Blu-ray Review: TERROR TRAIN (Scream Factory)

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Terror Train is one of those early slashers that most casual films fans know more from the iconic poster/VHS artwork than from the actual movie. The creepy big-nosed mask and giant carving knife are a scary sight, especially to those predisposed to coulrophobia. 

What lurks beneath that creepy exterior is a surprisingly effective little horror film, something I never would've imagined. Having clawed my way through dozens, maybe hundreds, of horror films since my early teenage years, I've become accustomed to disappointment. Thankfully, Terror Train packs a really tight, claustrophobic story into a well-paced little package. Thank jeebus for Scream Factory making the extra effort to bring this film to special edition Blu-ray and DVD, it's definitely worth it.

The film opens with a fraternity gag involving an emotionally frail outcast attempting to make love to a rotted corpse. Somehow the prank goes wrong, and this gangly psychopath ends up on a revenge spree some years later when the fraternity reconvenes on a celebratory train excursion. One by one, Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) picks them off in increasingly gruesome and clever ways, moving from the outside in as he slowly makes his way through the clique to his ultimate goal, the prank's mastermind, Doc Hanley (Hart Bochner). In between Kenny and his goal stands reluctant frat moll Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis). Will she survive the Terror Train?

This no-budget slasher shouldn't have worked. The plot is derivative, the script is hokey, and the director was a rookie even though he'd worked with Sam Peckinpah as editor on Straw Dogs. It is through sheer willpower and fortuitous circumstances that Terror Train comes together to form a cohesive whole that delivers miles beyond its meager means.

Jamie Lee Curtis was still fresh from the triple crown of Halloween, The Fog, and Prom Night having made her a big star, and there's no reason she needed to take this job. Her charisma, and eardrum-shattering scream, holds this film together beautifully, and even though the final reel has very deep echoes of Halloween, she still manages to pull it off without seeming too cheesy. It would be three more years before Trading Places would pull Curtis from the horror "ghetto," and set her on the path that would eventually lead to her selling poop yogurt on TV. There is no doubt that this is one of her great horror roles, and hopefully now more people will take the chance on it.

The real surprise of the film for newbies is a featured role for young Canadian magician David Copperfield as the train's hired entertainment, Ken the Magician. Copperfield had already made a couple of TV specials and was not a newcomer to the magic scene, however Terror Train was his first (and only credited) film appearance, and he shows that not only can he do the tricks flawlessly, he can also make you believe in him as the asshole prima donna magician on this train to make a buck. I loved Ken the Magician, and Copperfield's performance makes me wish he'd done more film work. Sure, he'd probably have been typecast, but the guy has real charisma on screen.

If we add to these two assets the immaculate set design, surprisingly stylish direction, and good old fashioned blood and guts of Terror Train, it becomes a bit more clear how the whole thing works so well. Director Roger Spottiswoode may have been a rookie director at the time, but looking at his filmography after this picture (Air America, Turner & Hooch, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), it seems that he may have peaked early. Nonetheless, subsequent commercial failures and poop yogurt shilling thankfully have no retroactive effect on Terror Train's awesomeness, and I can heartily recommend the film.

The Disc:

I wasn't expecting much of this disc. Having seen a lot of slashers in my years, I know that many of them have been left to the dustbin of history very early on and often source materials are not great. However, Terror Train looks absolutely outstanding! The natural feel of the image is very satisfying and the organic grain looks as though it belongs. It feels like watching a good film print, which isn't something we can say about many Blu-ray discs these days. Spottiswoode's exuberant color palette is intact, and the detail in the image is hard to beat. I cannot praise this transfer highly enough. The DTS-HD MA audio track is also really awesome. Not much happens in the way of whiz-bang sound design, but I noticed no hisses, pops, or scratches, and that's enough for me.

Scream Factory labeled this disc a collector's edition, and they aren't kidding around. In addition to the film on Blu-ray and DVD, we also get a host of interviews and promos. Production exec Don Carmody, producer Daniel Grodnik, production designer Glenn Bydwell, and composer John Mills-Cockell all get their moment in the sun, and each of them shares fond memories about the little Terror Train that could. Each was surprised by the film's success, but there is passion evident in their interviews, even 32 years later. All that's missing from this disc is a making of doc, but I'll give it a pass just because the rest of the content is so exceptional.

BUY BUY BUY!!!
Special Features:
  • - Interview With Production Executive Don Carmody, Producer Daniel Grodnik, Production Designer Glenn Bydwell And Composer John Mills-Cockell
    - Theatrical Trailer
    - TV Spot
    - Still Gallery
Around the Internet:
  • The WZA

    I realize that it's a 30 year-old film (and that the killer's reveal is fairly obvious), but a SPOILER ALERT within your plot synopsis would be in order considering the new Scream Factory release (which presumably represents the first time many viewers will watch it).

  • MattB

    Apparently a commentary track by the director was suppose to happen, but Spottiswoode backed out at the last minute. It should also be mentioned that the cinematographer on Terror Train was John Alcott, Kubrick's DP from A Clockwork Orange.to The Shining.

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