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.

We know the killer is Kenny Hampson, because that’s set up immediately in the opening scene from three years earlier. Our cast of characters, who are freshmen at the time, set up poor Kenny to walk into a dorm room with dubious lighting for a date with Alana Maxwell, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character. Stripped down to his underwear, he climbs into bed with her, only to find that she’s a falling apart corpse that Doc Manley snuck over from the medical school, where he was working as a janitor. Kenny freaks, tangles himself up in the netting of the bed’s canopy and almost strangles himself to death, watched by the crowd of students who snuck in for the grand reveal. Later we learn that he didn’t die but was admitted into a psychiatric hospital, where he’s presumably been ever since. Alana quickly regretted the prank, even attempting to visit Kenny in hospital, but Doc, the sociopath that he is, never changed. In fact, the only reason Alana’s on the train is because her boyfriend, Mo, pretended that it was his idea rather than Doc’s.

Of course, this all ties to a fraternity, Epsilon Phi Omega, and it’s probably fair to say that the world is divided into those who watch sex comedies and slasher movies from the eighties and wish that they’d pledged to a fraternity and those who watch the same films and give thanks that they never did. And, if there’s any reason for us to sympathise with the frat boys, that reason vanishes as soon as we twig that their prankish ringleader, Doc, is played by the same actor, Hart Bochner, as played Ellis in Die Hard. I actually want to start working through his filmography just to see if there’s one title in which we don’t want him to die quickly and horribly. He’s probably the nicest guy in the world but, my goodness, he plays an asshole so damn well. Kudos to writer T. Y. Drake for keeping us waiting for satisfaction for so long. Patience is a virtue, my friends. We have Curtis and Copperfield and a host of other distractions to keep us busy, including a young lady named D. D. Winters, who would soon be discovered by Prince and renamed Vanity.

We know from the moment the train arrives that things are going to be lively. This is the last big college party for Alana and maybe some of her friends, even if the rest may have another year to go before they graduate pre-med. “My goodness gracious,” says the engineer when he catches sight of them. That’s Carne, played by veteran actor Ben Johnson, who apparently had a blast making a feature in which almost everyone else was a third of his age. “It’s a rotten crowd,” suggests David Copperfield, who was young and affordable here, but still established, given that he’d joined the Society of American Magicians at the record-breaking age of twelve, taken the lead role in The Magic Man at eighteen and hosted his first magic special on TV at nineteen. He was 24 at this point, on his way to becoming the highest grossing solo entertainer in history. It’s fantastic to watch him work in close quarters and, while he’s one note throughout, it’s exactly the right note: talented, arrogant and ominous.

That’s because we’re being set up to believe that Copperfield might be Kenny Hampson, which we don’t buy into until we grasp just how frickin’ cool it would be. Certainly he was there on the platform around the time the first death happens, as Ed the class clown is run through with a magician’s sword before he can even get onto the train. His Groucho Marx costume and his cheap gags do, so prompting the rest of the students to believe that Ed’s around somewhere. Only we and the killer know that he isn’t. His corpse was left behind, run over by the train as it left the station. Ed’s dead, baby. Ed’s dead. Later, we start wondering where Copperfield was during each other murder. Was he really on the tiny stage performing in front of drunk students or was he wandering through the train, impressing people with close up magic and flirting with Alana? While we’re a little surprised at the disco music playing as he levitates his lovely assistant and makes her disappear, he still thrills us. Hey, the boy might have a career!

One neat idea the script has is for the bodies to be discovered not by other students, thus sparking a wide alarm, but by Carne, who must start to believe that they’re messing with him. The first one he finds is Jackson, his corpse left inside his lizard suit in a toilet, with blood all over the walls. Sure, he’s staged to be drunk but Carne checks for a pulse and there isn’t one. However, when he gets one of his colleagues to check out the scene, the blood is all gone and the lizard man is alive, albeit in serious need of help to get off the floor and stumble off to bed. Of course, it’s Kenny Hampson in his latest borrowed outfit and Carne can perhaps be forgiven for not realising that he’d changed colour. Hey, he’s entirely contained in a lizard suit and Carne doesn’t know him from Adam. It’s the other students who are actually challenged by these costume change-driven illusions and it’s harder to explain away their failures, which is, of course, entirely the point. If they’re that surface about people they’ve known for three years, will they be missed?

The original idea for Terror Train came from producer Daniel Grodnik, who eventually took an executive producer role because the film was shot in Canada for tax reasons and Grodnik was American. He wanted “Halloween on a train”, which is one fair way to look at the result, especially with Jamie Lee Curtis as the final girl. He even ran the idea past a couple of his friends, John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who hade made Halloween, and they gave them their blessings for the project. And no, that wasn’t a spoiler about Curtis; did you honestly slate anyone else for the final girl? There are some serious differences between the two films, though, such as the earlier picture being deliberately sparse, Michael Myers floating around the suburbs of Haddonfield, mysteriously appearing out of nowhere to loom ominously across the street. Terror Train, on the other hand, is incredibly busy, everything unfolding within tight spaces, the killer lost in the claustrophobic crowds of drunken students, potentially right next to them in any direction.

They shot on a real train, leasing an engine and five cars from the Steamtown Foundation in Vermont, a museum that had run their own steam excursions for the past couple of decades. They repainted them black and redecorated the insides, but cinematographer John Alcott had further work to do to in order to make the shoot viable. He rewired the entire train and fitted dimmers outside the carriages, so that he could light the set quickly and appropriately. He lit individual faces with pen lights and even Christmas lights. Of course, the train didn’t move during takes, the illusion of motion created by crews rocking the carriages by hand. However, the frat house at the beginning was actually a frat house, at McGill University in Montreal, the very first scene shot on the last but one day, only the killer’s death scene still to come. And that’s so cold that the stunt man couldn’t deal with the temperature. Literally.

The most interesting behind the scenes idea was the choice to cast the killer from outside of usual channels. According to debuting director, Roger Spottiswoode, who would go on to helm films as far from the genre as Turner & Hooch and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, though the latter was admittedly horrific if not horror, the 6’2” Derek McKinnon wasn’t even an actor. “He was a transvestite from the streets of Montreal,” he said, an awkward person to work with because he didn’t grasp the concept of showing up on time, but, “He was familiar with that world of cheap theater and was strangely effective.” He appears in a whole host of different forms here, as if he’s playing every regeneration of the Doctor in a single movie, and, while his acting talent is clearly minimal, he does have an effective presence. Certainly, he plays one of the more interesting slashers in that genre’s far from stellar history. Incidentally, his time in the movies wasn’t up, as he went on to a smattering of other roles, as actor and even producer.

I’m assuming that everything in contemporary time in Terror Train happens on New Year’s Eve, because nobody ever counts down to midnight or sings Auld Lang Syne, though admittedly they might all have been distracted by the simple act of survival on a train that they’re sharing with a prolific mystery murderer. However, the only real New Year’s Eve tradition that these students adhere to is the gigantic party they’re throwing. As the real holiday is New Year’s Day, with all the symbolism of rebirth that shifting one year forward carries, New Year’s Eve is, in most cultures, an opportunity to get drunk in preparation for that new beginning only hours away. The other commonplace traditions nowadays are fireworks, live music and the eating of specific foods, which vary by country. Some nations have particular midnight moments, such as the tolling of Big Ben in London or the Bosingak bell in Seoul or the drop of a twelve foot ball in Times Square. Me, I like the Scottish idea of raising a glass of whisky. Slainte!

No comments: