Monday, August 9, 2010
Terror Train (1980)
by Josh "Lounge Car" Converse
All aboard! This train bound for murder, mayhem, and morbidity. The conductor will be making his way--ah, fuck it. It’s a slasher movie on a train, peeps.
Trains have long served as a means of creating tension in cinema, as in masterpieces like Murder on the Orient Express and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. A train comes equipped with all the elements required for a good white-knuckle ride into terror: speed, noise, claustrophobia, and a crew not quite sharp enough to handle baggage for any of the major airlines.
Our story begins at a frat party, where the pledges of Sigma Phi Omega are being mocked and jeered and forced to wear silly hats until they lose their virginity. For that matter, the whole damn movie exists within the frat party dimension, which is so 80’s it makes me wonder how the 80’s were already in full swing as early as 1980.
Mega-dork Kenny Hampson is on deck, and pre-med heartthrob Doc and the gang have something special in store for him.
Using Alana (played by AARP spokesperson and purported hermaphrodite Jamie Lee Curtis) as sexual bait, the Omegas lure Kenny up to a room full of flashing construction lights and 16mm porno ambience. Hiding behind the headboard, siren Alana beckons Kenny closer. Scrawny Kenny strips down to his skivvies and hops in the sack, only to find himself in a liplock with the rotting, dismembered cadaver of what looks like Anne Ramsey of Throw Momma From The Train, provided by wacky pre-med prankster Doc.
Flash-forward a few years. It’s--you guessed it--party-time again, and this time the Omegas have chartered an excursion train for their last hurrah before graduation, which in this curriculum apparently takes place in the dead of winter. And guess what--it’s a costume party, buster!
Hey, who booked the magician? Nobody seems to know, but who cares--am I right, ladies?--when that magician is walking head-shot and perennial creep David Copperfield, sailing through his only film role on lapels of finest satin.
Did you know Copperfield taught magic at New York University? He’s, like, the Marty Scorsese of magic. And hair dryers.
Nearly viewable work from a non-actor, but then again, master of terror Roger Spottiswoode (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) has made a name for himself squeezing the best out of non-actors like Phil Collins in And the Band Played On, and Michael Rapaport in The 6th Day.
The carnage starts before the train even pulls away from the station. Right off the bat, unbeknownst to his frat mates, fellow Omega and general roustabout Ed is skewered with a sword and left on the tracks, where he is promptly bisected by the departing locomotive.
Or is he? Anyone seen Ed?
Oh, never mind, he’s over there in his Groucho Marx get-up. Why is he wearing the only Groucho Marx get-up in history that consists of a full latex head mask, you ask? And why so quiet all of the sudden? Ah, who gives a shit. Pass me that doobie, smart-aleck, and knock it off with all the questions.
The voice of reason is the kindly old train conductor, inexplicably named Carne, who, in an odd digression, offers an impromptu thesis on the future of train travel in the late twentieth century economy versus the relative convenience of RV’s. He runs a tight ship, Carne, and the discovery of the dead black dude in the latrine is no reason to divert a train that is running otherwise right on schedule. Best keep the ongoing slaughterfest under wraps, just until we see how things play out.
From here, the flick chugs its way into some familiar territory. There is a killer among us, and all the girls are dressed like sluts. Except for Curtis, of course, who has never looked less attractive as she shrieks her way from car to car in a baggy swashbuckler outfit. Way to waste a rack, Spottiswoode.
The train provides the claustrophobic tension, Copperfield shoves a cigarette through a quarter, and about an hour in, a pair of random tits finally find their way into the frame, possibly by mistake. Very little actual mystery involved in this one. You know from the very outset that Kenny is your killer, though it is only around the eighty minute mark that it is revealed that poor Kenny was, like, way into magic. This little twist, which seems ham-fisted at best when introduced, actually turns out to be something of a masterstroke. The image of Copperfield popping out of vestibules and luggage compartments with a slyly raised eyebrow before promptly running his victims through with a sword is one that many people probably hold within their subconscious to begin with.
All due snarkiness aside, the twist does get you in the gut a little when it fully manifests itself. I must also admit that for someone who loathes magicians as much as I do (in my realm of preferred entertainment, the magician resides somewhere between the ventriloquist and, on the low end, the person charged with rallying the sales department at any given Volvo dealership), there is a special kind of glee to see this man, who would go on to make the Statue of Liberty disappear, with a sword stuck through his head.