Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Horror Of...Terror Train

Really?  Really?! You know, yesterday afternoon it was 70 degrees. 70! And how does that turn to...this...

Ha ha. Funny, Nature. Quite a prank!

But as I've already discussed, I am not much of a fan of pranking.

But, no, this is the time of japes and jokes. And of people who don't know when to stop or pull back. So let's take a trip back to the start of the 80's, to the dawn of a renaissance of a glut of slasher movies. Let's look at one of the early attempts to enter the fray of murderous mayhem, with a twist (we always need a twist). So let's take it on a train. Hey, every concept from Snakes On A Thing to Under Siege ends up there. And the slasher movies got this twist out of the way nice and early.

So let's see how it fares...Get it?

So grab your bag, take your motion sickness medicine, and let's see where the Terror Train arrives.

And be sure to check out it's sequel, Terror Replacement Bus Service.

This is a 1980 20th Century Fox release. So, no, this has nothing to do with Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos. Sorry, no laser robots...or karate, today.

As the story goes Daniel Grodnik one day watched both Halloween and Silver Streak, and that night had a dream that inspired the notion, why not put Halloween on a train. (Like I said, everyone eventually comes up with this concept.) And his wife had the good sense to tell him it was a terrible idea. Michael Myers wandering around a train full of kids? What is this, Jason Takes Manhattan?

But the idea of a murderer on a train, that's a good concept. Of course it is also an old one. Murder on the Orient Express is just the most famous of those tales. But makeing it a slasher? One that is covering their tracks? That could make for a good evening out at the movies.

The concept ended up being worked into a screenplay by T.Y. Drake. He's...not written a lot. In fact the director of the movie, Roger Spottiswoode, has said that the script he received did need a lot of work, to flesh out characters and other set pieces.

Roger Spottiswwode was a new director. He was mostly working as an editor at the time, having previously worked on Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. He apparently also was in demand for his ability to fix movies in the editing bay. And he also would go on to write screenplays, including writing the ones for the 48 Hours movies.

His later directing efforts would include Shoot to Kill, Air America, Turner and Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, The 6th Day, and Tomorrow Never Dies. I know it might look like a mix bag, but the results in Terror Train that he, the cast, and the crew create is worth considering.

Terror Train was a production in conjunction with Canadian producer, so it was decided to film it primarily in Montreal. They made use of a warehouse, and then filmed at night (to avoid all the day time noise). They were also filming mostly in December. So it was cold. But it fits well for a winter time train trip. And you can now imagine the cast sitting around a frozen warehouse desperate for dawn to come so they could sleep.

For the train, the carriages were shipped up from Vermont. Then they and the engine car had a number of modifications completed for the film. The engine was renumbered and the carriages were painted to be a darker color. This helped in filming, to minimize reflections and made lighting far easier.

In fact, the cinematographer on the movie, John Alcott, did a lot of work to help make this movie come together. Among his efforts, he hired local electricians who helped him rewire all the carriage lighting. It allowed for far better and easier control. He also would go in and stand behind the camera while shooting and use, what Spottiswoode called medical lights, to light the eyes of key people in a shot. It meant that while many of the cast were masked (...will get into that shortly) you could easily focus on their eye reactions. It's an important trick.

As is noticeable, the film is lit darkly. Most scenes are dim. And some have complained about this. But I think it does help create a mood. From the dim frat house to the dim train platform to fleeing through a dimly lit train. Nothing really feels lost in the lighting. But things are hidden. It may end up being a matter of personal aesthetics.

Check out the trailer, and start forming your own opinion.

I think the lighting and cinematography is successful.

Of course John Alcott came to this job already with plenty of experience provoking his audiences, with movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

So let's get this train going.

Oh, great. It's not a frat party until someone's dad
shows up.
Terror Train opens on a campus somewhere, presumably behind a frat house. People are laughing and the snow. I don't get it.

"Hey everybody! What do you think of the sign we..."
But they do have a bonfire going. ...I still don't get it. I have never gotten the appeal of starting a massive fire and standing around it...I guess I'll never be cool. I just don't have enough of a love of burning things.

Also, is it even legal to do this on campus?

"No! Why would you guys do that?!"
While  everyone is having fun cavorting, one group of frat boys are talking: Doc, Jackson, Mo, and Ed. They have some good news for a small, shy, and nervous pleb, Kenny. A girl wants to sleep with him. He's awkward about it, but interested. The group of guys egg him on to go to her, in the frat house.

"Alana? How could this possibly go
But it is all a lie. The girl, Alana, is being pushed by her friend Misty, and the group of frat boys, to help them play a prank on this kid. She doesn't want to, but she's willing to be pressured to do it.

"I swear, if this leads to me being stalked by another serial
While someone else lies in the bed, she'll hide behind it, and urge Kenny on. Ha ha...pranking...

Doc, the instigator, leads Kenny into the house. Then Kenny nervously goes up the stairs to the bedroom.

"Say. This isn't some prank, is it?"
It's a dark room, but he sees the silhouette of a woman in the bed. And then he hears Alana beckoning him to undress and come over.

"Hey! That's the same fragrance my grandma wore at
her funeral."
He does as he's told, and then climbs in the bed. He touches the woman, and quickly realizes that something is wrong.

It's not so much a woman in bed with him.

It's a corpse, which comes apart in his hands.

This makes Kenny freak out. (Anyone shocked at that?)

"Oh my god! This is what my mom said would happen
if I slept with a girl!"

He jumps up on the bed, and just starts screaming. Then he begins spinning in a circle, caught in the curtains of the four poster bed. The curtains envelop him, and he collapsed.

Alana runs out when he screams and looks horrified to see the body in the bed.

Now this has got to be a Mentos moment, right?
And as he screams and spins, the whole gang of friends, Misty, Doc, Jackson, Mo, and Ed, run in and laugh.

Well. Pranking!

What does one to say to an opening like that? It does a effiective job of putting on the players on the board. And, being a slasher movie, it gives you a sense of what must come next.

But a dead body? That is never not messed up. So, Doc is a Pre-med student? And he works at a place that handles bodies, and manages to steal one? Then he took it to his university? And to his frat house? ...Wh... He's clearly a guy that has never had to deal with consequences. (And not in a cool James T. Kirk way!)

I trust it's clear we aren't expected to like Doc.

Now, I know that some medical students are known for making macabre jokes with body parts. I think we've all heard stories...But a whole freaking body. This is so cruel, on many levels.

It's never made clear just who was in on all of the prank. Misty tells Alana, as they get ready for the prank that she doesn't know the woman, but she could possibly be lying. Of course, when she runs in she seems to not be sure about what she's seeing.

And the frat boys? Did any of them help carry the body in? Or, even know the full scope of this lark? Of all the guys that run in, Mo is the only one not really guffawing at Kenny's psychological distress. (But that may be in part due to the fact is girlfriend, Alana, is screaming at the sight.)

This start to the movie give us simple sense of these characters and their basic relationships. It is a useful primer.

And you know what? This segment almost wasn't in the movie. This was the last segment of the movie shot. It was decided late in the process that they needed a start that established these characters and the events of this night.

And I have to agree. It helps us to develop opinions about these characters, and allows this event to be locked in our head as the rest of the movie unfolds. (It can haunt us like he seems to haunt Alana.) It would be akin to loosing the opening to Halloween. (Not to say these movies are on the same exact level.)

So who is our cast of friends?

We start with our star, Jamie Lee Curtis. At this point she was getting crowned as the new Screen Queen. With the release of Halloween (1978) she was in demand. She quickly was cast for The Fog (1980). Then, late in 1979, as she finished up filming Prom Night (1980) in Toronto, she got the job on Terror Train, and jotted over to Montreal. (Yes. Terror Train is the only one of this set of films that has not yet been remade.

And since then she's gone on to many other noted movies, like Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda. I think she's also really into yogurt.

In this movie she's playing Alana, the nice girl. At least compared to her friends she is. She didn't really want to pull a mean prank, but she was willing let her friend and boyfriend coax her into it. Still, of the group, she's the only one that we'll see is still haunted or troubled about what happened that night. She also still carries a grudge against Doc, the instigator.

The rest don't want to talk about it or don't see the big deal... (But I also have to say she's also still dating the best friend of the guy who proudly planned the prank.)

Her friend, Misty, is also Doc's girlfriend. Isn't Misty lucky? But, hey, she stayed with him after that night.

She's played by Sandee Currie. She's also been in Curtains.

Now our fraternity of brothers.

First, the prank victim, Kenny. He's a shy Harry Potter looking guy. Soft spoken, he was ripe for alpha males to pick on, or lure into false friendship. We'll have to see what this kind of an event does to a psyche.

He's played by Derek McKinnon, who hasn't appeared in many things.

Next, we have Doc. He is the type of person you see dominating a group. He likes to be in control. He doesn't like being challenged. He expects to the center of attention. And everything is just a joke (even after someone gets sent to a psychiatric hospital). You can see him pull the strings all the time, and he manages to constantly have his actions glossed over by his friends. He's Ferris Bueller in college.

Doc is played by Hart Bochner. He's appeared in Supergirl, Die Hard, the miniseries War and Remembrance (Ah. The 80's Big 3 network miniseries.), and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. He also appeared on Leverage.

Also of potential interest, a couple of years after this movie, he appeared in a pilot for an odd adventure show called Callahan. His costar, Jamie Lee Curtis. ...Maybe I'm the only one amused by that.

Jackson is our next frat boy. He's an eager player in Doc's games, and looks back fondly on the prank of that infamous night.

He's played by Anthony Sherwood. He's appeared in Scanners. He's also been on a number of shows, including Airwolf, Outer Limits (90's), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (80's), Due South. Counterstrike, and PSI Factor.

Beside Jackson, we have Ed. Ed is the...joker...of the group. He's a smaller guy with glasses, but didn't end up being the center of Doc's amusement. Maybe it's the fact he acts the jester. But, god, his jokes are bad. You quickly end up rooting for him to get killed, if only to end his brutalization of good comedy.

He's played by Howard Busgang. He's appeared in Killer Party.

And finally, we have Mo. He's Doc's closest friend. And he's also Alana's boyfriend. And in that role he's constantly defending Doc, and his tricks and games. He won't acknowledge that Doc has ever acted wrong.

He's played by Timothy Webber. He's appeared in many shows shot in Canada. Friday the 13th the Series. War of the Worlds. Forever Knight. X-Files. Poltergeist: The Legacy. Millennium. Da Vinci's Inquest. The Lone Gunmen. Andromeda. Stargate SG1. Supernatural. Fringe. Arctic Air. 21 Jump Street. MacGyver. ...And excuse to look back at those Canadian based productions of the 80's and 90's.

And even after this start they stay friends together. I know friendship, dating, cliques, and school can all be awkward things. You can feel tied to a dick of a boyfriend. Or feel bond to a shitty friend. We probably all have at least one dubious relationship. Still, I am side eyeing this whole group.

Now, back to our slasher film

Still enjoying your mental collapse.

"Here's to drinking enough to forget everything we learned
last semester!"
We are now in winter again, and three years have passed. A bus arrives at a train platform, and off come the college kids.

It's much of the same group, now in party costumes, and beginning to get drunk.

Seems that someone paid for a party excursion for everyone. A hurrah before the next semester.

Look! The plot is pulling in.

"Say you wouldn't still have Claudia Schiffer's number?"
Now we meet the rest of our main characters.

The train's conductor is Carne. He's a down home type. Friendly. Fatherly. Eager to show off a bad magic trick. He's the an upstanding figure making some extra money on the side, to support his RV business.

He's played by Ben Johnson. Johnson is a long standing actor, who's best known for years of cowboy movies. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Rio Grande. Shane. And other films, like Red Dawn, Mighty Joe Young, and Cherry 2000.

And we have the Magician. (Cue Gob Bluth jokes.) And he is called the Magician. While some sites try and give him a name, it's never explicitly said in the movie. How mysterious. He's a little awkward to start, and then a bit distant. And finally he does his best to charm these kids on the train, and bring some magic. (And be ready to watch magic tricks.) ...But no one hired a magician...

And he's played by David Copperfield. And the first time I watched this movie I thought it was funny, because he does look like David Copperfield...for obvious reasons. This is his one journey into acting. It was for the best. His skills lie elsewhere.


As everyone gets ready to board the plan, people being milling around and talking. Alana and Mo talk, and he tells her that he came up with the idea for the train trip, as a surprise for her graduation. (And as is implied later, Mo is rich. So I guess he paid for this whole trip, and may pay for a lot of things for his friends.) Alana is dressed as a pirate, but don't worry she loses her costume fast and is just dressed casual for most all of the movie (Except when she's covered in blood.). And Mo is dressed up as a bird....Lame. (And if you are going to dress as a bird, at least dress like a toucan.)

"Hey remember 3 years ago this night when when we destroyed that kids
mind? That was epic!"
The rest of the frat boys are dressed as a monk, a lizard creature, and Groucho Marx. They are all ready to party, passing out beer to the other kids. And Doc is passing out spiked drinks to screw with the younger folks...Ass.

But then we get Ed (dressed as Groucho). Ugh! He is eager to get everyone's attention so he starts going around screaming out obnoxious and dumb jokes. And repeats them until he gets a reaction. (He's not even using good Groucho material!)

Is this what the movie is going to be?!


I need this guy in the movie like I need a sword through the gut.
Hello! You must be going. I came to say you cannot stay.
You must be going!
Ah! But wait.

And then, as people start going on the train, Ed looks to be doing a gag, pretending to be stabbed with a fake sword.

Everyone laughs, and gets aboard.

What they don't seem to be noticing is all the blood trailing down from the sword. Or the fact the sword is jutting out his back.


And Ed is no more. We don't see what happen, but deftly someone has taken a sword and run Ed through.

Officially, the slasher in this movie has jumped up to be my favorite character.

The killer then pulls out the sword, and takes Ed's costume. And then he rolls him under the train.

Honestly, Ed was so annoying in the last several minutes, that I am overjoyed that he's gone now.

And now our killer has a costume (or a new one at least). This is a trick the killer will use throughout the movie. Stealing victim's costumes to often use. And when not, he finds other costumes and ways to change and move among the partying kids unnoticed.

And away the train goes!

And Thomas the Tank Engine muttered, "What happens at
Shiny Time Station, stays at Shiny Time Station."

We learn before the train leaves that the it lacks a radio. You can call the engine, but there's no way to call off of the train. So they can't call for the police to meet the train. Or, ask for information about the people on board. Ah, the 80's, right? Once upon a time it wasn't a plot hole to have people isolated while on public transportation. Maybe that's why there hasn't been a remake...Nah, they'd just create a dumb excuse.

 Aboard the train people start settling in.

Alana and Misty (dressed as a witch) talk and commiserate, as Alana is graduating early to get a job before graduate school.

And the frat boys are enjoying themselves (And have not noticed that Ed is missing.). Talking to some guys that seem to have been in school as long as them, but don't know what happen three years before, brag about "the prank". Doc is eager to tell the tale and lay it on thick. It is a moment of glory for him.

We also learn that they almost got kicked out. Almost? Geez. How does that work? Was it a coverup? Did Mo pay out money? Is Doc just that slippery?

But Doc got away with it.

And they all agree. No big deal. It was funny. Maybe things went a little to far, maybe. But it was just a joke.

Alana walks in during this and is pissed. (But still hangs out, and dates in this group.) And, still, Mo, her boyfriend is eager to defend Doc. (He even calls her sore for getting caught up in it.)

What a group.

We also see the Magician preparing, and talking to his assistant. He hates being there, but finally goes out to chat up the college kids, and do some quick magic.

And Copperfield and the director pointed out that they had to work out what tricks to use, and how. The problem with magic in movies and TV is that is will always look fake (as we are familiar with what tricks TV and movie's can pull). For instance, Copperfield does one trick where he levitates a flower to a person, and I can't believe it's one of his real tricks. And that may be that movie bias coming out. Heck, he does a disappearing trick that I can't believe you could do without a decent amount of prep work in the room you are using. BUT I'm not a magician, so I am talking out of my backside.

So the question sits before us. Who killed Ed? Was it the Magician?

Well, for sure it seems obvious that it's Kenny, right? It's the whole point of the first scenes of the movie. It's the obvious answer.

But where is Kenny? Is he right before us?

Some people have said that Copperfield couldn't be Kenny. He clearly looks to much like a famous stage magician. But in movie land, why couldn't he? A few years. A growth spurt. A little cosmetic surgery. Why not? It's not that big a leap.

Look at that. Instantly a more believable Groucho...
Groucho always looked like he wanted to kill, right?
But the movie will make you wait to learn the answer. The killer has business to handle first.

He begins stalking his targets. He follows and circles them, waiting for his chances.

He has all night. And he wants to do this right.

"Don't look now, but I think there's one too many men in
this room, and I think it's you."

And when the time is right. He strikes.

Brutally and fatally. But what do you expect from a slasher?

Then again, maybe no one was dead. Just some kids screwing around and drunk. And suddenly white. But it's enough to make the adults think it's all tomfoolery.
"I had the weirdest dream. I thought I was that guy from the
last season of Air Wolf."

Carne the Conductor starts worrying. There are no bodies, just oddities. It may be too late before he or anyone else realizes what is stalking among them. How many bodies will have to be piled up before Carne or Alana work things out?

And along the way you can watch Doc have a bad night.

Having the magician onboard leaves him in a sour mood. It's clear Doc is a guy that hates anyone else having a crowds attention. And this magician manages to be a large source of entertainment (...It could happen!). And it chaffs at Doc.

He's repeatedly hostile to the idea of him being there, and as the film goes on, he makes a point of heckling.

He can't assert control of the group.

And as Alana criticizes him, and gets angry at Mo, he tries to set up events so that Alana will find Mo with another woman. All a game, and all reasserting his dominance, at least over Mo. He can at least keep Mo close.

He's very attached to Mo, and then he watches him expire. And he loses it.

And when he learns Kenny is the answer, he panics. Alana reveals that she tried to visit him in the hospital. She couldn't see him as he apparently murdered someone. He had become extremely dangerous as a result of his distress from that night.

So, panicked, Doc is desperate to take charge of the situation. He is going to fix isolating himself.

And when he's locked away, he decides he's totally safe. nothing can happen now.

His last words are a weak defense. It had all been just a joke.

And, in the end, Alana is left as the final old friend. And for Carne, he learns that all the train's engineers and shovelers are dead or missing. Thankfully he knows how to control the engine.

And as Carne is running around the train, the others kids are either hiding together, or hunting for an unknown killer on the train, Alana finds herself stalked. She somehow manages to end up, with all the other people who she could stick near, alone and fighting to survive.

"Hey! Could you, uh, open the window?"

"Please tell me your a delightful 60's Batman villain."

But that's not to say that Alana doesn't have some sense to her. She knows that the killer is coming. So she sets a trap.

From the look on it's face, the blowup doll didn't see that

"Oh, geez, Alana. Where's this anger coming from?"
And she's the first to actually wound Kenny, as he's trying to ax her to death.

She stabs him, but he keeps going.

And, later, when it seems that Kenny has her trapped, she finds some weapon to take up. And then, again, wound Kenny, driving him away.

It isn't until the end we learn all of Kenny's secrets.

But by the end Alana and Kenny face each other, without masks or pretense. And they finally finish there business.

The result are lives lost, lives destroyed, and lives shattered. But we can always take heart, Ed was the first one killed.

The movie makes for a decent slasher outing. While the disturbed classmate has become more common fare in later years. It is used well here. You can sympathize with the killer some, and you can dislike the characters. But they don't become just fodder, whose deaths exist for our amusement (...No, not even Ed's...). Doc is a bastard, and a coward, and a jerk, but you can still see his humanity, and how flawed and screwed up he is.

It is sometimes forgotten that these early slasher movies often did care about having real characters in peril.

The film is overall well put together. Well shot. Well lit. And well edited. The atmosphere created on the train helps enhance the terror and maintain the mystery.

When you finally understand what Kenny has been doing throughout the film, various moments can make more sense. You can see the ongoing magic show, and see just how it ties into Kenny's movements.

And you can better figure just what happens to Mo. One minute he is sitting dejected, and then he's still. Then minutes later, he slumps over. Considering where Kenny was doing, you can understand just the trick that was used for that shock.

Derek McKinnon's work as Kenny is great. He shows the skills he's honed in his primary work in the entertainment field. It's a cogent performance. ...I don't want to spoil the reveal.

Just check the movie out for yourself.

It is out on DVD and Blu Ray. And Shout Factory has out a recent release.

But if you want to take a short excursion first...

This is most definitely a movie worth seeing at least once. As a fan of slasher films. As a fan of 80's horror. As a completeist of Jamie Lee Curtis's Scream Queen era. As someone who wants a bit of horror in their lives.


And, just in case this isn't enough Jamie Lee Curtis and Hart Bochner. How about that pilot I mentioned above?

Callahan. Enjoy...?

Yeah. This has a laugh track...

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