"Terror Train" runs a respectable second to "He Knows You're Alone" among the latest outbreak of horror thrillers.
Lacking an insatiable appetite for gruesome stimulation, I'm not all that thrilled by the proliferation of horror melodramas. One "Allen" or "Dressed to Kill" a year will suffice as far as I'm concerned.
But the terror glut has become a fact of working life, and the filmes are often remarkable talent showcases and springboards. "Terror Train," opening today, provides an entertaining opportunity for Roger Spottsiwoode, a 35-year-old Canadian making a very skillful directing debut after several years as an editor with Sam Peckinpah. He is aided by the great cinematographer John Alcott, who gives the movie's traveling deathtrap -- an excursion train packed with hedonistic college kids -- a spooky infernal glamor recalling his most sinister lighting schemes for Stanley Kubrick in "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining."
In some respects "Terror Train" seems a harder scare movie to sustain than "He Knows You're Alone," which enjoys a more likeable set of potential victims and switches locales freely. And "Terror Train" is peculiarly inhibited by the fact that you feel little, if any, rooting interest for the murder victims, an amoral, heedless pack of promiscuous frat rats and sorority tarts who participated in a cruel joke that provoked the sequence of homicides spoiling their train trip, a New Year's costume orgy to oblivion.
Although T.Y. Frank's script has a reasonable share of loaded ironic lines ("You almost scared the pants off me," purrs one ill-fated cutie to the killer, disguised in one of the several masks and costumes that conceal his blood-thirsty identity), it lacks the comic zest and cordiality of "He Knows You're Alone." You may not appreciate how much incidentally homorous scenes and ingratiating characters contribute until you find them conspicuously missing. With less good-natured diversion and fewer good-natured personalities to rally and amuse the audience between ghastly killings, "Terror Train" is subject to expository lulls that were often cheerfully finessed in "He Knows You're Alone."
The only sympathetic figures among the principals are Ben Johnson as the train's conductor -- an RV dealer who has fallen on hard times -- and Jamie Lee Curtis as a coed who possesses a saving residue of shame for her role in the prank that triggers the terror. Encouraged to show a range of emotions, Curtis is far more attractive and appealing here than she was in John Carpenter's "Halloween" and "The Fog." I hadn't realized she had a smile and a laugh in her repertorie until this film.
as the most obnoxious of the frat rats, a pre-med cad called Doc, Hart Bochner expands on the sexual arrogance he projected so effectively in "Breaking Away" where he played the smug jock from the college swimming team. "Handsome but irredeemably swinish, Docis a chip of the old Dorian Gray Block, and it appears that Bochner may have a fresh patent on this model.
The prime suspect is David Copperfield as a magician hired to entertain the partygoers. He has a memorably funny line, "I have to have it quiet when I do my illusions," a remark fraught with all-purpose significance if I ever heard one. However, he seems to be getting rather too much crucial assistance from the director and editor when it comes to dazzling the audience. The illusions suffer to some extent from the strong suspicion that they're largely the work of editing and optical tricks.
In a similar respect, why is it that the new generation of thriller directors so often fails to let well enough alone? Both Armand Mastroianni in "He Knows You're Alone" and Spottiswoode in "Terror Train" bring back their killers for outrageous encores. There's some perverse tendency now in fashion to deny audiences a deserved resolution of the vicarious terror they've been experiencing.
Mastroianni and Spottsiwoode simply can't resist One Last Blitz. In the process, they inflict more damage on the finales of their movies than the nerves of the audience.