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Face-Off: Prom Night vs. Terror Train

Forty years ago, Jamie Lee Curtis made her feature debut in John Carpenter's classic HALLOWEEN, and later this month she'll be returning to that franchise for a rematch with iconic slasher Michael Myers. Curtis doesn't often appear in horror movies days, but after the original HALLOWEEN she went on a horror streak - between '78 and HALLOWEEN II in '81, she had appeared in four more horror movies and thrillers. In anticipation of the new HALLOWEEN sequel, we decided to put two of Curtis's non-HALLOWEEN slasher films against each other for this week's Face-Off. Paul Lynch's PROM NIGHT and Roger Spottiswoode's TERROR TRAIN both have Curtis as their heroine... But which will win when they go head-to-head?

JAMIE LEE CURTIS

In PROM NIGHT Jamie Lee Curtis plays Kim Hammond, a teenage girl with a tragic past: her younger sister died in an accident when they were little kids, and the situation is made even worse by the fact that the Hammond family doesn't know it was an accident, they believe the girl was murdered by a sexual predator. Kim tries not to let that get her down, though. She's focused on enjoying her prom, where she will be prom queen, and she tries to make sure her friends, her brother, and herself all have good dates. Then she treats those who attend the prom to an extended dance routine. Kim doesn't have a lot of substance, but she does have the moves.

Jamie Lee Curtis's TERROR TRAIN character Alana Maxwell spends the majority of her scenes being upset, and it's understandable - after being foolish enough to participate in a disgusting prank at a party, she now finds herself stuck at another party being thrown by the same douchebag. She should be even more upset about what happened at the previous party, so upset that she doesn't even hang out with any of these people anymore. This makes her seem kind of weak at first, but when things go wrong Alana steps up, shows concern for the people around her, and does what she can to try to bring the situation to an end. She becomes a decent heroine.

SLASHER

The killer in this film spends an early stretch making raspy phone calls to their intended victims, asking one "Can you come out to play tonight?", telling another "Tonight it's my turn." There's no indication of what the killer is talking about; the victims will find out at the prom. When the killer is revealed, they don't have an iconic look. This person just took the black ski mask, black gloves, black clothes route. The look is simple, but they still manage to commit most of the murders they were planning to, with a couple bonuses along the way.

This slasher takes a unique approach to their killing spree in that they are constantly switching up their costume. There are plenty to choose from, since they're killing people at a costume party on board a train. Disguises include a Groucho Marx mask, a lizard costume, an old man mask, and even some time dressed in drag. Having the killer changing masks all the time was a clever touch that works well for the film. After whittling down the cast, they finally get to reveal their true identity, and it's a train passenger I never suspected.

ATMOSPHERE

PROM NIGHT begins with what I count as one of the creepiest, most disturbing sequences ever: the inciting incident that involves a group of kids playing a twisted version of Tag where they called themselves Killers, chasing each other around in an abandoned school on a bright afternoon. There's an odd haze that hangs over the entire movie, and with an assist from the score it gives an unsettling edge to even the most innocuous scenes... which is a good thing, because it takes its time building up to the kills.

TERROR TRAIN has a naturalistic style. The film's very dark look and cold tone are quite fitting, given that it takes place on a train chugging through a vast, snowy countryside. The coldness extends to the characters, though. Aside from the kindly conductor, there aren't many likeable characters to connect with in this film. They're an unpleasant bunch for the most part, and we're stuck with them for the duration of this train trip. This is a film that feels more strange and uncomfortable to me than creepy.

KILLS

You have to wait over an hour for the slashing to really get going, but there are a few kills in here that make it all worthwhile. A throat slitting presented with a slow motion extreme close-up of the victim's face isn't a great start, but among the deaths to follow is a shockingly quick throat stabbing (with multiple stabs), a cool decapitation, and even a van crashing off a cliff and exploding.

The kills in TERROR TRAIN are kind of underwhelming, but one that sticks with me happens right up front. It involves a guy in a Groucho Marx mask and a pith helmet getting impaled with a sword and then bleeding out. Later you get a face smashed into a mirror, the discovery of a severed head, and a dead David Copperfield, but none of them live up to the very first kill in the film as far as I'm concerned.

FINAL CONFRONTATION

Curtis didn't get to participate in the final chase this time around. That duty falls to a character who doesn't make it to the end credits - and it's a pretty decent chase, going all through the high school while the prom is being held in the gymnasium. Kim's interaction with the slasher is very brief, as she doesn't even know murders are taking place until the last 5 minutes. While her boyfriend handles the climactic fight, all Kim has to do is whack the killer on the head with an axe. She delivers the killing blow, but it's not a triumph.

I don't enjoy TERROR TRAIN all that much for most of its running time, but it makes up for a lot of the issues I have with it during the final chase and climactic confrontation, which take up about 14 minutes. Curtis's Alana is turned into a bloody, screaming mess while running from and fighting the killer, and just when she thinks the fight is over the killer comes back for more. It ends in the way I hoped it would: a movie on a train should end with the villain getting knocked off the train, ideally when it's going over a bridge.

TERROR TRAIN

I've never been a big fan of TERROR TRAIN, so when I started working on this Face-Off I expected it to lose. And yet, here we are somehow, TERROR TRAIN has pulled off a victory over PROM NIGHT. It wins by making Jamie Lee Curtis's character more aware of what's going on around her, by giving the slasher more interesting styles, and by having a better confrontation between its heroine and villain. I may not like hanging out with that movie's characters, but in these categories it has enough positive aspects to beat PROM NIGHT.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you think PROM NIGHT should have won? (As I expected it to.) Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].

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