Looking back on the 70s and 80s slasher era, it's very apparent that Canadians provided some of the sub-genre's most impressive and most popular entries (MY BLOODY VALENTINE, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, among others), and if not for BLACK CHRISTMAS, Roger Spottiswoode's TERROR TRAIN would easily be my all-time favorite Canadian slasher.
It's New Year's Eve and the fraternity of Sigma Phi Omega is holding a party in which the newest pledges must lose their virginity or continue wearing an embarrassing beanie atop their heads. One such virgin, Kenny Hampson, is lured into the frat house by Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis). Little does she know that the prank she believes she is in on, isn't as innocent as pre-med frat boy Doc (Hart Bochner) has lead her to believe. Instead of Alana, Kenny ends up having a date with one of the female med school corpses. Completely freaked out, he goes into a screaming, spinning rage. Three years later, the pre-med students are a semester away from graduation. To celebrate, they decide to throw the bash to end all bashes: a costume party aboard a small excursion train (complete with a magician played by real-life illusionist David Copperfield and a rock band). However, someone else has gotten aboard, someone who intends to end the trip for some of the students quite early.
TERROR TRAIN is quite simply one of the top five slasher movies ever made, in my opinion. Suspenseful, scary, humorous, and fun, it truly stands head and shoulders above the countless other HALLOWEEN clones made during the early 80's (and is a much better New Year's slasher than the dull NEW YEAR'S EVIL). The acting is top-notch, and the clever script by T.Y. Drake has given us wonderful characters to accompany the actors. In particular, cinema legend Ben Johnson's conductor is probably my favorite performance in the film, and has become one of my all-time favorite slasher movie characters. Jamie Lee Curtis and Hart Bochner are also great. You may remember Bochner as Ellis from DIE HARD. The true star of the film, however, is cinematographer John Alcott. Not since HALLOWEEN has a slasher film looked both so wonderfully sinister and gorgeous at the same time. The film is appropriately dark, but also quite colorful.
As for the killer, from the moment we first see him stealing and then wearing the Groucho Marx costume from his first victim, he gives us an unsettling feeling. He then proceeds to do the same with other costumes, posing silently as those whom he has just killed in order to stalk the others. The body language, the masks, the silence, the fury: everything adds up to one of the early 80's scariest and most-memorable slasher movie performances.
The FX are a bit restrained (most likely due to MPAA interference) but we do get a fair bit of the red stuff and the editing is never choppy. Gore FX aren't the film's strong point, and they don't try to be (as proven by one ridiculously phony severed head). If you're looking for a blood-fest, you may be best suited picking up a copy of THE PROWLER or MANIAC. The musical score is hit-and-miss. There are some creepy synth and strings cues here and there, but the rest of the score is somewhat un-memorable (especially that closing titles piece).
TERROR TRAIN has been given an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The first thing that struck me as the disc began was how rich the colors were. This is truly a great transfer for this title. The usual amount of grain for a film of this age can be seen in most scenes, and they probably could've toned it down a bit. But you have to remember this film is now 24-years old. The elements probably weren't kept in the best of shape (considering it was like pulling teeth to get Fox to even consider releasing this film on DVD at all). All that aside, Fox has given us a transfer that is just as good as some of Anchor Bay's better genre efforts. A full-screen presentation has been included on the flip-side. Sound-wise, the film has been given a Dolby Stereo 2.0 track. While certainly not reference-quality, I thought the track was appropriately balanced, if not completely effective. A Dolby Mono track and Spanish Stereo track are also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
As for supplements, the only thing Fox has given us here is the film's original theatrical trailer. Beware though, it spoils nearly the every scene, so watch it only after you have already seen the film. It also serves as an example of how good by comparison, the film's transfer really is. I really would've liked an audio commentary by either Curtis or the director, and perhaps some interviews with some of the principal cast members looking back on the film, but all we get is the trailer. Considering this disc is fairly in-expensive, this isn't a bad deal at all.
The cover art is a re-design by Fox, but it does use a smaller version of the original one-sheet poster's key "conductor" artwork. The disc's non-animated menus are a bit plain, but the main title screen does show a better image of the "conductor" artwork than is seen on the cover. Also included is an insert with the same artwork from the front cover, and chapter titles on the opposite side.
In conclusion, minor transfer quibbles and lack of supplements aside, Fox Video has given horror fans a true treat this Fall. TERROR TRAIN is a must-see for slasher fans and general horror fans alike. It's one of the better entries in a sub-genre, which has never been accused of having churned out a great number of classics. If you're looking for an equally fun and spooky little slasher, TERROR TRAIN should be your next stop. All aboard? (Wes Ray)
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