I Just Watched 1980’s “Terror Train”, and I Have Questions.

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?

Check it out, you guys! It’s Ellis from Die Hard with his “Hans! Bubbie!” smirk on! Somebody pour him a Coke!!!

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:

This is not a Sleestak.

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:

#Imtotallynotacreeper “Hey babe. Check out my Flying Nun Collar! You know you love it.”

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!

Ohhhhh, Canada! You minx.

A Comfortable Sort of Terror

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

A friend recently told me, “I love how you’re all deep cuts, only with bad horror movies instead of music.” And I gotta say, I love that people both love and notice that about me. But after this crazy Pandemic Year, I got to thinking: I wonder why this is? Why is it cheesy horror that often comforts me in times of stress?

I suspect it has a lot to do with nostalgia. When the Pandemic first started last March, I spent at least six weeks watching Night of the Comet repeatedly. It got to the point where I’d just turn it on while playing computer solitaire late at night until I was finally tired enough to go to bed. It was such a cheerful portrait of the Endtimes, after all, in that ’80s consumer bliss way. It’s the story of two sisters, one a teenager and the other just out of high school, who find themselves in L.A. after a passing comet has vaporized almost everyone on the planet but a handful of survivors…many of whom start turning into mutant zombies. The apocalypse itself was blissfully fast, something that seemed sooooo enviable from our standpoint of stay-home-and-wait while our government did little if anything to give us guidance.

A lot of the movies I turn to for feel-good vibes (or at least, survival vibes) are films that I associate with younger, carefree days. Sometimes, they were movies that scared me as a kid, but now are more funny/bad/cheesy than they are scary. Yet, the times they take me back to fill me with fond memories and feelings of security that only come from a pretty well-adjusted childhood.

Example: When I was about twelve, I was visiting my oldest sister Ginny in Seattle for a few weeks. She always had the latest thriller paperbacks or would buy me whatever book I was interested in reading. And when it came to television, she was more than happy to make recommendations for movies to watch. In retrospect, she probably just wanted to keep me happily busy while she went about her day, but I think she also enjoyed chatting about the movie with me afterwards (to a POINT…before I just got nerdy-chatty and started basically reciting entire scenes from the film). I’ll never forget one such recommendation: Burnt Offerings, a mid-’70s schlocky horror film with Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis as their aunt.

An incredibly detailed lobby card for Burnt Offerings (1976) by United Artists

It’s your basic family-wants-a-cheap-summer-rental, become-summer-caretakers, then-become-possessed-by-the-house-and-somehow-consumed-by-the-house story. It’s effectively creepy, mainly because everyone in the cast is effectively creepy. Being only twelve, it totally worked for me for the same reason Let’s Scare Jessica to Death worked for me when it played on Creature Features late one Saturday night. Basically: I had no better thrillers in my frame of reference to compare them to. But also, there was something undeniably foreboding about that grainy filmstock and the telltale signs of what I now recognize as a low-budget film: bad sound that echoes because of only one boom mic and lighting filled with unintentional shadows. Things that would be a turn-off to a schooled moviegoer just added to my this-is-creepy meter.

Also, I just plain loved being scared, preferably by the supernatural. Ghosts were always just a more comfortable scare because I knew the chances that I’d encounter ghosts, killer houses and vampires in real life were slim to none. But a human killer stalking babysitters, like in When a Stranger Calls? That was straight up terrifying. The more normal the setting, the more uncomfortable the scares became.

Which begs the question: Do Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees fall under the category of supernatural or human killers? Wait, you mean that wasn’t the first question that popped into your head? You clearly don’t know me at all. But Michael Meyers in Halloween is, for all practical purposes, just a guy. But as Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis tells us repeatedly, he is also the physical embodiment of EEEEEEVIIIIIL. And by the end of the film, we believe it a hundred percent. Jason Voorhees’ entire existence is pretty much never explained beyond, well-I-guess-he-never-really-drowned-and-is-somehow-alive-and-keeps-coming-back-so….? But again, I saw both Halloween and Friday the 13th for the first time at age 12, edited-for-television complete with commercial breaks, and therefore wasn’t entirely immersed in them. I watched them in the warmth and safety of my own home, possibly on a black-and-white portable TV in my room, so those are go-to feel-good films.

Does this make me weird? Probably. But who wants to be normal? Besides, it’s not like these are the only films that make me feel better on a dark and dreary day. Like anyone, there are a slew of other films that took me out of my world and that I love to revisit: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the OG Star Wars and (again, horror!) Poltergeist all do the job nicely. Just like Die Hard at Christmas, right? 

But for someone who loves Halloween more than Christmas, nothing warms my heart more than the comfortable fear I get from watching John Carpenter’s Halloween, and knowing that Jamie Lee Curtis will get away….for now.