The slasher subgenre boomed after the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Where no one was even really sure that Halloween would work—at least not in the way that it did—once it proved to be a success, everyone wanted a piece of that pie. 1980 and 1981 were crowded years, each seeing dozens of slasher releases. John Carpenter became a name to look out for in the horror field because of the film’s success. And Jamie Lee Curtis became a scream queen. Interestingly enough, though, she didn’t get further roles in slashers immediately following Halloween. Instead, she went back to working in TV until Carpenter gave her another leading role in The Fog. That was when people really gravitated toward her as a genre actress. It wasn’t so much because of Halloween as it was the fact that they were seeing her star in two high-profile horror vehicles almost back to back. That was what ultimately led to Curtis getting starring roles in Prom Night and Terror Train. Both were slashers like any other, trying to ape the success of Halloween and feeling a better chance of doing so with that film’s star as their lead. But while Prom Night became remembered as something of a horror classic in its own right, Terror Train is honestly the better movie.
It starts off simple enough, with a prologue sequence giving us the backstory of a very mean-spirited fraternity prank on a shy young man named Kenny Hampson. He is so traumatized by the prank that he is sent away to a mental hospital. Alana, our heroine, is still guilt stricken over the event when the main story picks up three years later, but everyone else believes it was hilarious. It’s a very traditional inciting incident for a slasher film, overall. But it’s unique for how cruel it is, even though no one actually got hurt, which is rare for this kind of backstory. Generally, the killer is seeking revenge for a wrongful death or at least an assumed death. Here, as horrible as it was and even though it did involve death, Kenny was not physically hurt, nor was anyone else.
Because it’s very hard to make the killer’s identity a surprise in this one, Terror Train has to resort to other means of keeping the audience on their toes and constantly guessing. This is ultimately what makes it stand apart from other slashers of the era. After Halloween, a killer needed an iconic look and mask, which led to the recognizable appearances of the killers in My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler, as well as Jason’s getup in Friday the 13th Part 2.
Terror Train takes a completely different approach. Here, the action is centered around a costume party. Everyone is wearing a mask, which is such a genius concept to apply to a slasher film, I’m shocked it wasn’t done before this. When the killer does away with someone, he takes their costume, so his outfit is constantly changing. But even for the viewer, it can get tough to keep track of him, which is part of the fun.
The setting of the train is also important because there’s something that feels immediately classic about it. It harkens back to Hitchcock. Slasher movies also get a lot of flack for having supposedly isolated situations that probably could have been avoided or escaped. With a train, however, the characters are truly stuck together. There’s nowhere to go and that creates a sense of dread and paranoia even before the body count begins.
Terror Train isn’t an overly violent movie when compared with contemporaries like The Burning or The Prowler. Instead, it relies much more on suspense and build-up, which probably better suits the film overall. It’s a slickly made slasher that contains most of the character types you’d expect from the era, but it is elevated by its style, tone and suspense.
Jamie Lee Curtis has said that aside from Laurie Strode, Alana was her second favorite of her horror film roles and that it was a character that impressed her. This is understandable. Alana is unusually aware of her surroundings for a protagonist in a feature of this type, she does not put up with anything she doesn’t want to and proves to be a smart and capable heroine.
With the set up at the beginning, we know that the killer is probably going to turn out to be Kenny. There would be no reason for the prologue if it wasn’t. But his identity is revealed in such an interesting and unique way. Even as someone transitioning from mask to mask, his disguise is more elaborate than one might think.
Terror Train just works. It’s one of the best slashers of the early 1980’s and I say this as a fan of those films, believing that it has some stiff competition. Still, it feels like there’s a little more to the story than even some of the greats like My Bloody Valentine. It knows what it is and embraces that but at the same time is not afraid to go off into some completely unexpected directions. In a portion of the decade ruled by the slasher, this is ultimately appreciated, and that innovative and fresh quality has proved to be the key to the feature’s lasting success in the eyes of horror fans.