Original theatrical one-sheet, prominently featuring the villain in a Groucho Marx mask
|Directed by||Roger Spottiswoode|
|Produced by||Harold Greenberg|
|Written by||T.Y. Drake|
Jamie Lee Curtis
|Music by||John Mills-Cockell|
|Edited by||Anne Henderson|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|October 3, 1980|
|Box office||USD$8 million|
Terror Train is a 1980 slasher film directed by Roger Spottiswoode in his directorial debut and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, and Hart Bochner. Set aboard a moving train on New Year's Eve, the film follows a group of medical school students holding a costume party who are targeted by a killer who steals their costumes after murdering them to avoid being caught. It features supporting performances from Sandee Currie, Anthony Sherwood, and David Copperfield.
The concept for the film was based on an idea by executive producer Daniel Grodnik, who sought to "make Halloween on a train." A full-length script for the film was composed by T.Y. Drake, and production was initiated within four months. The film was shot in Montreal between late November and late December 1979, shortly after Curtis had completed filming for Prom Night (1980).
An independently-produced film, Terror Train was purchased for distribution by the major studio 20th Century Fox, who had yet to release a slasher film; the studio was able to supply an expansive marketing campaign for the film that cost an estimated $5 million. It was released theatrically in the United States on October 3, 1980, grossing $8 million during its theatrical run.
At a college pre-med student fraternity New Year's Eve party, a reluctant Alana Maxwell is coerced into participating in a prank: she lures the shy and awkward pledge Kenny Hampson into a darkened room on the promise of a sexual liaison. However some other students have placed a woman's corpse (stolen from the university medical school during the Christmas vacation) in the bed instead. Kenny is traumatized by the prank and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Three years later, the members of the same fraternities and sororities hold a New Year's Eve costume party aboard a train. Class clown Ed is disguised as Groucho Marx; Prank ringleader Doc Manley is disguised as a monk; Jackson is disguised as an alien lizard. Doc's girlfriend, Alana's best friend Mitchy, is disguised as a witch. Alana's boyfriend Mo is disguised as a bird. Also along are Carne, the train conductor, and a Magician hired to entertain the crowd.
Ed is murdered prior to boarding and the killer dresses himself in Ed's Groucho Marx mask, allowing him to board the train unnoticed. As the train journeys into the wilderness, the killer wanders amongst the students, who believe him to be Ed. In the sleeper bathroom, he murders Jackson by smashing his head into a mirror. Carne finds Jackson's bloodied body in the bathroom, still donning the reptile costume. When Carne returns to the scene with the brakemaster Charlie, the killer has hidden Jackson's body and is now wearing the reptile costume himself; he appears conscious, and Charlie assures Carne that the partygoer was merely drunk.
Mitchy goes with the killer, whom she believes to be Jackson, to a compartment where she attempts to seduce him. As she closes her eyes, he caresses her with Jackson's severed hand before murdering her. Carne subsequently finds her corpse in the compartment with her throat slashed. Alana stumbles upon the scene, and Carne informs her that Mitchy is dead. During a magic show held by the Magician and his female assistant, Doc finds Mo stabbed to death, though the partying onlookers assume the scene to be a prank. Carne stops the train and sequesters the students in one car; while doing so, two pullman porters find Pet's dead body. Alana recalls the prank to Doc, and recounts her attempt to visit Kenny at the psychiatric hospital. Doc then seals himself inside a room in the sleeper car where the killer is hiding, and is murdered; shortly after, Alana and Carne find his decapitated body. Believing the Magician may be Kenny in disguise, Alana notifies Carne, who goes to lock him inside the parlor car; there he finds the Magician's female assistant, but the porters are unable to find the Magician.
Alana is sequestered in a locked compartment for her safety, which the masked killer infiltrates with an axe, and she is pursued through the train. While in-between cars, she manages to push the killer overboard, unaware that he has managed to hold on below. After finding the Magician's body in his sword box, Alana runs through the train car and finds Charlie seated with his head resting in his hands. She tells him the Magician is dead, and lays her head on the table, when he grabs her by her wrists. As she looks up, she realizes it is Kenny dressed in Charlie's uniform. He removes the cap, revealing a blonde wig, and Alana realizes he had been posing in drag as the Magician's female assistant.
Alana apologizes to Kenny about the prank, but he refuses to accept and forces her to kiss him; the kiss causes Kenny to relive his memories from the prank and drives him deeper into insanity. Carne rushes to the scene and beats down Kenny with a shovel, causing him to fall out the open door of the baggage car to his presumed death. His body lands in a nearly frozen river and floats away as the train roars off.
- Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana Maxwell
- Ben Johnson as Carne, Train Conductor
- Hart Bochner as Doc Manley
- Sandee Currie as Michelle "Mitchy"
- Timothy Webber as Mo
- Derek MacKinnon as Kenny Hampson
- Anthony Sherwood as Jackson
- Joy Boushel as Pet
- Vanity (credited as D.D. Winters) as Merry
- Greg Swanson as the Class President
- Howard Busgang as Ed
- Elizabeth Cholette as Maggie
- David Copperfield as The Magician
- Don Lamoreux as Shovels
- Steve Michaels as Charlie, the Brakeman
- Charles Biddles Sr. as Chief Porter
- Thom Haversack as Bill Chase
The motivation for the villain in Terror Train, similarly to other slasher films, is based on revenge; however, as film scholar John Kenneth Muir notes, the film's central organizing principle is "magic, or the often undetectable gulf between reality and illusion...In other words, characters live and die in Terror Train based, in large part, on how they perceive the reality or non-reality around them." Muir adds: "If the would-be victims can see through the illusion, they tend to survive. If they can't do so, they die. It's as simple that, but this approach makes Terror Train a more complex and layered film than the average slasher picture."
Producer Daniel Grodnik had the idea for the film's central narrative, which he had wanted to be "like Halloween on a train." Grodnik had been a friend of Halloween director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, both of whom gave him their blessing when he told them of his idea. Grodnik pitched the film to American producer Sandy Howard, who was impressed by the concept.
The film was the first motion picture directed by Roger Spottiswoode (a former editor for Sam Peckinpah), who would go on to make such films as Turner & Hooch (1989), Air America (1990), and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Spottiswoode was hired to direct the film by Sandy Howard on the condition that he also edit the film (though Anne Henderson was later brought in to edit). Because it was made under a Canadian tax shelter, Daniel Grodnik was appointed executive producer, as he was legally unable to serve as a primary producer.
There was no stage show magician in the original script, but producer Howard was a fan of magic tricks and illusions, so a magician character was written in. Copperfield's character becomes the suspect at one point of the movie, but it turns out to be a red herring when the real killer is revealed to be Kenny Hampson. There is some confusion about David Copperfield's character's name. Twice, in the movie the Conductor calls out to him as "Ken", but this is when it is believed by he and the passengers that he is Kenny Hampson, the murderer. Additionally, his assistant calls out to him as "Ken," but since his assistant is Kenny in disguise, this could have been an intentional misdirection. In the credits, he is simply listed as "The Magician."
Producer Grodnik sought Jamie Lee Curtis for the lead role of Alana Maxwell based on her performance in the successful Halloween, released two years prior. Curtis was also signed on to star in Paul Lynch's Prom Night, which she filmed in Toronto two months before production began on Terror Train.[a] Veteran actor Ben Johnson was cast as Carne, the train conductor, whom Grodnik said was "amused" to have been in a horror film amongst such a young cast.
The majority of the supporting cast was made of Canadian actors, including Hart Bochner, Sandee Currie, and Anthony Sherwood. The film included a number of untrained actors, including Derek MacKinnon in the role of the villain, as well as illusionist David Copperfield as the Magician, and rock singer Vanity as one of the coed partygoers.
To create the train for the film, the producers leased an actual Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive from the Steamtown Foundation in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The train's engine was renumbered from its original 1293 to 1881, and, along with five passenger cars, painted black with silver stripes. Afterward, the Steamtown Foundation reverted the engine back to its original number and had it restored to a historic color and lettering scheme. Production designer Glenn Bywdwell crafted the interiors of the train in an Art Deco style. As of July 2014, Canadian Pacific Railway No. 1293 continues to be an "operable locomotive."
It now resides in the private "Age of Steam Roundhouse" near Sugarcreek, Ohio.
Principal photography for Terror Train mainly took place in and around Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The shoot began on November 21, 1979, and was completed on December 23. The bulk of the film's train sequences were shot first, while the film's opening sequence was shot on December 22, 1979, the penultimate day of the shoot; filming of it took place at a real fraternity house belonging to McGill University. The final day of shooting (December 23) consisted of a small crew completing the footage of Kenny's body plummeting from the train into a frozen river below, which was shot on location in New Hampshire, United States. The stunt man was reportedly unable to withstand the freezing temperature of the water, leading art director Guy Comtois played the part of the dead killer instead.
The interior train sequences posed numerous obstacles for the crew, specifically cinematographer John Alcott, who devised a unique method of lighting Terror Train given the limited space and scant natural lighting of the sets: He rewired the entire train and mounted individual dimmers on the exteriors of the carriage cars. Utilizing a variety of bulbs with different wattages, and controlling them with the external dimmers, Alcott could light the set in a very fast, efficient manner. At times, Alcott also used medical lights-"pen torches"- to hand light the actors' faces, as well as Christmas lights. To capture some of the film's footage, Alcott used a small lens he had previously used while shooting Barry Lyndon. To achieve the rocking motion of a real train on film, a crew was appointed to push on each side of the stationary train car in order for the interior sequences to appear as though they were taking place on a moving train.
Taking a cue from director John Ford, Ben Johnson originally asked director Spottiswoode to give his character Carne less dialogue in Terror Train, rather than more. Jamie Lee Curtis also provided input in regard to her character during the filming process: The kissing sequence between her character and that of the killer was an idea that she originated: "I just thought that if she kissed him that it would bring a lot of tenderness to the scene and to the film," she recalled. "The kiss was totally my idea. All during filming, I was looking for ways to make my character more interesting but there weren’t many opportunities because most of the film was about the action and the killer."
Canadian actor Derek MacKinnon, who played the masked killer, appears in 11 scenes in Terror Train, wearing a different costume or masked disguise in each scene, including his real character of Kenny. There was friction between director Spottiswoode and McKinnon during the shoot, which Spottiswoode claimed was a result of his inexperience: "He wasn’t an actor," Spottiswoode recalled. "He was a transvestite from the streets of Montreal, and he wasn’t familiar with the concepts of a contract and showing up for work on time. In a strange way though he did a pretty good job. He was familiar with that world of cheap theater and was strangely effective."
The film was purchased for theatrical release in the United States by 20th Century Fox, who had recently garnered attention with the release of Star Wars (1977). The studio spent an estimated $5 million on an advertising campaign for the film, which would be their only foray into the slasher film sub-genre during its peak years. The campaign included billboards and trade advertisements, as well as several posters: The first one-sheet featured the killer dressed in the Groucho Marx mask, brandishing a knife; a second one-sheet emphasized the film's college youth setting, including the same image of the killer in addition to a bonfire and a train in the foreground.
Terror Train opened in the United States on October 3, 1980, and grossed an estimate $8,000,000 at the box office.
Currently, the film holds an rating of 36% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, signifying "rotten". Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars, writing "The classic horror films of the 1930s appealed to the intelligence of its audiences, to their sense of humor and irony. Movies like Terror Train, and all of its sordid predecessors and its rip-offs still to come, just don't care. They're a series of sensations, strung together on a plot. Any plot will do. Just don't forget the knife, and the girl, and the blood." However, he also conceded that "it's not a rock-bottom-budget, schlock exploitation film." Variety called the film "competent" in a mildly positive review. A review in the Los Angeles Times characterized the film as "stylish, scary fun." Richard Corliss of Time also praised the film's style, calling it "sleek and eerie."
Allmovie praised John Alcott's cinematography, but concluded, "Terror Train is too mediocre a piece of work to raise interest from anyone but the genre's most devoted fans", while Time Out London called it "better than most of its kind." Leonard Maltin concurred, claiming that the "stylish photography and the novelty of the killer donning the costume of each successive victim lift this slightly above most in this disreputable genre". Film scholar Adam Rockoff praised the film for its "style and oppressive atmosphere." Horror fiction scholar John Kenneth Muir also praised the film in his book Horror Films of the 1980s, writing: "The thrill of a picture like Terror Train is the shrewd manner in which it plays against audience expectations; the sense that the slasher film paradigm gives it parameters which it can then undercut, subvert, and if needs be, violate."
The film was first released on VHS home video in 1988 by CBS/Fox Video. The film was released twice on DVD by 20th Century Fox; once in 2004 as a single edition release and again in 2008 in a triple pack alongside Candyman 2 and the original The Fog.
Shout! Factory released a collector's edition Blu-ray and DVD combo-pack under their Scream Factory label in October 2012. On December 7, 2017, Scream Factory announced on their official Facebook page that the Blu-ray was officially out of print.
- Prom Night was filmed in the late summer of 1979, while filming for Terror Train did not begin until November 1979.
- Muir 2012, p. 136.
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