In the short time between 1979’s Halloween, its 1981 sequel, Jamie Lee Curtis managed to star in no less than four iconic horror films (five if you count her role as the computer's voice in Escape from New York!), including Prom Night, The Fog, Road Games, and Terror Train. The latter film marked the debut of director, Roger Spottiswoode, and, along with Prom Night, had the distinction of being one of Canada’s first entries in the “Golden Age” of slasher cinema (although, it should be noted that Bob Clark’s 1974 classic, Black Christmas, had already laid down the ground work, not just for Canadian slashers, but for the genre as a whole). Long a favorite of slasher aficionados, this low-budget U.S./Canadian co-production makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout! Factory’s exciting new Scream Factory imprint, served up in an extras-laden collector's edition.
Terror Train opens with the young, shy Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) being led to the bedroom of gorgeous fellow med school student, Alana Maxwell (Curtis), who was recruited by her friends to take part in an elaborate prank masterminded by the cruel Doc (Hart Bochner). Unbeknownst to Alana, the prank involved Kenny climbing into bed with a corpse procured from the school morgue, with the end result being a mental breakdown for the already unbalanced Kenny.
Three years later, as the class members prepare to move on to graduate school, they reunite for one last party – a New Year’s Eve costume bash aboard a chartered train. Before the antiquated train can leave the station, however, one of the revelers, the mischievous joker, Ed (Howard Busgang), is murdered, and the killer dons his Groucho Marx costume and boards the train as it begins its run.
Alana and her boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), who convinced her to attend the party under the pretense of having come up with the idea, have a falling out when she learns that the real organizer was, in fact, Mo’s best friend, Doc. Alana is furious as she still resents Doc for the ordeal he put Kenny Hampson through years before, and leaves Doc and Mo to their own devices while she moves on to another car with her best friend (and Doc’s girl), Mitchy (Sandee Currie).
While Alana finds some solace in the presence of a mysterious illusionist (David Copperfield) hired to entertain the guests, the killer claims another victim – the lizard-costumed Jackson (Anthony Sherwood) – leaving his bloodied body in a locked bathroom where it’s discovered by the train’s conductor, Carne (the great Ben Johnson). Unable to radio for help, and too far out to turn around, Carne instructs his driver to pick up the pace and get them back to the station, and returns to the bathroom to show his engineer, Walter, the body. When they arrive, however, the costumed “victim” stumbles to his feet, not dead after all, but, as Walter puts it, “dead drunk”. When an equally inebriated Mitchy comes to guide her friend to his bunk, Carne grumbles about college kid antics, but his gut tells him something’s amiss.
Mitchy, meanwhile, takes “Jackson” to her bunk where she hopes to get back at Doc (who she saw abscond to the private car with the jilted Mo and a pair of coeds). “Jackson”, however, has other ideas, and slices Mitchy’s throat, leaving her body to be discovered by Carne and Alana. Certain that this body isn’t going to get up and walk away, Carne orders the train to a stop and has his men offload the passengers, informing them that there is a killer in their midst. While Carne and his men compare the guest list to the passengers outside, Alana comes to the realization that the killer is Kenny Hampson, and turns to Doc, knowing that, if Kenny is responsible for the deaths of their friends, then they’re next.
Even for a film that came along relatively early in the genre’s heyday, Terror Train is still steeped in slasher clichés and conventions, with assorted red herrings, a predictable plot, a somewhat sympathetic villain, and a host of unlikeable protagonists (save, of course, for Curtis’ Alexa and Johnson’s Carne). There are elements here, however, that that keep the film from being just another by-the-numbers slasher, and, chief among them are the claustrophobic locale (the film was shot aboard actual train cars rather than sets), the gorgeous cinematography of frequent Kubrick collaborator John Alcott (Barry Lyndon/The Shining), and assured, elegant direction by Spottiswoode. Of course, the presence of Curtis (who looks downright stunning in skintight leggings) and Johnson, as well as an excellent performance by Hart Bochner, who action film fans will recognize as Die Hard’s weasily Harry Ellis, help to shore up the production even more, making Terror Train one of the more polished and professional films in the genre.
Terror Train chugs its way onto Blu-ray sporting a sturdy 1.85:1 transfer that has a pleasingly cinematic quality to it, with impressive detail, and no sign of any excess digital tinkering (ie; DNR). Much of the action takes place in darkness and shadow, and the transfer handles this admirably, although the natural grain is more pronounced in the darkest moments. The film’s always had a somewhat subdued palette, so even the garish costumes come off as muted, with an abundance of blacks, grays, and earth tones, but hotter colors, like Alexa’s red pirate sash, do occasionally pop.
Scream Factory scares up a pair of DTS HD Master Audio tracks; one 5.1, and the other 2.0. In my opinion, the 2.0 track is the more fitting and effective of the two, as it adheres more to the original film’s soundscape, and, to my ears, sounds crisper and cleaner. The 5.1 track is no slouch, and I applaud Scream Factory for giving us the choice, but I’m a purist when it comes to my vintage flicks, and stereo is just fine by me.
Terror Train is another in Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition series, meaning it comes with a few choice extras, but also features a great reversible cover featuring custom artwork on the front, and the more traditional Terror Train “Groucho Mask” cover on the reverse.
Extras are comprised of a quartet of short interview featurettes including Destination Death (HD); Riding the Rails (HD); All Aboard! (HD); and Music for Murder (HD), as well as a pair of trailers (one television, on theatrical, both presented in HD). Also included is a DVD copy of the film.
No self-respecting slasher fan can afford not to have Terror Train in their Blu-ray collection, and Scream Factory’s presentation makes it that much more essential. While it’s not as feature-packed as previous offerings, the extras offer some great insight into the production, and the film looks and sounds better than ever before. Consider this one highly recommended!