Jamie Lee Curtis. Ellis from Die Hard. Vanity (the singer, not the deadly sin). David Copperfield. Abuse of at least one corpse. So much to unpack…
I’ve been listening to the With Gourley and Rust podcast, wherein Matt Gourley and Paul Rust discuss all kinds of horror films, and when they covered Terror Train, I decided I needed to rewatch it because, while I’m pretty sure I watched it at one point in my youth, I couldn’t remember anything about it other than it was one of those prank-gone-wrong-vengeance films. And BONUS – it was free with Amazon Prime, so we watched it on Saturday night.
Let’s start off by saying, okay. It’s not the best horror film of all time. But as one who fully expected it to suck a bag of dicks, it was a lot more fun than expected.
Like many slasher films of this time period, the filmmakers decide they need to make it clear exactly what set the killer off on a life of psychotic murder. And in this case, our killer and med school fraternity pledge, Kenny (Derek McKinnon), is the victim of a really bonkers prank wherein he gets into a bed with Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), only it’s not Alana. It’s a corpse that’s falling apart (because pre-med students apparently have access to such things). Naturally, this freaks him out, but a lot more than they intended…which is apparently shown by him twirling around in some sheer curtains. I guess that’s supposed to represent his psyche unravelling? Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, is somehow SHOCKED, just SHOCKED that she was tricked into participating in a prank involving a dead body, but HOW DID SHE NOT KNOW?
Cut to three years later, when said frat bros and their womenfolk are celebrating their last New Years’ Eve together as a group by partying on an old tyme steam train, which I guess is something that gets rented out for parties? Kind of like a wine train. And I’m totally ready to accept this, only for some reason, everyone’s in costume. So is it Halloween? No, really, it’s New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing?
The lead prankster, Doc (Hart Bochner – the guy who played douchey Ellis in Die Hard!), is apparently in charge of this thing, so he gives a big speech about how this is the last time they’re going to be together and at this point, I’m BAFFLED. It’s January 1 — doesn’t that leave them with like, five months of probably much better weather to party it up together? Or are finals going to be that exhausting?
The train takes off, with Crazy Kenny killing class clown Eddie, who’s dressed in the WORST Groucho Marx costume ever. Maybe they were worried about getting rights to the patented Groucho-Glasses, because instead they just use a really creepy and not-very-Groucho-looking mask and a fat tux. Kenny steals this costume and, despite what the movie poster suggests, never puts on a Conductor’s cap. He climbs aboard and starts bringing the terror.
During the overlong getting-on-the train sequence, we see that David Copperfield is going to be performing on the train. Which makes me wonder: What the hell kind of a fraternity hires a magician for its New Year’s train rager? Canadians, I guess. (I’m going to use this explanation whenever I’m confused, which will be often.)
Among the partygoers is Vanity (yes! Prince’s buddy!), dressed in some sort of Cleopatra sort of costume. And her boyfriend is dressed as this:
I got super excited at first, thinking it was supposed to be a Sleestak from one of my favorite childhood shows, “Land of the Lost.” But then my husband said no, it was probably just some kind of snake and Vanity was a snake charmer, which in no way is obvious, but okay. That was disappointing.
Anyway, the party rages on while Kenny as Groucho gets all murdery, first with NotASleestak and then with Doc/Ellis’ girlfriend, and eventually, Doc’s best buddy and JLC’s boyfriend, Moe (who kept reminding me of Judge Reinhold for some reason). Moe is killed in the middle of David Copperfield’s act, which I’M SORRY but was super pointless. It was almost like a bathroom-visit interlude because they kept cutting away to show the audience and the entire point is TO BE LOOKING AT THE MAGICIAN DO TRICKS. Also, can I just add that David Copperfield tries hard to give JLC a lot of sexy looks that actually just are super creepy. Like this one:
Finally, things pick up as the conductor (Ben Johnson, an Oscar-winning actor who was in a lot of Westerns) starts finding bodies and realizing that hey, something weird is going on! Which seems reason enough for him to manhandle my girl JLC a bit as he drags her around the train showing her the bodies of two of her friends. And then Moe’s also dead, so it REALLY sucks to be JLC and Doc then. This is when they somehow realize that it’s got to be Kenny….in fact, doesn’t David Copperfield’s character (also named Ken, although that seemed unnecessary) look a lot like that kid we pranked in a way-over-the-top manner three years ago? (Fact Check: NO. He doesn’t. AT ALL.) JLC dumps some expo on us suddenly, explaining that Kenny dug magic and also allegedly killed somebody after being hospitalized for his “accident” (getting tangled in curtain sheers, I guess?). Seems like a weird time to remember to add this in, but okay…
Now it’s time for Doc to really channel that inner Ellis and he locks her out of his train compartment even though she’s screaming for him to let her in. Naturally, he’s just locked himself in with Kenny, who has mastered hiding in small spaces. It’s actually a fairly tense scene, and very unusual to see a male actor in total panic mode and letting out high-pitched screams. Unusual but honest? It was kind of funny, but also pretty refreshing, TBH.
TIME OUT to say….there are some contradictions in here. At the top of the movie, the Conductor says something about there being no radio communications on the train, but there’s a phone he uses to talk with the engineer. So…what gives? Where is this train even going? They are in the middle of nowhere! Does it just turn around and come back? No idea.
Meanwhile, Kenny reveals himself to Alana (JLC) in a pretty cool way and we get a little twist when we realize he’s been SUPER busy while hiding in plain sight during this trip! No spoilers here, though — just watch it for yourself. In fact, I’m not even going to tell you how it ends. So take THAT! Stream it and see.
I watch a lot of these 80’s-era slashers, and I have to say, a lot of them are unintelligible/unwatchable. And while this one had some problems, they did a good job with the use and idea of magic/illusions/tricks going awry. The acting was occasionally even good, especially in the case of JLC, Hart Bochner, Ben Johnson and Derek McKinnon. And how many slashers give us a hero in the shape of a 60-year-old train conductor?
On a scale of Utter Rubbish to Entertaining Rubbish, this ranks at Entertaining Rubbish. Well done, Canada!