin to litter the box cars. The fact that the celebrations are also a masked costume party keeps the identity of our killer a secret till the unveiling.
No this isn’t Trading Places with Dan & Eddie looking for the orange crop report. Hey, that also stars Jamie Lee as well! That makes two train going New Year’s Eve parties for Janet and Tony’s beautiful daughter. Which reminds me, “Where in the hell is Beeks?”
As the alcohol inducing crowd boards the train, a sword wielding party goer with a rather freaky looking mask leaves one student to be crushed under the wheels of the train in gratuitous fashion that is thankfully left mainly to one’s imagination. Copperfield magic tricks, Jamie Lee with boyfriend troubles and Ben finding a bloody mess of a lizard man in the bathroom are about to ensue as the train rolls into the night towards the new year.
When another victim is left with her throat cut, Ben and Jamie know there’s a killer out to slaughter the students on board and Jamie suspects it’s the hazing victim from so long ago. Could it be Copperfield and his illusion skills that are behind the murders? Jamie believes it is and panic quickly settles in to the student body on board. Screams from our scream queen are bound to follow and can kindly old Ben use some of those laid back cowboy skills to rope in a killer?
I hadn’t seen this one in years and will admit to finding it way better than I remember with a perfectly fast running time of 97 minutes. It’s far tamer than I recall as well but that’s not surprising as it’s what one imagines more often than not that stays with you. Perhaps less so in today’s world of gore films that have gone so far as to leave very little left for the mind’s eye to imagine.
Feel free to correct me but I believe this is David Copperfield’s only acting role where he isn’t using his real name in a cameo of sorts. Sure he’s still Copperfield but isn’t billed that way, only as The Magician and the fact that he may be our killer gives him an acting role as opposed to a guest starring role as himself. I love the fact that old Ben tries his luck at slight of hand tricks though he has nothing on Copperfield.
As a bona fide disciple of The Wild Bunch, I remember when this came out and seeing Ben’s name on the credit list and not being quite sure if it was the same Johnson. I wasn’t old enough to see this at the theater so would have to wait for the VHS rental and sure enough there was old Ben minus the horse but riding the rails and bringing that gentle screen presence he’d cultivated to the horror genre.
I also had to do a quick double take seeing what I thought to be the beautiful Vanity in here but not spotting her name in the opening credits. The reason is simple. She’s billed under the name D.D. Winters. No matter the name because for me this Canadian born entertainer will always be the gorgeous woman who starred opposite Carl Weathers in Action Jackson. Following her retirement from the screen in 1997 she’d pass away at just 57 years of age in 2016.
A fun revisit from the days of Jamie Lee’s prime years as a Scream Queen who still dabbled with the genre in the ensuing years and is slated to appear opposite Michael Myers once again in the latest Halloween rendition due out in 2018. Scream Factory put Terror Train out on blu ray for those who collect this sort of thing. Yup, that means me.