Terror Train, Roger Spottiswoode’s contribution to the slasher — and directorial debut; he would later helm cop-dog comedy Turner & Hooch, Bond vehicle Tomorrow Never Dies, and, more recently, A Street Cat Named Bob, in a strikingly non-horror career — came in 1980, a prime spot of the genre’s Golden Age through 1978 – 1984. It had the makings of a hit, scoring cinematographer John Alcott, fresh from shooting The Shining, and a young, fast-rising horror starlet in Jamie Lee Curtis, her feature debut of course in a certain little film called Halloween. Certainly distributor 20th Century Fox was game, sinking a hefty budget into advertising what, too, was their slasher debut. Nevertheless, reception at the time was divided, with positive views still a little ambivalent, and a scathing Roger Ebert accused the film and others of its ilk of being a mere “series of sensations… any plot will do”. Well, perhaps. The slasher is a celebration of the visceral, after all. But, scratch beneath the surface of Terror Train, and there’s an effective comment on social order here.
Opening to a New Year celebration, we’re introduced to the Sigma Phi Omega Fraternity. The gaggle of young people populating horror stories is a familiar element, with some justification; they represent a convenient cross-section of society that illustrates hierarchy and the roles both voluntarily and involuntarily taken within it. It is the subversion of roles within this microcosm on which Terror Train hangs its overriding theme of trust, and its dark twin, deception.
Bottom of the pecking order here are the virgins, marked by their beanie hats, while at the top resides the handsome Doc (a charismatic Hart Bochner), Sigma Phi’s accepted leader. He maintains his position as a self-appointed entertainer, constantly playing pranks on whom he views as his lesser colleagues, relying on their trust in him to do so. Alana (Curtis) is the curio of the group; by rights, as a less wealthy, scholarship student, social divide should see her occupy a lower rung, but her beauty elevates her to the strong, popular set. For this, there is a price; she is vulnerable to unwanted pressures and expectations, and as such must accept her part as the honey trap in the prank on Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) that makes up the film’s raison d’etre. It is a concise introduction that firmly establishes these three main players’ roles, emphasising their rankings, or so we believe.
Three years on, the order of the hierarchy remains the same; the virgins have yet to shed their beanies, and Doc continues his pranks as a means to control his flock and, therefore, protect his ranking. However, with experience for the students has come slight changes; they are no longer freshmen and both his and Alana’s confidence has grown in their roles. The latter’s wild card status enables her to defy Doc where others, fixed in their social ordering, cannot, while he has embraced a darker side that enjoys the harmful side to others via his pranks. And yet, to his uncomfortable surprise, Doc’s role finds itself precarious when David Copperfield’s magician makes his entrance. The magician is a direct, almost tangible rival: he, too, is a handsome entertainer whose following relies on trust in his illusions. The major difference — obviously his ranking as a professional is a sophisticated act to Doc’s amateur, screwball antics — is that his bears no malice. The magician’s superiority here is neatly illustrated by moralistic Alana’s enthusiastic acceptance of his tricks. Doc is aware that his — and he feels he owns it, has earned it — hierarchy is shaking, and thus Terror Train prepares its reveal for the killer who has been quietly slashing his victims all the while.
While Terror Train, like many slashers, is a fairly typical revenge yarn — and why not; revenge is a primal urge, and primal urges and sensations make up the general appeal of the horror genre — what raises it to something special is its revelling as an ultimate cautionary tale for one’s placing too much trust in the social order to not wish you harm. Poor Kenny believed Doc wanted him to help him get laid with Alana, and the consequences, for him, were severe. And yet, unlike the other virgins, Kenny experiences a post-prank refusal to accept his designated role as the victim and Sigma Phi’s entertainment fodder. Armed with this unusual defiance for one from the bottom of the pecking order, for a time, he is able to step outside of his role and enjoy great power, literally removing people from their societal positions. Yes, he is ultimately punished for this, but he achieves the prime, prize removal, Doc, first. Various guises are assumed along the way to entrust Kenny’s victims to him, and, when we come to learn that he, too, had an interest in magic, the film neatly ties its characters’ illusions and deceptions together. Also commented on is the arrogance that grows in a character like Doc; going back to the film’s raison d’etre, Terror Train is a beautiful example of what can go wrong when assuming one’s own position in the hierarchy. Doc, too, had misplaced his own feelings of trust, seeing and believing his ranking as untouchable, in a nod to the power of illusion in social ordering.
A smooth edit — Spottiswoode had previously edited for Peckinpah — and consistent pace complement the story, as, once the hierarchy begins to fall apart, there is to be no restructuring it in Doc’s favour. Just the right number of red herrings whet the appetite to further emphasise the mystery. And, notably, Terror Train is considerably less bloody than your average slasher affair, relying on post-kill shots. This pays dividends, bringing the viewer into the students’ discomfort. The lesson here is that to trust in our hierarchy is a dangerous assumption that applies to every single one of us.
This essay is part of a special edition Blu-ray release available from 88 Films now