Thursday 31 December 2020

Terror Train (1980)

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Writer: T. Y. Drake
Stars: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner and David Copperfield

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Slasher movies had been around for a long while by the time Terror Train came along in 1980, but they were becoming a huge deal. Halloween had kicked off the genre’s classic era in 1978, courtesy in large part of its lead actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who cemented her stature as the leading scream queen of the day with The Fog, Prom Night and this film, all in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan the same year brought a conservative backlash against what they saw as a growing epidemic of violence on screen, and the studios got quickly on board, releasing over a hundred slashers between 1978 and 1984. This one was shot independently in Canada for $3.5m, but picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox, who contributed another $5m worth of marketing. While it isn’t the best of the slashers, it’s a particularly interesting one for a few reasons, including the fact that the majority of the film takes place on a moving steam train booked on New Year’s Eve as a celebration for Alana, who’s graduating early, making them a captive audience.

The primary one is that there’s an underlying theme of illusion, emphasised through the surprise presence of David Copperfield as a magician hired to perform at the party. We’ve probably all watched half a dozen slasher movies in which the identity of the killer is so obvious that we’ve shouted it at the screen, even though the line up of victims to be never pay any attention to us. Here, it’s a deliberately played theme. The killer doesn’t wear a single iconic mask to slap on the movie’s poster, instead consistently adopting the costume of the previous victim at every point. The task at hand for each of the potential victims on board the Terror Train is to see through the particular illusion shown them when the killer, whose identity we know from the very first scene, appears to them in a new disguise. If they can, then maybe they’ll have a chance at survival, though this is one heck of a party and most of them are drunk before they even get off the bus that takes them to the train.

Friday 25 December 2020

Christmas Evil (1980)

Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Stars: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn and Dianne Hull

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

There are so many Christmas horror movies out there (and others that may not be horror but are just as traumatising) that I may well write a book on just them, but I still needed to pick one for A Horror Movie Calendar. I avoided Black Christmas, as that’s too easy a choice and plumped for this one, which John Waters has described as “the greatest Christmas movie ever made”. As flawed as it is, it’s actually a surprisingly inventive look at Christmas and what the holiday means, wrapped up in slasher clothing. One thing I really like about it is that it seems to unfold in a world where there are no days that aren’t holidays, which is social commentary in itself. We watch Harry Stadling get out of bed in his Santa pyjamas, practice his Santa laugh and check his Santa belly as he hums a carol or three, in an apartment decorated like a greeting card. He works at a toy factory and Frank has him cover his late shift so he can take his wife out of town for the holidays. It’s so obviously Christmas, we’re shocked to discover that it’s really Thanksgiving.

Harry rings his brother Phil to tell him that he won’t make it over for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s busy watching Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the announcer pointing out that it’s his first appearance of the season. That prompts Harry to shift into overdrive with his preparation for Christmas and a quick montage highlights that he’s not alone. The stores promptly put out their Christmas displays, Christmas trees go up in public squares and, no doubt, on the 1980 equivalent of Facebook, people would moan about how soon this is all happening. Heck, we haven’t even got to Halloween yet and everything’s suddenly Christmas. In Harry’s world, Thanksgiving and Halloween don’t exist, because the Christmas season lasts for all twelve months of the year. To Harry, the day after his Christmas-themed Thanksgiving is his work’s Christmas party and the day after that is Christmas Eve. And, we know from the intro, which took place on Christmas Eve in 1947 when Harry was a child, that’s a gigantic #C54245 Christmas Red flag.