Saturday, January 23, 2010

The past comes a'slashing on the 'Terror Train'

Terror Train (1980)
Staring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, and Derek McKinnon
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

On New Year's Eve, a murderer is stalking and killing a group of college students onboard a moving train that's host to a costume party. As the victim's pile up, Alana (Curtis) discovers the link between them... and realizes that she is likely to be next.

"Terror Train" is a cross between "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Halloween" (the original... not the turdish 2007 remake). It's got a great setting from which a host of possible victims can't escape, it's got gory kills, and it's got a killer who is moving freely among his (or her) unsuspecting victims, and the killer's identity is even one that be puzzled out by an attentive viewer before the characters realize it, so it's a movie that plays fair like any good mystery does. It's a film that should please those who like lots of suspense and mystery in their slasher-movies, although there are a couple of gory moments to keep the other half happy, as well. (Like most early--and superior--slasher-films, however, most of killing happens off-screen and is left mostly to the imagination of the audience).

Three primary elements combine to make this film the successful thriller that it is.

First, it features some great acting and sound design. The way the actors occassionally sway while moving through the train hallways and the everpresent train-sounds lend a great deal of believability to the film, more than is found in many movies set on trains where little details like uneven and constant motion beneath the actors' feet is often forgotten by sloppy directors.

Second, it features some fine performances by actors who are working with a meaty script. Ben Johnson as the firm-handed train conductor, and Jamie Lee Curtis as yet another "Survivor Girl" (to borrow a bit of terminology from "Behind the Mask") both get to fight the mad killer and be heroes. Curtis also gives what I feel is her best performance in any of her early films, including "Halloween" and "Halloween II". She's also positively gorgeous to look at throughout the movie. Hart Bochner also takes a turn as a truly dispicable character whom the viewer is almost glad to see get his.

Finally, the film features some great lighting and even better cinematography. These help to make the train set seem more real, but they also play a big part in making it frightening and in making help seem very far away when characters are confronted by the killer, even if it might be just a few yards along in the next train car.

Although rumor has it that director Roger Spottiswoode is embarrassed over having made this movie, I think "Terror Train" is an underappreciated movie that is worth seeking out.

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