31 Days of Slashers: Terror Train (1980)

The eighth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train. At a pre-med fraternity’s New Year’s Eve Party, Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis) begrudgingly takes part in a hazing ritual, luring incoming pledge Kenny Hampson into a room with the promise of sex, where he finds himself in bed with a corpse stolen from the university instead. Kenny is extremely traumatized by the prank and is sent to a mental institution. Three years later, the same fraternity hosts it’s New Year’s Eve party on a train. They even hire Ken the magician (David Copperfield) to perform for the crowd. Members of the fraternity and their sorority girlfriends begin being slaughtered one by one. Could Kenny be back for revenge? Is Alana next on the list of murder victims?

While Terror Train may feature a pretty generic slasher narrative, it more than makes up for it with its unique setting and its use of fun masks to hide the identity of the killer. Throughout the film, the killer wears a variety of masks ranging from the above Groucho Marx mask to the mask of a monk and an alien lizard. This helps keep the kills fresh, as you’re left guessing what mask will be used next. While comical, the masks also somehow manage to be a bit eerie, which is an absolute essential element to a masked killer slasher film.

By setting the film on a small train, the characters are confined to these long and narrow spaces. Spottiswoode uses the sets to assist in the construction of tension as there are fewer and fewer safe areas for Alana to navigate to escape from the masked killer. There is also just something to be said for a mystery that is set on a train. While Terror Train may not feature as many suspects as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it does give the viewer a couple of red herrings to add some intrigue to the mix.

Terror Train was filmed in the middle of Jamie Lee Curtis’ tenure as a Scream Queen of the late 1970s and early 1980s, before she went on to more serious dramatic work. Curtis is the real draw of the film here, as her performances are always legendary within the genre. While this may not be on the same level as her iconic role of Final Girl Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween, she is still incredibly engaging here and turns in a very solid performance. The casting of David Copperfield as Ken is also a really fun gimmick in that we are gifted with several sequences of the real-life magician performing his own magic tricks for the frat and sorority members.

With its excellent cast, unique setting, and fun mask designs, Terror Train proves to be an essential slasher watch for your October spooky film lists!

Terror Train is available to stream for free on The Roku Channel, and with a membership on the AMC+ and Shudder apps.

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