By James Porter
“The boys and girls of Sigma Phi, some will live, some will die.”
I’ll let you in on a little something—I like trains. I grew up watching Thomas the Tank Engine, I’ve owned three model train sets in my lifetime (one of which I still have the locomotive displayed on my desk), and I’m looking to volunteer at the local railroad museum. So, movies with trains call to me, regardless of the quality. Terror Train is no exception. Even though I understood fully before watching it that it was likely a generic, low-quality, teen slasher film, I was still drawn to Terror Train. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, Terror Train was his directorial debut before going on to make other movies like Tomorrow Never Dies and Turner & Hooch.
The story is as basic as they come. A group of frat boys played a humiliating prank on the school nerd that doesn’t go as planned, resulting in the victim going insane and being shipped off to a psychiatric hospital. Fast forward three years. The whole class is invited to their graduation party (which is, oddly, a costume party), set aboard a train. Naturally, someone else is on board the train as well (I wonder who). This extra passenger is bent on killing everybody involved in the prank, donning other peoples’ costumes in order to move about the train undetected.
Even though I didn’t expect this to be anything more than a bad slasher film set on a train, I still expected more than what I got. The film only got about three murders in before people started realizing there was a killer on board the train. The first two-thirds of the movie yielded very little: three kills by the killer, shots of everybody having fun at the party, the employees of the train investigating the bodies and trying to keep them under wraps to avoid a panic, Alana, the girl who reluctantly played a part in the prank three years ago (Jamie Lee Curtis), getting mad at Doc Manley (Hart Bochner) for his womanizing, and the rest of the class enjoying a magic show being put on by David Copperfield (yes, THE David Copperfield is in this movie). So, thoroughly predictable, but just not that well executed, even for those who love the genre.
If I had to point out some high points, I’d highlight Copperfield’s impressive tricks in this movie—feats that were pretty cool for 1980. Plus, while you can probably guess who the killer is from the beginning of the movie, they at least play around with the identity a bit in an interesting way that I will not spoil for you.
In the end, I probably wouldn’t recommend watching Terror Train unless you’re a diehard fan of the genre. Not much happens until the last third of the movie, the characters are either flat or dull, and aside from some neat playing around with it, you could probably guess the identity of the attacker from the get-go. The train drew me in (which ended up having a minor role in the movie), but wasn’t enough to make it worth it.