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Terror Train

Fox // R // September 7, 2004
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Terror Train opens with a fraternity prank, and since this happens in a slasher flick before the opening credits, clearly something is going to go terribly, terribly wrong. At a New Year's blowout, a bunch of freshman pledges dupe gawky 98-lb. weakling Kenny into thinking he's going to get laid. As he heads upstairs, an unseen Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) convinces him to strip down to his skivvies and...hee-larity! Instead of a moderately androgynous young woman with discolored teeth waiting for him in the bed, it's a decomposing, dismembered cadaver! Kenny naturally spins around uncontrollably and becomes ensnared in mosquito netting or something.

Wait, so they're triplets?
Three years later! Alana's still miffed about being suckered into such a mean practical joke, but she still pals around with all these guys anyway. They're seniors now, and they're going to celebrate New Year's Eve one last time...together. Since they couldn't get away with the cadavar and hospitalization thing twice, the frat charters a train. Oh yeah, and there's ominous foreshadowing where the train's conductor (Western mainstay Ben Johnson) laments the the train's inability to call for help, which might come into play later. So, because frat guys are a wacky, zany, kooky bunch, they decide to wear masks. Class clown Ed, who kind of looks like those twin dwarves that hock real estate scams on infomercials, grabs a half-deflated blow up doll and riffs unrelentingly, belting out comedic gold like "I think she sprung a leak. Either that or she's hissing me" and "Let's play Charades, and my word will be 'orgy'." He continues to keep the crowd in stitches when they board the train and see him with a sword piercing clean through his torso. Y'know, the old "sword through the torso" gag...gets 'em everytime. Only...hark! It's not a gag! The unseen killer yanks Ed's cover-art-worthy Groucho Marx mask and joins the locomotive lunacy.

The killer's M.O. is to grab a victim's mask, pose as that person, and silently lull other passengers into a false sense of security through nods and hand gestures. A body count slowly -- very slowly -- starts to pile up. Every good slasher needs a list of suspects, and even though Terror Train isn't a good slasher, it takes a stab at mystery anyway. Everyone that isn't watching the movie suspects The Magician (David Copperfield), probably because he's mysterious and doesn't have a name. So, the conductor and Alana try to figure out who's behind the mayhem, and...yeah, it all culminates with the killer in yet another fright mask isolating Alana and chasing her around various claustrophobic settings. Hmmm...Jamie Lee Curtis, silent masked killer, isolation, claustrophobia... Wait, wait, I know this one...

I have a deep, abiding love for formulaic early-'80s slashers, and even though I'd seen it before and should've remembered what I was getting into, Terror Train is pretty difficult to watch. It's excruciatingly dull, especially for the first hour and change. After everyone piles on the train, nearly every spare moment is devoted to extended scenes of them partying or David Copperfield doing parlor tricks. The body count is paltry, there's no gore, and most of the kills occur off-camera. Nothing particularly interesting happens until the last fifteen minutes or so, when it's just Alana vs. The Killer Who Couldn't Possibly Be The Kid Who Was Tormented In The Pre-Credits Teaser. Even then, Terror Train requires a pretty massive chunk of disbelief to be suspended since nothing -- nothing -- Alana does makes even a little bit of sense. She has the killer down on the ground and stabs him. What does she do next? Continue stabbing him? Retrieve the blade? Unmask him? No, she leaves the weapon and runs away. I could rant for another paragraph about hiding within poking distance of this mesh-y, grate thing, but I've rambled long enough already. The acting's pretty wretched aside from the bloodied Curtis, whose shrieking and ability to take abuse (she takes a bump to the noggin in the climax that got a bigger reaction from me than any of the movie's make-up effects) is its only redeeming aspect. Terror Train is frequently cited as one of the better masked slashers from the early '80s, but whatever appeal it may hold escapes me. Terror Train is too boring and unsuspenseful to check it off in the "so bad, it's good" column, and the lack of scares or suspense leaves little to recommend.

Video: Terror Train is a double-sided DVD, and full-frame and anamorphic widescreen presentations of the movie are offered on opposite sides of the disc. This being a DVD enthusiast website, the version reviewed here not surprisingly preserves Terror Train's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Some of the footage from the first few minutes of the movie is soft and extremely grainy, such as the opening tracking shot of the New Year's bash and the title sequence with our first glimpse of the train. That, and one or two other very brief shots that pop up periodically, are about the extent of my obligatory nitpicking. The DVD looks great -- it's sharp and colorful, sporting deep, inky black levels and is free of any damage or notable speckling.

Audio: Terror Train features several different soundtracks, including the original mono, a stereo remix, and a Spanish dub. The stereo soundtrack is decent, although the DVD can't mask its age and monaural origins. The range is somewhat limited, and even though the movie is set on a large locomotive that's barreling around, it's not accompanied by a particularly hefty amount of bass. Dialogue remains intelligible throughout, but...y'know, it sounds like it was filmed a quarter-century ago. If you're bored, which is pretty much a given, switch to the Spanish dub periodically. I guess whoever was doing the re-recording wasn't as fond of disco-inflected pop, so different music was piped in, and the opening credits are read outloud. Other audio options include subtitles in English and Spanish as well as closed captions.

Supplements: The only extra is a pretty rough-looking full-frame trailer. Terror Train also includes a set of 16x9-enhanced static menus and sixteen chapter stops.

Conclusion: Rattling off a brief description of the movie makes it sound kinda interesting -- it's an early slasher flick starring Jamie Lee Curtis at the height of her reign as Scream Queen, with a bunch of frat boys and drunken co-eds systematically gutted on a fast-moving train by a killer that takes the guise of his victims. Too bad its glacial pace, overextended runtime, bland kill scenes, and overreliance on what would quickly become genre clichés don't live up to that forty word summary. Oh well; at least it's cheap. For slasher completists only.
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