Sunday, October 25, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Murder on the Boreal Express


It's October again!  And that means it's time for Kinemalogue's annual crossover with Brennan Klein's Popcorn Culture, which is still just about the best blog you could ever read, while Brennan has in the intervening year gone from "horror media expert" to "horror media professional."  So, just like last year, from now till Halloween, I'll be pretending to know what Brennan knows and reviewing some rad 80s slashers, while Brennan will review some swell 50s science fiction!  Let the mayhem begin!

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Written by T.Y. Drake and Daniel Grodnik
With Jamie Lee Curtis (Alana), Ben Johnson (Conductor Carne), Hart Bochner (Doc), Sandee Currie (Mitchy), Timothy Webber (Mo), Anthony Sherwood (Jackson), Howard Busgang (Ed), David Copperfield (The Magician), and Derek McKinnon (Kenny Hampson)

Spoiler alert: severe

"Can't we just forget the past?"
"That woman deserves her revenge.  And we deserve to die.  But then again, so does she.  So—I guess we'll just see.  Won't we?"

Slasher films get a bad rap: thanks to Psycho and Halloween, the whole genre is pegged as a playground for psychotic destructors who kill either for the sake of it, or as a substitute for sex.  But consider instead Friday the 13th, The Burning, Prom Night, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Scream—they are all, in their fashion, tales of revenge.  Their killers have a reason to kill; their motives go beyond their nature.  Sometimes, the wrongs they perceive are even entirely real: Crospy was set on fire; the counselors' negligence cost Mrs. Vorhees her son.  Yet these villains are almost entirely disconnected from reality.  The vengeance they take winds up against third parties with nothing to do with their pain.  In their movies, it's society itself that pays the price for the sins of a few.  Oh, they may be enjoyable to watch work, but they're still just on a rampage.  They're not on a mission.

Meanwhile, Terror Train does what I suspect only a very few slasher films do: it offers a murderer whose motivations are completely sympathetic, and whose methods are not just directly connected with his goal, but damned close to surgical; and it offers victims who have genuinely earned their deaths.  The only exception is the Final Girl herself, who wins survival not by avoiding sex—nor even by being pure, since she isn't that—but because she alone has proven herself capable of empathy, guilt, and repentance.

True, slightly more people die on this locomotive than actually did anything to this fellow, but like the Crazy 88s, they're kind of incidental.

Now, the time-tested approach for getting you to root against the victims in a murder movie is to make them terrible and grating.  Fortunately, this isn't at all the case here.  They're bad people, not obnoxious people.  Indeed, you could have a blast with these guys—maybe you don't like them, but they still throw one hell of a party.  Let's get acquainted with our cast.

We begin three years ago, on New Year's Eve.  The pre-med fraternity's having a boozy bonfire bash, as frat boys are wont to do—and, as frat boys are likewise wont to do, they play a trick on their most naive and most virginal pledge, a fragile reed of a boy named Kenny Hampson.  His persecutors number six.  There's Doc, the mastermind of the prank, who barely bothers pretending that his jokes are funny rather than just the expression of his innate cruelty.  There's Mo, whose co-dependent relationship with Doc does more than just verge on the unhealthy.  There's Jackson, whose characterization doesn't go much beyond "is a dick," but you glean something of his personality from his affectation of Northeast elite mannerisms.  There's Ed, another dick, only shorter, whiter, and goofier.  There's Mitchy, Doc's girlfriend, who seems to take almost as much pleasure in hurting nerds as he does.  And then there's the linchpin of the whole operation, Alana—whose casting would already make it pretty clear that Mitchy was never going to be the last woman standing, even if Alana's reluctance didn't.

When the boys and Mitchy convince poor Kenny that Alana's got the hots for him, Alana pretends to be the body in the upstairs bedroom of the frathouse, whispering encouraging words from behind a curtain.  So Kenny undresses, gets in the bed, and begins to kiss the corpse Doc and his pals have put there.  In fairness, Alana's dismayed by this development—she didn't know about that part of the plan—but Kenny goes more than a little mad.  Panicking like a wild animal, Kenny tangles himself in the bed's canopy, while the frat boys (and Mitchy) laugh and laugh.

Can a scene be both kinda silly and genuinely upsetting?

And the years pass.  We hear tell that Kenny even kills someone—it was, we rather want to believe, an accident—but however it happened, it put him in an institution.  Meanwhile, Doc and his friends get the mildest punishment possible—they're not-quite-expelled, and thus we can very reasonably say they got away with what they did scot free.  Alana's developed a relationship with Mo in the meantime—true, she's never forgiven Doc, but, you know, it's much easier to blame one person than your whole poisonous social circle.

On the anniversary of their half-forgotten crime, Doc conceives a new, even wilder party, a masquerade aboard an excursion train that goes from nowhere to nowhere and back, across the wintry wilderness of Canada.  Weak-spirited Mo picks up the bill.  Of course, Doc doesn't know that Kenny has recently been freed of his confinement, and a costume party on a train gives Kenny every last little thing he needs to conceal his identity and trap the men and women who traumatized him.  Ed's the very first to go, out on the platform.  Kenny dons his Groucho Marx costume as his own—as if to ask, "Are you laughing now?"

A more pretentious motion picture would probably have established a consistent symbolic scheme for its key victims' costumes.  But, hey—if there's a deep meaning behind this guy's parrot mask, please, let me know.

Terror Train proceeds somewhat as you'd expect: the victims are isolated, killed, and Kenny takes their masks so he can get close to the next person on his list; the old conductor Carnes does what he can to keep a lid on the situation; and, at one point, Kenny is stabbed in the ocular region through his mask with an improvised weapon, because that's Jamie Lee Curtis' thing.  However, it's possible that you would not expect David Copperfield.


Bizarrely, Copperfield's participation amounts to an accident of fate: producer Sandy Howard liked stage magic, and thus demanded that his slasher movie script be rewritten to feature a stage magician.  This is pretty much the exact kind of meddlesome mechanical-spider bullshit that gives executives a bad name—and, well, in this one, Copperfield kind of makes the movie.  There's no way to expect that.

Structurally, the imposition of Copperfield's magician allowed for the introduction of a twist—and then a twist upon the twist when it turns out that the first was exactly the red herring that it looks like.  But more importantly, Howard's instincts were right: the film never stops—it never even slows down—but it when it comes to Copperfield, it happily takes the scenic route.  Some of his close-up magic is edited to death—the cigarette-and-quarter trick is 100% real and looks 100% fake—but when Copperfield gets some breathing room, he amazes much as he is known to do, notably with a very nice transported man.

Suck it, Angier!

And how does he levitate that rose?  I don't know, nor want to know.  It's good, clean fun—a nice constrast to all those stabbings, bludgeonings, and decapitations.

Most importantly of all, however, Copperfield represents Terror Train's most salient expression of its peculiar personality.  Copperfield, a neutral observer, is the lens through which we are invited to witness the frivolous rich fuckitude of these exceedingly rich fucks.  Copperfield was reportedly a disaster on the set—testified to by his avoidance of narrative film ever since—and yet somehow he gives what amounts to the single best performance in a movie that also stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Johnson.  Every second Copperfield's onscreen, he radiates pure contempt for every person he surveys, except for maybe his lovely assistant—but absolutely including Alana, whom he seduces in a manner that suggests he's bored and annoyed and just wants to hatefuck one of these clowns to try to get it out of his system.

But mostly, Terror Train remains a game of ten little Indians played on a hell of a well-photographed locomotive.  Now, let's not simply dismiss director Roger Spottiswoode.  Though a journeyman at best, Terror Train is a fantastic first-time effort (and, frankly, I like Turner and Hooch).  There's honestly little that could be improved upon regarding its construction, except little bits here and there: the cutting with Copperfield; a few too many shots of a moodily-lit corridor dropped in for no apparent reason except they're pretty; and a somewhat peremptory finale, which feels like they ran out of money (and maybe they did).

But we know the truth, and the truth is that the most important person behind the camera was the one right behind the camera—one John Alcott, whom you might remember from such trifles as 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining.

And, also, Terror Train.  Okie-dokie.

The challenge of shooting on a cramped, moving train was probably more like a vacation for this Kubrick veteran.  And though the strategic decision to make a slasher set on a locomotive would've already been enough to give every interior shot a certain tension, Alcott's technical genius takes it to a rarefied level, as he and production designer Glenn Bydwell color code each car like they were doing a mobile adaptation of Masque of the Red Death, granting each one its own specific, unsettling feel.  The overall aesthetic achieved is nonetheless a united one.  Terror Train is dominated by garish lighting, smoky air, and the impression of enormous expense lavished upon chintzy crapulence—in other words, it perfectly replicates the enticing yet repugnant atmosphere of a well-funded college party.

It's so accurate you can practically smell the vomit and date rape.

The artistry, unlike in some other well-made slashers, is nonetheless in the service of a cracking story.  That's what you get when you see the Made in Canada label: as with My Bloody Valentine, Canadian slashers just seem to try a little harder.  On a formal level, Terror Train's script is strikingly good—sharp characters and streamlined pacing, while never eschewing all the bizarro nonsense you still need in a good slasher pic.  And even though I am damned positive that it cheats like hell to achieve its goals, can you really fault this movie, of all movies, for engaging in a little magic?

But, since it is also an early 1980s slasher, naturally it ends in a sequence where a young woman must fight her way through a Dumbassed Twist for the ages—a twist that, as near as I can determine, exists entirely for its own sake.  If there was ever any mystery to who the killer was, that was already handily resolved, well before the second reveal.  When Terror Train twists, riffing on nothing less than Psycho itself—and with only about half the insensitivity of De Palma's Dressed to Kill—it changes nothing about either the dynamics of our thriller plot or the dynamics of the characters' relationships.  And yet it's so breathtaking in the moment, that as a purely mechanical exercise, it must rank as one of the top twists in all slasher cinema.

Not too shabby for a movie that was conceived in a dream that Daniel Grodnik had after he watched Halloween and Silver Streak back to back.  But the most important aspect of Terror Train remains its revenge-thriller bona fides.  Possessed of a recognizable brand of justice, it just feels different than the average slasher film, where punishments are meted out for foolishness or promiscuity.  Lesser slasher films trick you into rooting against the Meat; and, yes, the very greatest ones admit upfront that the characters are best approached as props full of red corn syrup; and then there's Terror Train, which gives you deeper reason to enjoy the kills than the appeal of violence.  It lets you side with the killer or with his victims—or with neither, as you watch a morality play with a bit more resonance than the usual takeaway, which is "if you didn't want to die, you shouldn't have been alive."

Killer: Kenny Hampson
Final Girl: Alana Maxwell
Best Kill: Doc gets his head chopped off in between scenes... but they find it.
Sign of the Times: Fraternities are still cool.
Scariest Moment: Alana is trapped in a cage that exists in the front of the train for some reason, while Kenny tries to spear her with a metal rod.  Listen, I just don't understand why you have to see everything as some kind of phallic symbol.
Weirdest Moment: The conductor and the engineer discuss the future of the North American transportation network as we approach peak oil.  (In a movie called Terror Train, I daresay that this conversation is weirder than any gender-bending twist.)
Champion Dialogue: "No, it's true.  Doc won an award!" "Best pap smear in a supporting role."
Body Count: 11, including the killer
1. Ed plays a funny joke, where he pretends to get stabbed in the liver and rolled underneath a moving train
2. Jackson meets the man in the mirror, repeatedly
3. Mitchy tries to get witchy with Kenny, and ends up strangled and slashed
4. Kenny, with a bit of magic of his own, makes Mo's soul disappear
5. Charley is killed offscreen
6. The magician forgets the most important step during the sword-in-the-box trick
7. Doc is suitably punished for heckling a cool magic show
8. The porter is relieved of duty
9. The brakeman is broken
10.  The engineer is... engined (it's late)
11. Kenny is hit with a shovel till he falls out of the train, plunging into the icy river below
TL; DR: A superb slasher, Terror Train is rich in both theme and content.  (And while this would be the part where one complains about the lack of blood, there is an awesomely severed head.)
Score:  8/10

The old switcheroo!
Brennan's Cardboard Science:
Invaders From Mars
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Giant Claw
The Brain From Planet Arous

My Census Bloodbath:
My Bloody Valentine
The Burning
Terror Train
The House on Sorority Row
Killer Party 


  1. The thing that's most striking about Terror Train's twist ending IS the fact that it has no reason to be there. You know exactly who the killer is, so the fact that there's a twist at all is mind-bending, let alone the actual nature of the thing. It's a fascinating ending to a movie that isn't perhaps a perfect example of how slasher filmmaking was typically done, but certainly a purveyor of slasher filmmaking done RIGHT.

    It always mystified me how Prom Night got a better rap than this movie. Prom Night is... fine. It has Leslie Nielsen in perhaps his last serious role, so that's a treat, but Terror Train is so much better in every way. Now, if we're talking Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, that's a far different story.

    By the way, my favorite line is definitely: "Jackson meets the man in the mirror, repeatedly."

    1. Thanks, I liked that one! Occasionally these things come together.

      I'm trying to think of another twist like it. Maybe The Prestige, where it basically shoves your face in the "secret," daring you to guess. (Also both movies are about magic.) But leaving aside the fact that The Prestige's prestige does change how you view the movie, and changes things mightily for Angier, Terror Train is a lot more timid. I mean, accomplished drag performer or not, if they'd lingered on McKinnon you'd have certainly recognized him, which is why the Assistant is always filmed in medium shots or from weird angles, and usually sort of in the background. Still pretty neat, though.

      Prom Night is... I dunno, not enough, well, anything to be good. Not enough mystery, not enough gore, not enough tension, definitely not enough visibility... it has Jamie Lee Curtis, which people make a bigger deal out of that they probably ought to, even if I understand why they do (that list beginning and ending with "is a real actor"). Anyway, I'm glad you didn't assign Prom Night.

      In other news, I think I'm only missing one Jamie Lee Curtis turn-of-the-80s horror movie, now--Road Games. Check this out:

      " A truck driver plays a cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious serial killer who uses a young female hitchhiker as bait to lure victims on a desolate Australian highway."

      So it's... Sexy Duel? Well, okay...

    2. I wouldn't inflict Prom Night upon you. It's hailed as this great classic but I have no time for it, except to marvel at its increasingly fascinating and ludicrous sequels.

      And Road Games is actually an incredible film. That synopsis was unfortunately written by someone who apparently has never seen the film, or at least turned it off 45 minutes in. There's no hitchhiker bait going on in the film, but what there is is Stacy Keach driving through Australia playing word games with a dingo with a fascinating horror story lurking around the edges. It's super cool, even if it doesn't sound that way. And yeah, there's definitely a lot of Duel in there.

      The only JLC horror picture I haven't seen is The Fog, which I daresay is a mite more well received than Prom Night.

    3. Oh, pity. I just watched The Fog a few nights ago. Love it.

      I'll definitely have to watch Road Games.