In just a few days, we'll be able to call it a wrap on a year that has been deeply disappointing for many of us in all sorts of ways. But even when there's a "good riddance" feel to the approaching end of the year, there's always one kind of entertainment that will help give my spirits a boost - slasher movies. While New Year's Eve isn't the most popular choice for a horror setting, there have been a few slashers made about the date (like nearly every other notable date), so it seemed to me that the best way to see 2016 off would be to pit two New Year's Eve slashers against each other - both 1980 releases, this week's contestants are Roger Spottiswoode's TERROR TRAIN and Emmett Alston's NEW YEAR'S EVIL.
For fraternity Sigma Phi Omega, New Year's Eve is celebrated with a bonfire party, during which all of the pledges have to get laid or face punishments. A pledge named Kenny thinks he's going to be hooking up with a girl named Alana, but this is set-up for a prank being played on him: when Kenny crawls into bed with who he thinks Alana, he finds that his bedmate is actually a mutilated cadaver put there by a pre-med student. This terrible prank causes Kenny to have a mental breakdown. His peers didn't realize Kenny was dangerous, that he had killed somebody before. When the brothers of Sigma Phi Omega and their friends celebrate New Year's Eve three years later with a costume party on a steam train, a disguised Kenny is among them, ready to kill those who wronged him. Of all the things that have inspired slashers, the cadaver prank is definitely one of the most disgusting.
"The First Lady of Rock", Blaze is so popular that she's hosting a four hour New Year's Eve celebration that's being broadcast across the United States. For the men in her life, she's a self-involved nightmare. She's so uncaring toward her mentally disturbed son that he's on the edge of succumbing to madness, and today her mentally disturbed husband Richard has officially lost his mind. He is fed up with the way Blaze treats him and their son, so as a way of lashing out at his wife he has decided that he's going to kill someone as the clock strikes midnight in every American time zone, building up to the murder of Blaze at midnight on the west coast. NEW YEAR'S EVIL is a somewhat dopey B-movie, but there is some reality in the concept of a lunatic blaming a loved one for their problems and being driven over the edge into murder. Judging by the news, it seems to happen all the time.
Kenny's primary targets are Doc, the scumbag prankster who provided the cadaver, and Alana, the girl who tricked him, but he enjoys taking some time building up to them by killing their best friends. There are several murders, but the death scenes are rather weak by slasher standards - we see a person stumbling around with a sword in his stomach and a face smashed into a mirror, the other deaths are presented mostly through their bloody aftermath.
Aside from when he kills Blaze's publicist, Richard chooses his victims at random. A nurse who works at the sanitarium where he was once a patient, a couple women who were out clubbing, a member of a biker gang that chases him in my favorite sequence in the movie - a sequence in which the slasher becomes the potential victim on the run. There's a suffocation and plenty of stabbings, but none of the kills really stand out as being particularly impressive.
TERROR TRAIN's greatest charm lies in the fact that Kenny regularly switches up his disguises, stealing the costumes of his victims. He starts off with a hideous Groucho Marx mask, trades it for a reptile costume, and ends up with the creepiest look of the bunch, an old man mask paired with a monk's robe. There's also a clear plastic mask in play at one point, and Kenny has his own unique disguise that he uses to infiltrate the party train. It's no way to create an icon, but it was a clever idea to have the killer switch costumes throughout the film.
Richard alters his appearance when he goes out for each kill, and actor Kip Niven's face does lend itself to looking multiple different ways with simple changes. Sometimes he's extremely creepy, then he's a handsome orderly, then he transforms himself into a swinging disco clubber with a bad mustache, then he's Blaze's loving husband. At one point he dons a priest collar, at another he puts on an odd mask. If you knew Richard you'd probably see through his disguises, but it's interesting to see how these different looks can affect Niven's screen presence.
I'm not the party type, but I have to admit that there is some appeal to the idea of having a party, complete with live music and a magic show, on a steam train chugging through the snowy wilderness. It would be even better if you managed to score one of the private rooms rather than getting stuck with the berths of the sleeping compartments. This is a party I might actually attend.
If you're a fan of new wave rock music from the late '70s/1980, the hotel ballroom that Blaze's Hollywood Hotline show is being broadcast from would probably be a fun place to be, if not for the fact that there are some major jerks in the audience. The film really looks down upon the sort of people who are drawn to Blaze's show, and thus this party doesn't look like the most pleasant place to be.
When Kenny gets really upset, he has an odd tendency to spin in circles while freaking out. This behavior ends up being his undoing, but before that ignoble end he does accomplish most of the goals he had in mind when he boarded the train. With the exception of Alana, who you know is going to survive because she's a heroine played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Kenny wipes out all of his enemies. If only he didn't like spinning so much.
For a man who wants to destroy his wife, Richard actually accomplishes very little toward this goal. The murder of her publicist does have an impact on Blaze, but otherwise he wastes his time with the random victims that she has no connection to. When Richard finally gets his shot at revenge in the climactic sequence, he manages to botch it by getting overly complicated. A common problem among killers in cinema.
It's interesting how Face-Off results don't always reflect my own personal tastes. TERROR TRAIN has its fans, but I have always had issues with it. NEW YEAR'S EVIL may not be as well made, but I find it to be a more enjoyable viewing experience. And yet when this Face-Off reaches its end, the movie I'm not as fond of takes the win in more categories. It has a better party setting, its killer wears better disguises, and he accomplishes more of what he set out to do, so TERROR TRAIN is the victor.
Do you agree with the outcome, or do you think NEW YEAR'S EVIL deserved the win? Which of these two films do you prefer? Share your thoughts on them in the comments section below, and also let us know if you have any horror-related New Year's Eve traditions. If you'd like to suggest future Face-Off pairings, you can contact me at CodyHamman@joblo.com.
Happy New Year!