A group of pre-med students organize a fraternity prank for their nerdy and awkward frat pledge, Kenny. They convince members of a local sorority to help them out by pretending one of them is waiting upstairs for Kenny and ready for some sexy times. But the prank goes horribly wrong and poor Kenny gets hauled off to the hospital.
Three years later those same students are getting ready to celebrate New Year’s. The co-eds have organized a rather extravagant costume party aboard a charter locomotive. They’ve ponied up the money so that they have everything they could possibly need. The train’s got a VIP lounge, a funky band, a ballroom, a fully stocked bar and for entertainment they’ve hired a baby-faced David f*&%$#* Copperfield.
They spared no expense.
Questionable entertainment choices aside, the kids have planned for the best New Year’s eve party they’ve ever had. But things don’t go as planned when an unwanted guest boards the train and starts killing off party members one by one, much to the consternation of the kindly conductor who just wants to retire and buy a nice RV.
I don’t care about the sex and booze, but if you young’uns start knocking each other off I won’t hesitate to throw you out the nearest window.
Terror Train is billed as a slasher, but it may be more aptly described as a revenge tale with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. Except that you’re made fully aware who the killer is from the beginning. The mystery comes in not knowing where the killer is at any given time. Being on a train filled with people in costumes affords him a huge sense of anonymity. The suspense doesn’t come from not knowing the identity, but from watching the killer’s plan unfold in such an isolated, small space. After each victim is killed, the killer dons their costume and thus, their guise. There are countless times when the students are standing right next to the killer, fully unaware of how close they are to possible death. There’s something sinister watching the killer track down his next victim while wearing a Groucho Marx mask with a permanent smile affixed to it.
Other than that, the structure of the movie is pretty formulaic. The killer is out to right a great wrong done upon him in the past. The Final Girl, unaware of the extent of the prank she was participating in, is appropriately guilt ridden and the only one who shows any real remorse for their actions that night. The other boozy, sexed up kids are the annoying, typical fodder that you just know deserve their comeuppance. I mean, it’s hard to feel bad for an leader with a name like Doc Manley (Seriously?). Yes, this is the type of movie where you’re looking forward to certain people dying.
To be fair, all Lizard People have it coming.
Where the film stands out a bit is the cinematography. John Alcott worked on both The Shining and Clockwork Orange, and here he puts together a beautiful setting and atmosphere filled with blues, greens and yellows. So while the story may be a bit “by the book”, at least it makes for a very pretty slasher-mystery.
Back when it released, the slasher sub-genre was just beginning to pick up steam and Terror Train was new and fresh. Today everything it does is very familiar and has been copied by other movies, almost ad nauseam: The structure of the film, many of the Final Girl personality traits (Laurie Strode may come to mind first, but it’s Alana’s traits that have persevered). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. It might not be very scary, and at this point it’s like slasher comfort food at this point, but that’s okay. It still ends up being a fun mystery ride with a bunch of creepy-ass masks.
Oh, and live magic. Everyone loves magic, right?
Shut up, Jamie.
Terror Train is available on a variety of streaming services.
Terror Train is also available on DVD and Bluray.