Terror Train

4 out of 5

Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode

For a movie that was very purposefully aping Halloween – a slasher which plays on events from the past; a killer’s penchant for masks and knives; Jamie Lee Curtis as the final girl – Terror Train manages to stand out as not only unique in the genre, but also surprisingly strong from a visual and writing perspective, neither of which is a requirement for a baseline slasher, let alone a supposed rip-off. That also means I’m a little surprised this isn’t high up on top ranked lists. I mean, I do believe it tends to qualify as a classic in certain conversations, but it’s always lumped in with the same breath as Halloween, like something you can watch as a supplement. But Terror Train deserves much more than that.

The setup is a bit clunky – a frat prank gone wrong leads to the victim seeking revenge years later, during a New Years party of that same frat (and friends) on an overnight train – and some of the reasoning regarding how the killer goes about their business seems questionable, but those are, perhaps, the artifacts of the slasher genre that form the framework the film uses. Beyond that, the reasoned responses of the party-goers and conductor as dead bodies pile up actually helps keep the tension higher than would everyone just screaming at each other and acting dumb – filmmakers, even decades on, please take note – and the film manages to effect some really good red herrings and its twist without making it feel cheap. Director Roger Spottiswoode and, perhaps moreso classic DP John Alcott, milk tons of ambience out of train corridors and tight quarters – although the actual geography of the train never quite comes together, and that would’ve helped some cat and mouse moments – and the script (T.Y. Drake) and pace give the actors room to breathe personality into their roles, which they prove plenty capable of doing, combining with the logical proceedings to make the film fun to follow along from murder to murder, instead of just a waiting game for bloodshed.

So, yes, the timing and presence of Ms. Curtis perhaps tends to make this seem like an also-rans slasher, but that’s really unfair. Terror Train only vaguely aligns with its Halloween inspiration, otherwise wholly standing on its own, and furthermore standing above most peers thanks to being an actual movie with characters and not just fodder for violence.