In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perfect storm created the circumstances for a bonanza of low-budget horror movies. That storm was the combination of Canadian tax-shelter laws making investment in film production incredibly lucrative and the enormous commercial success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which left distributors scrambling for the next breakout horror hit. Thus, in only a few years, more scary movies were made and released than in the previous several decades. Many of the pictures were forgettable programmers. The tax-shelter laws were so favorable to investors it did not actually matter if the films were good or made money. But some enterprising young filmmakers saw the opportunity to create works of genuine ambition and personal expression; David Cronenberg, for example, used the tax-shelter era to produce richly complex meditations on parenthood and divorce (The Brood) and the relationship between technology, imagery and the mind (Videodrome).
Director Roger Spottiswoode’s debut feature, Terror Train, represents an interesting middle ground between conventional body-count movies like Prom Night and more deeply personal films like those of Cronenberg. The film’s premise is pure slasher formula: a group of college students partying on a train (scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis among them) is picked off one by one by a killer who seems to have a connection to a troubling incident in their past. Yet Spottiswoode, who earned accolades as an editor for Sam Peckinpah and would go on to direct important films such as Under Fire and And the Band Played On, transcends cliché by the sheer force of his execution; the film is filled with clever devices (such as the killer repeatedly donning the mask of the victim he has just killed) and unusual personnel choices (like casting John Ford stalwart Ben Johnson in a key role). From beginning to end, Terror Train boasts a level of care and precision that lifts it above the standard tax-shelter splatter fest.
Undoubtedly, Spottiswoode’s most important choice in terms of elevating the material was his director of photography — the great John Alcott, BSC. To say Terror Train is the best looking of all the Halloween imitators would be an understatement — and exactly what one would expect from a film photographed by the man responsible for Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Throughout his career, Alcott alternated between big-budget prestige projects and more down-and-dirty genre films. (His work on the 1982 gem Vice Squad brilliantly merged sleazy exploitation and high art without compromising either.) Terror Train is one of the best examples of the latter. It is a genuinely frightening film as Alcott and Spottiswoode utilize the cramped interiors to generate a palpable sense of claustrophobia and hysteria and create dynamic compositions in which danger lurks in unexpected parts of the frame.
Unfortunately, the new Scream Factory Blu-ray of Terror Train is not the top-notch presentation of Alcott’s work for which one would have hoped. It is a bit mysterious, given the generally high quality of transfers in this series — the company’s special editions of Halloween 2, The Fun House and They Live are all gorgeous and essential viewing for horror fans, for example. Yet for whatever reason, Terror Train has been taken from mediocre source material, a print with a surprisingly high number of scratches and speckles. Thankfully, the transfer fares well when it comes to Alcott’s dynamic palette, which is far more colorful than one might expect from a grim slasher movie. Relying largely on practicals like Christmas lights and disco balls, the cinematographer gives Terror Train a lush, vivid look reminiscent of musicals by Michael Powell and Vincente Minnelli. Both the saturated primary colors and the deep blacks are stable here, and the uncompressed surround mix enhances the overall sense of terror with a particularly effective use of high frequencies. Yet the uneven quality of the print that serves as the disc’s foundation keeps the overall presentation from being worthy of an important figure like Alcott.
The disc contains four interesting supplements that add to one’s appreciation of the film: a 12-minute conversation with producer Daniel Grodnik in which he discusses the origins; 13 minutes with production executive Don Carmody, who describes the physical production and tells amusing anecdotes about Alcott and his crew; an 11-minute talk with production designer Glenn Bydwell, who previously collaborated with Alcott on The Disappearance and who here discusses the integration of practical lighting and sets on Terror Train; and an eight-minute featurette on the music with composer John Mills-Cockell. A trailer, TV commercial and still gallery round out the supplementary section.