While you could probably find a Christmas-themed horror movie for the entire "season" (Black Friday until December 25th, in my house), there are relatively few New Year's themed ones, which I find strange. Unlike Christmas, New Year's seems more fitting for getaways or parties with friends, the setting for roughly half of the horror movies ever made, and producers wouldn't have to worry about any controversy from bastardizing Santa Claus or offending this or that religion. It's just New Year's! All it means is that a bunch of drunks will be watching a ball drop and you'll write the wrong year on your rent check, but people celebrate it and thus it should be a popular target. I've written about some of those few options before, but I wanted to give complete focus to Terror Train this year, because while it misses the mark in a lot of key areas and thus all but disqualifies it from the slasher film hall of fame, it's got a lot of interesting attributes all the same.
Before I get into it, I just want to note that you are forgiven for not even realizing it's a New Year's-themed slasher movie, because it's a paper-thin connection at best. Basically someone just says it is early on (and there might be another reference or two later), and that's pretty much the extent of it. No one is watching a clock or anything like that, and people are dressed in costumes for some reason (I don't mean fancy ball costumes - one guy's a Creature from the Black Lagoon type). Even some of the conversations seem a bit odd to have on December 31st; Jamie Lee Curtis' character Alana talks with her best friend about graduating and having to work before school starts, which is the sort of dialogue you would (and probably HAVE) hear(d) in a summer-set film. But unlike the others I mentioned in the older article, it's the only major one that really fits the traditional slasher film mold, so here we are.
But like I mentioned, the film is more notable for the "off" things it does, and much less so for its slasher tropes. For starters, nearly all of the kills are off-screen; sometimes it's for an interesting effect, like the first one where the prankster guy is assumed to be pulling off another gag only for us (and no one else) to realize he really has been mortally wounded from an off-screen attack. But otherwise it's just kind of frustrating; the movie is a bit longer than most of this type but the body count isn't necessarily high (I count eight - just under Friday the 13th's total, but with so many off-screen it feels way under), so to have these long gaps between kills and not even get the money shot is a bit much to ask of us. Two of those kills aren't even guaranteed - the conductor (Ben Johnson) finds the bloody hat of one of his coworkers and he just assumes the man (and another he was with) have been dispatched, but we don't even get the consolation prize of finding their body, which is how nearly all of the other kills are presented. Only two of the kills are actually on-screen, I think, which is a terrible ratio, especially when you consider that we're not even treated to a chase or any kind of stalking scene beforehand. I mean, sure, nearly every slasher movie has the "Surprise! This person's dead too!" moment, but you can really only do that once, MAYBE twice in a whodunit when revealing the corpse of a suspect. But five times? You owe us some carnage, movie!
It's even more aggravating when you consider the movie's slasher gimmick - the killer keeps changing outfits, usually taking that of the person he just killed. So he's dressed as whatever when he kills the prankster guy who is wearing a Groucho getup, then kills the Creature guy while wearing the Groucho suit, then kills again while wearing the Creature suit, and so on. In other words, they had an easy "in" to create a lot of suspense scenes based around the idea that the people will always be assuming the person in the costume is their friend and not the vengeful killer, but the script by T.Y. Drake only offers this sort of thing once, really. I'm all for leaving the killer off-screen as much as possible (it's one of the reasons I don't shine to Halloween II all that much - way too many shots of Michael just wandering around), but an exception could/should have been made here, as they had license to let him move about undetected, but almost never took advantage of it. The narrative/motive is standard stuff - our protagonists played a prank on a loner/nerd type named Kenny Hampson, and it went bad, resulting in Kenny being severely injured and sent to a psychiatric hospital. Three years later, the people who set up the prank are being offed one by one. So Kenny's back, but to give the film a bit of mystery he's kept off-screen a lot (and masked when not) so they can pull another surprise on us, one I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it yet. That probably contributes to his general elusiveness (because the logic would need to track with the other character's public whereabouts), but still - it seems they could have worked it out a little better while retaining the mystery.
Thankfully, the time not spent with our killer wasn't wasted, as the film offers some of the stronger character work seen in a slasher of the era. The character of Doc, played by future Ellis Hart Bochner, is a fascinating one - he's the resident jerk character, who masterminds the prank that sets the plot in motion, but he's also... a closeted homosexual? The movie doesn't get too explicit about it, but one of his dick moves is to try to get Alana to "catch" her boyfriend, Mo (Timothy Webber), in the act of cheating on her (something he also set up by setting a drunken girl on Mo and then leaving the room). On its own, it seems like just him being an asshole and getting back at one or both of them for some previous action, but earlier in the film there's a conversation between Doc and Mo where the latter is worried about his future with Alana and Doc says "Well, if she dumps you, you've always got me, you know." It's the sort of thing that might play as normal "bros before hos!" kind of talk, but after Mo kind of laughs it off as such, Doc adds "I mean it" with the most serious look on his face that we see during the entire film. Doc also seems to hate Alana for no real reason and, when alone with a girl, gets rid of her rather quickly (he also is said to have an "understanding" with his girlfriend, who he rarely interacts with in the film), so unless Drake (who is dead) and the other (uncredited) writers refute me, I'm going to assume this was their intent. Since most other gay characters were treated as garish caricatures back then, and rarely seen in horror at all, I like the idea that this one (possibly) has one as its most interesting character.
The movie also gives a lot of screen time to Johnson's conductor, even though he's not a college kid and/or part of the killer's revenge plot. Like many of these old slashers, Johnson's just there to give the movie some acting cred alongside all the fresh faces, but he comes close to actually earning his top-billed status (unlike say, Donald Pleasence, who gets the same for Halloween even though he's in it for less than 20 minutes). There are several scenes early on where his character debates with others about the need for trains in the future, as he seems to be thinking that RVs will soon replace them all. He also seems pretty much ready to give up his job of driving this little "excursion train", as expressed in a scene that would never exist in a modern movie, where he and another older actor just talk to each other like they're in a melodrama. Later he takes a cue from David Copperfield's magician character and amuses himself (and even Doc, slightly) with a "card trick" that he'll show to anyone that will stop long enough to let him. He's even the one who (spoiler) kills the killer, which is kind of lame when he had no direct connection to the guy (whereas in the original Halloween it made more sense for Loomis to "kill" Myers than her).
And yes, David Copperfield. There's no real reason for him to be in this movie other than to give it a very confusing red herring (it's only been three years - how would the Kenny we saw turn into David Copperfield in that period of time? At least Valentine gave us a decade or so to turn that gawky kid into David Boreanaz), but he does his thing and does it well, and I like that he actually interacts with the rest of the cast. Doc takes a disliking to him, naturally, but Jamie Lee is also seemingly kind of smitten by him (and he seems to reciprocate), so as far as Celebrity Guest Stars! go in these things, it's at least one that they couldn't have just cut from the film easily. Director Roger Spottiswoode (in his first film before going on to directing several movies you probably watch on TBS when you're half-asleep) also does his best to make Copperfield's illusions work on camera, including offering an awkward pan in a tight train car to allow him to somehow get from the stage to the other side of the car in one shot. In the era of the CGI-enhanced Now You See Me films (or even Burt Wonderstone, which also featured Copperfield), it's nice to see these things unfold exactly as they would on a stage, knowing that the tech wasn't there yet to allow them to cheat their illusions for the movie cameras in ways they never could on stage. Apparently, Copperfield still displays a poster for the film on his wall despite being embarrassed by it (or at least he claims to be), and I like that it remains the only movie he's been in where he wasn't playing himself (he's billed as simply "The Magician", but his assistant refers to him as Ken).
Back to the slasher stuff, one thing I've grown to like about the film over the years is how some of it almost seems to be a response to the slasher era, even though it didn't really exist when the film was made (it was shot in 1979, before Friday the 13th had even come out, let alone all its endless imitators). I particularly like how they off the annoying prankster guy almost instantly (he never even gets on the train!), as if they wanted to relieve the audience who had suffered through the antics of so many others like him, like Howard in My Bloody Valentine (who is one of the LAST to die) and Ted in Friday the 13th Part 2, who never dies at all. The emphasis on character interactions and backstories seems like a response to critiques that these people are just slabs of meat waiting for their turn to die, and the costume swapping concept also seems like it was born out of a producer's fear that their one costume wouldn't stick out so they better stack the deck and offer a bunch (though the Groucho one seems to be the "default" since it got used on the poster and also the film's most fleshed out kill scene). In other words, if you were to scrub the dates off the golden era slashers and have someone try to put them in order, they'd probably think this was one of the later ones, instead of one of the earliest.
Technically, the film has a remake, though what was announced as "Terror Train" eventually just became Train, and was not a slasher film either. The train concept was retained, obviously, though it became a Hostel-y torture flick about forced organ donors, and it was also a piece of shit. My only positive memory from seeing it was during the Q&A, when one brave audience member (not me, I'm not this quick) asked the writer/director "Did you write this before or after you saw Hostel?" (the filmmaker paused, then sheepishly replied "After."). Alas, now that the "Let's remake every single notable slasher!" era has ended, I doubt we will ever see a true update to the Kenny Hampson story, which I almost think is a shame. Not that I love having to clarify which one I mean every time I mention a horror movie, but I think the swapping costumes concept could be embellished, and there could certainly be a more clever way to keep the mystery going without having to sideline the killer so much. I also wouldn't mind seeing the train setting utilized a bit more (no one even climbs up on the roof - for shame). Basically, while I enjoy the film, it's the rare slasher from that era that could be conceivably improved upon by an update, and hopefully someday we will see if I'm right. And this time they could actually use the damn holiday properly!