Say hello to my list’s only Canadian film!
Given her strong legacy, I felt like I had to put Jamie Lee Curtis here on the list somewhere, but I was damned if it was going to be Halloween! Luckily, I read about and then found Terror Train (1980). It follows the basic slasher-movie plot, but provides several key switches on the familiar old track.
The movie opens with a mean fraternity prank, where Kenny thinks he’s going to have sex with Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), and he follows her into the designated room, only to wind up kissing one of the cadavers from the pre-med lab. He winds up institutionalized.
Three years later the guilty students are having one last big New Year’s party on a train in costumes. Their friend Ed shows up in a Groucho Marx costume with a seemingly fake sword through his stomach. Everyone laughs at his clowning and gets on the train, but then Ed falls down dead. The killer takes Ed’s costume, kicks his body onto the tracks and boards the train. The party (featuring a cameo by the magician David Copperfield as the entertainment) and the carnage kick into high gear.
So far, business as usual. However, unlike most slasher movies, Terror Train as an effective authority figure, surprisingly in the form of Ben Johnson as the conductor, Carne. He is a much more active, dynamic character than, say, Loomis in Halloween. Carne doesn’t spend the whole movie camped out by the wrong end of the train, waiting for something to happen.
Back to Alana. One of the reasons I like her is that she has a complexity that the slasher heroine usually did not have. She is culpable in what happened to Kenny (who, you guessed it, is the costumed killer). However, she is the only one in the group to really express remorse for what they did, which gives her a dynamism as a character. She is also active in trying to deduce which member of the party is the killer, but has moments where fear temporarily gets the better of her. Terror Train really lets Curtis use her charm as an actress, even in what would soon become a tired, overused subgenre.