The Test of Time: Terror Train (1980)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether or not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Hart Bochner

While Christmas is celebrated somewhat the same for folks (those who celebrate it of course), New Year’s Eve is a little harder to pin down. Oh sure, in the movies it’s always displayed with everyone wearing shiny, pointy hats, throwing confetti in the air, and blowing those party makers that whirl in and out, but life isn’t like the movies. I think I’ve been to one party that actually went that way. Maybe I never received an invite from a quality party or maybe it’s an overhyped holiday with impossible expectations.

Regardless of how the night ends, it’s an impossible holiday to avoid. With that said, it’s an occasion ripe for film. Within the world of horror, there’s been a few films set during those 24 hours, but one stands out more than others.

Under the examination: Terror Train

THE STORY: On New Year’s Eve, a group of young twenty somethings (frat/sorority types) take to the rails for the best party of all time. Seriously, everyone is sporting costumes, the girls all seem horny, the guys all act like standard-movie-issue-dick-frat-boys, and someone even hired a magician! How’s that not a party? Unfortunately for them, the party is ruined when someone from their past ends up hell bent on killing all those who once wronged him…which sucks for them.

Mr. Marx always had a few tricks up his sleeve. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: I’m also not ashamed to admit that I love train films. I’m a sucker for them. Throw a diverse group of folks on a cylinder metal tube on rails while something bad happens and it always produces entertainment. Maybe its the claustrophobic nature, that trapped feeling much like a submarine picture. Maybe there's something romantic about it. No matter because it is instant entertainment.

Terror Train is no different; a fast paced film that’s never ashamed of what it is: a cheaply made piece of exploitation. And that’s a good thing because it plays directly to the intended audience, giving it easy to please advantages.

Surely that screaming voice needed a break anyway. 

Namely, the producers smartly hired Jamie Lee Curtis,even though she doesn’t have a lot to work with here beyond surface level action and reaction. She does her thing as the heroine but Terror Train got a little lucky with the talent. We have Sam Peckinpah editor and future Bond director Roger Spottiswoode doing a fine job making all those tight places feel tight. We have Western vet Ben Johnson as our conductor, a man who worked with John Ford and John Wayne. We have future Die Hard douche Hart Bochner (he played Ellis). And we have the magic of David Copperfield in his one and only film role (he’s super cheesy here in his acting and his magic. He tries to pick up Curtis with classic lines like "Do you believe in magic?”) 

Someone needs to remake this but with nothing but Magicians on a train. 

With all that talent, they also ended up with a damn good killer, and it’s amazing no one has brought him back to life. Yeah, yeah, he’s a Michael Myers knockoff with the whole mask thing going on and everyone in Halloween costumes (for their New Year’s Eve party of course), but first time director Spottiswoode found great, creepy masks, especially the Groucho Marx one. It should be iconic in horror, and perhaps it would if this film had come out a few years after or before Halloween.  

Oh, and then there’s the mystery of the killer. We know who he is based on the first ten minutes of the movie, but once we’re all on the train, we never see the killer until the final moments and we know it could be anyone. And his revealing is…fantastically creepy.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The faults of Terror Train come because of the genre it exists within. The late 70s, early 80s horror genre was overrun with Halloween-type slasher rip-offs. We all know the drill, which leaves out a lot of the surprise. It doesn’t help that Curtis is back in her fourth horror film in a two year period (she made Halloween II the following year). That’s a lot of screaming, running, and playing the helpless victim. But Curtis is as good as ever, so my main annoyance with the cast comes from not a single character being likable or memorable. Everyone is too clichéd. From Johnson as the old conductor, to Bochner as very frat boy Doc, no one stands out with any interesting characterization. Character depth isn’t really expected here, but the film needs people to be interesting at least.

She really loved the movie. 

THE VERDICT:Terror Train is dated from head to toe, but if you're in the mood for an early 1980's slasher flick with a legendary Scream Queen, this isn’t a bad choice. A true classic? Nope, it suffers from too much been there done that. But a slasher classic for the fans? Indeed. It'll never be mainstream classic stuff, but Terror Train is a trip worth buying a ticket for. 



Source: Arrow in the Head

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