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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Terror Train Roger Spottiswoode 1980

All Aboard the Trannie Train!

Electroclash musician and performance artist Peaches recently did a photo spread for a magazine wearing a pair of "Trannie Trainers": a pair of men's briefs with a weighted pad sewn into the crotch, for use by female-to-male transsexuals to help them get used to the extra weight in the crotchular region. Hers have a Def Leppard pattern.

And while the circumstances are a bit different, one could make a comparison between Peaches' outfit and the 1980 slasher Terror Train. While Def Leppard doesn't make an appearance and the sexual politics are reversed, the film is a throwback to the golden age of American (er, Canadian) teen horror movies and boasts a surprisingly strong queer bent. Trannie Trainers, meet Trannie Train.

Let me first establish that I am in no way going to speak to the rumors about our heroine, Jamie Lee Curtis, being some sort of hermaphrodite -- that's been done. And honestly, while Jamie may not look her best here (lines about her being the hottest girl in school ring about as true as similar lines about Linda Blair in Hell Night), she does play her character with an ease that is missing from some of her other performances (Prom Night, for example -- the disco diva routine seems forced and kind of creepy). She's not girly, she's not tough-as-nails, she's just Jamie. Wait -- I may be arguing against myself here...

Anyway, Jamie and her med school friends are aboard a train for New Year's (a detail which is subsequently abandoned -- there's zero significance to the date and the New Year isn't even celebrated), where there will be much partying, drinking, and teasing of hair. But lo and behold, this clinical clique holds a dark secret: three years before, they conducted a cruel prank by tricking a pledge into making out with a corpse who literally fell apart in his hands, which naturally sent him packing to the loony bin. Water under the bridge -- who's for shooters?!!

Before the train even leaves the platform, two very frightening things happen: one of the group is skewered with a sword, and David Copperfield arrives as the on-board entertainment. You decide which is scarier. Copperfella and his lovely assistant are apparently there to entertain the revelers and -- well, be creepy in that way that only magicians can be. Hats off to the filmmakers for exploiting this natural trait -- every time Copperfield so much as moves his pinkie finger it grosses me out. HOW DOES HE DO THAT??!!

Anyway, we now know that the killer is aboard the train in a mask that is supposed to be Groucho Marx but looks more like Gene Shalit ("The Fabulous Baker Boys? Boy, were they fabulous!"). Gene follows people around in a decidedly un-neighborly way before finally killing one student (the black student, of course) in the lavatory. The fact that the tiny bathroom has two sinks introduces something that becomes horribly and claustrophobically evident as the film progresses: this entire movie was filmed aboard a train, and the rooms were about the size of a linen closet (or Manhattan studio apartment). I have no idea how they managed to fit cast, crew, and camera into these horribly tight spaces, but suffice it to say that it must have been a cramped shoot (although they would do the same thing years later with Narrow Margin and also have to fit in Gene Hackman's ego)... I'm assuming that they actually had to use two different bathrooms for the two angles in the lavatory and hoped that no one would notice that there were two sinks on opposite walls. Either that or these kids were clean-freaks! Although I didn't see a sign reading "Employees Must Wash Hands After Gutting Partygoers"...

So as the killer (who, in true Prey of the Chameleon stye, takes on the costume of each new victim) haunts the narrow corridors, things are not well in the Jamie Lee crew. Alana (Jamie) and her boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber, who looks like Ralph Malph from Happy Days) are on the rocks, with no help from Mo's best friend Doc (the ultra-hot Hart Bochner of Making Mr. Right, Urban Legends: Final Cut, and Apartment Zero), who seems determined to drive a wedge between the two. One could almost argue that Doc was trying to get rid of Alana to have Mo to himself: he constantly tries to put Mo in the doghouse (setting up Mo with a girl for Alana to walk in on, that sort of thing) and has an oddly tender heart-to-heart with him in which he tells him that if Alana dumps him, they'll always have each other. Odd talk for a fratboy? Yes. Odd talk for a fratboy dressed as a monk? Maybe not...

Meanwhile, as the generation of today is busy drinking and getting sliced up, the generation of yesterday is gabbing in the back about Winnebagos and gas prices. In one of the most atmosphere-slaughtering subplots in history, top-billed Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch, The Last Picture Show, and lots of other movies far too good to be mentioned here) as the weary conductor Carne ("meat"?) putters around behind the scenes trying to put things together without alarming the drunk kids. Eventually he gets pulled into the action when he confides to Alana what he knows, but the first few "Upstairs/Downstairs"-style cuts to the galley crew are ludicrous and painfully boring. Time your bathroom breaks/refresh your drinks accordingly.

So where were we.... Ah! So the killer gets Mitchy (Alana's best friend and Doc's girlfriend), which doesn't really seem to upset Doc too much, and Mo, which sends Doc into a fit of Dawn Davenport proportions: he picks up Mo's limp body and runs screaming like a woman through the entire train (to what destination, we're not sure), finally collapsing a tear-streaked mess. This basically seals the queer subtext of the Doc and Mo relationship, I believe. But the killer is still out there, and Alana and Mo seem to be the likely targets...

The train is evacuated, with Alana discovering in Kenny's highschool yearbook that he was a magic fan (Kenny -- remember Kenny? The skinny kid who tried to make it with the corpse before freaking out and spinning in a flurry of crenolin drapes like something out of a Stevie Nicks video?). Convinced that the magician (who was never even hired, we learn -- ooooh!) is Kenny returned for revenge, Carne and Alana try to hunt him down, with little success. His lovely assistant is found teasing her hair with a roll-brush and escorted to safety, to the relief of the two people in the audience who remembered that she even existed. In a fit of paranoia and gay panic, Doc locks himself and Alana in a sleeping car to hide from the killer, but Alana breaks out, which initially doesn't seem like a wise move, considering how hot he is. But the killer is revealed to be in the car, and kills Doc, so I guess the idea wasn't so bad after all.

Alana goes looking for... someone, I don't remember who, and gets trapped by the killer -- who is now wearing a Phyllis Diller mask -- in the crew galley. At this point the killer slaps the living shit out of her. Now, the final girl does have to take a licking, it's true. But the beating that Alana takes in this scene borders on sadistic -- she gets her head slammed on an iron door AND a doorknob, her earlobe ripped open, and her throat throttled like a bottle of cheap champagne. Covered in blood, she manages to get away and lock herself in a metal cage (which seems to exist solely for emergencies like this one), at which point the Diller -- I mean, killer -- smashes the light bulbs in the room one by one and comes at her with a long iron stick, poking at her like a mouse in a cage. The effect is pretty damn freaky, especially considering that Ms. Phyllis is still behind all this. But the ever-resourceful Alana stabs the baddie in the eye with a paper-holder (sense-memory from Halloween, Jamie Lee?) and kicks her way the fuck out.

Meanwhile, Copperfreak has yet to be found, and the train seems oddly empty, considering the fact that it's moving again and apparently filled with people. Alana stumbles her busted self back to the magician's quarters, where she finds poor Copperfruit in a box, stuck through with sabers like a pincushion. This throws a monkeywrench in Alana's little theory about Kenny being the magician, so she runs back to the conductor's station to tell Carne. She sits down in front of him and starts blubbering about something or other, and lifts her head to see that he's not Carne at all, but rather -- the killer! And the killer pulls off his mask and wig to reveal that he's not just the killer, he's -- Copperfreak's lovely assistant! And Copperfreak's assistant pulls off her wig to reveal she's -- Kenny! In a gender-bending reveal in the Psycho tradition that would predate Dressed to Kill and Color of Night (but not Theatre of Blood), we learn that Kenny obtained passage onto the train by portraying a slinky yet oddly angular female magician's assistant (considering that Copperfield would go on to date Amazon Claudia Schiffer, it's not surprising that he didn't pick up on anything). He asks Alana to kiss him and re-enacts their twisted scene from years earlier, including his freak-out and curtain-twirling (this time without the toulle), which is the perfect opportunity for Carne to show up with a shovel and smack him, mid-spin, straight out the window and off a bridge into a frozen lake.

Easily one of the most fabulous exits in slasher history, and befitting one of the most fabulous slashers -- while other killers opt for the more traditional "dirty hat and jumper", or utilitarian "flannel and work pants" look, Kenny takes a more fashion-forward approach, encorporating colorful synthetic fabrics, sequins, and sensible yet figure-flattering slim skirts and heels into his killer wardrobe. Hell -- Kenny is better-dressed than most of the female slashers: Betsy Palmer in her dowdy turtleneck and lesbian-matron-on-valium up-do could take a few pages from his book, and Michael Caine's Bobby (from Dressed to Kill) is a pale, clumsy shadow of Kenny's sylphic form. It's really a shame that we never get to see Kenny unleash the beast in one of his assistant outfits -- the closest comparison to the contrast of glittering pageantry and bloodshed would be the recent Siegfried and Roy fiasco. But I digress...

Other delicious details abound, from the strange and atmospheric lighting (DP John Alcott also shot A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) to the appearance of future pop star and Prince protege Vanity (here billed as D.D. Winters) as one of the friends. In the end, Terror Train is a hell of a lot of fun, and a unique film besides thanks to its claustrophobic setting, bizzarre killer reveal, and confused romantic relationships: for a decidedly queer ride, this Trannie Train is well-worth the trip.

Rating (out of 5):