Wow. Fraternities are mean!
How else do you explain the prank that begins the 1980 slasher film, Terror Train? At a party, awkward pledge Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) is told that Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis) is waiting for him in an upstairs bedroom and she totally wants to have sex with him! Poor Kenny. Really, he should have been able to figure that this was a prank but I guess he’s just naive. Anyway, he goes upstairs, strips down to his underwear, and listens as Alana says, “Don’t be shy …. kiss me!”
Kenny thinks that Alana is waiting for him in the bed but actually, she’s hiding behind a curtain. So, what’s in the bed? Well, as Kenny soon discovers, it’s a limbless corpse! Oh, those wacky pre-med students! Under the direction of Doc (Hart Bochner), they’ve stolen a cadaver from the medical school and they’ve used it to play the joke of the century! Everyone bursts into the room, laughing.
Ha ha! Funny joke, right?
Well, not to Kenny. Kenny totally freaks out and starts spinning around and gets all wrapped up in the sheets. Needless to say, Kenny does not get laid that night.
In fact, Kenny ends up losing his mind. And that’s unfortunate but, as they say, life goes on. Three years later, the pranksters are all due to graduate so they’re going to throw a costume party on a train! The conductor (Ben Johnson) watches as these rich, costumed college kids get on his train and you can just tell that he’s thinking, “There better not be no funny business.” He need not worry! Alana is on the train and she still feels so bad over what happened to Kenny that you can be sure that there won’t be any pranks during this graduation party!
Unfortunately for everyone else, Kenny’s decided to get on the train as well. While his former classmates are smoking weed, getting drunk, dancing to the best disco music of 1980, and taunting a magician (David Copperfield), Kenny is killing people and stealing their costumes.
Kenny’s first victim actually dies before the train leaves. When he comes staggering up to everyone with a sword sticking out of him, everyone assumes that it’s just another joke. Nope! Turns out the sword is real but everyone’s too busy boarding to notice as the guy collapses to the ground and is promptly dragged underneath the train. In a scene that always makes me cringe, the train slowly crushes him as it starts to move forward. I mean, seriously …. Agck!
So, now Kenny is wandering around the train, dressed like Grouch Marx and killing people. It takes people a while to notice because we’re not exactly dealing with the smartest group of college graduates. And, once they do realize …. well, what are they going to do? They’re stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere! Even if they do get off the train, it’s snowing and below freezing outside! I mean, it’s almost as bad as Minnesota in January out there….
Of the many slasher films that Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in after Halloween, Terror Train is definitely the best. After making his directorial debut here, Roger Spottiswoode went on to become one of the busiest directors in Hollywood and you can tell why when you watch this movie. Spottiswoode’s makes great and atmospheric use of the train and Kenny’s habit of constantly changing his costume keeps you guessing just where he might be at any given time. Even more importantly, Spottiswoode takes the time to develop the characters so that they become more than just cardboard victims. Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Sandee Curris, and Timothy Webber all give excellent performance as the objects of Kenny’s wrath while old veteran Ben Johnson brings some gravitas to the film as the wise conductor.
(My only objection is that the worst of the pranksters is named Doc, which happens to be the name of our cat. And let me just say that Doc the cat would never pull as cruel a prank as Doc the medical student.)
As we all know, Jamie Lee Curtis will be returning to the horror genre later this month. She’ll be playing Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween remake or reboot or sequel or whatever it is. Famously, Curtis refused to appear in horror films for several years, saying that she didn’t want to be typecast. That was understandable on her part and, as much as I love horror movies, it was probably a smart career move. That said, the slasher films that Curtis appeared are some of the best of the genre. Halloween, Terror Train, and even Prom Night are all classics of their kind. Terror Train is a suspense masterpiece, perfect for any cold and snowy night when you want to scream a little.