Good horror is simple. Brave heroes enter into the unknown with their moral compass pointing due north. If they remain true and unwavering in the face of adversity then they will vanquish their demons. Our sympathy is to be given to the heroes. We are told to fear the devil and hate the villain. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Happy endings and all that.
Great horror ain’t got time for that shit.
Great horror throws the moral compass out the window. It pushes even the most wholesome in directions that will leave them battered, scarred and changed. At the end of The Exorcist the devil is thwarted but at the cost of lives and innocence. By the credit roll of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of The Living Dead we are presented with a world that is now drastically different. The characters that survive emerge with a new moral code. What was once black and white is now very, very gray.
And sometimes… Sometimes you find yourself rooting for the villain.
In 1980, Roger Spottiswoode, longtime film editor for prolific director Sam Peckinpah, made his directorial debut with Terror Train. This creepy and criminally underrated gem was called Halloween on a train; complete with leading lady and legendary scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.
Many people wouldn’t label Terror Train as great horror, but I contend that in the midst of a slew of slashers it stands the test of time. This film was the first of many that cemented Jamie Lee’s status as the reigning queen of horror. Terror Train was one of six films that Jamie Lee starred in over a period of four years. This list includes such films as Halloween, Prom Night, The Fog, Road Games and Halloween II. While Terror Train is certainly derivative of Halloween, the film has plenty of scares and surprises to keep the audience riveted. It also has more than a little dash of queerness.
(As always, here be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!)
The film focuses on a group of pre-med students celebrating New Year’s eve with a raucous costume party aboard the titular locomotive. The cast is full of all the archetypal characters that we have come to love in horror. To make it even easier for us, they each wear costumes befitting their personality. Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), the bright and beautiful final girl, is a sexy and dashing pirate, ready for action. Alana’s bland but handsome boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), is decked out in colorful, exotic feathers, that transform him into a parrot who follows his peers blindly without a moral path of his own. Class clown Ed sports a Groucho Marx mask. Alana’s best friend Mitchy, a promiscuous blonde, makes for a fetching and tarted up witch. The token black guy Jackson, who unfortunately seems to only exist as the resident “cool guy”, is dressed as some kind of futuristic lizard humanoid. To the best of my thinking this is either an insightful commentary on how black people in horror movies are just as unique as space lizards or, more likely, it’s representative of the writers’ inability to include a person of color with a purpose beyond tokenism. Finally, there is Doc Manley (Hart Bochner...the swooniest of swoons), the boorish and sexist bad-boy who’s only loyalty seems to lie with his best friend Mo. He’s supposedly dating Mitchy, but treats her with such disregard, we get the impression that she’s more of a status symbol than a genuine partner. And in a display of his irreverent nature, Doc is dressed as a Carmelite monk.
These crazy co-eds spared no expense with their festivities. Their shindig includes a fully stocked bar, a ballroom for dancing, a funky house band, a VIP lounge and David Fucking Copperfield! That’s right, renowned magician and former Mr. Claudia Schiffer, David Copperfield made his first and final acting appearance as “The Magician.” If IMDB trivia is to be believed, every act of magic in this film was performed live on set. What the actors saw is what we see when watching the movie. (I remain skeptical, but truthfully, I’m scared of magic and its evil secrets.) These kids are ready for the best night of their lives. Fortunately for us, the party doesn’t go exactly as planned.
The students have a naughty little secret. Three years ago, resident asshole Doc Manley (I can’t even with that name…) orchestrated a fraternity prank that went horribly wrong. He and Mo convinced nerdy and awkward Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) that the lovely Alana was waiting for him in the upstairs bedroom of the frat house ready for sexy times. Alana, unaware of the full extent of the prank, coaxes Kenny into a candlelit boudoir with coquettish whispers. Gauzy drapes are strewn about the bed as a makeshift canopy. Kenny, expecting Alana to be waiting for him, crawls into the bed and finds himself face-to-face with the wrinkly cadaver of a decrepit old woman. Understably, Kenny loses his shit. In a flurry of flails and screams he finds himself wrapped up in the gauzy silks above the bed. Kenny contorts about in a grotesque dance that resembles a macabre and fucked Cirque du Soleil. The authorities are called and a mournful Alana watches as Kenny, a bully’s dream victim, is carted away to the local insane asylum.
Back in the present, the train chugs forward through an icy landscape. Alana, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, finds herself enchanted with David Copperfield. The Magician, with the aid of his comely and leggy assistant, dazzles the party goers with sleight of hand and elaborate illusions. All the while a masked killer is murdering the students one by one. What makes this film truly unique is the costume aspect. After the killer slices and dices he dons the costume of each victim. Several times the students are standing right next to killer unaware that they are inches away from death. There’s a strange menace in watching a man in a Groucho Marx mask cocking his head in a permanent smile as he gleefully picks his next victim.
It’s no surprise that the killer is Kenny, back from the psych ward and ready to exact his revenge. The suspense and horror of the film comes not from the identity of a mystery killer, but from watching his plan unfurl in the claustrophobic confines of a speeding train. While classmates are unknowingly being slaughtered left and right, the rest of the students continue to party.
Kenny proves to be an accomplished illusionist in his own right. He's a brilliant chameleon. A skill one suspects he learned from years of trying his best to blend in and go unnoticed. As a queer kid growing up in southern Indiana, I mastered these skills as well. Except for the killing part. Queer youth, and those perceived to be LGBT, are more than twice as likely to be bullied. Fitting in isn’t always an option for queer youth. As a result, being as invisible as possible is the most effective way of avoiding torment.
It’s easy to paint the bully as purely a villain. While there is no justification for their acts, it’s simply too pat to place the all the blame on a young bully (as for adults, they know better). Sure, you have your outright assholes, but it’s hard to know who’s just a dick and who’s lashing out in an effort to exert control on their own lives. It’s often said that a bully hates himself more than his target. The aggressor finds a trait within himself that he perceives as a weakness. When he finds that shortcoming, or a failing he believes is even greater than his own, in another person he does his best to assert dominance in order to boost his own self-esteem. We all know it’s a vicious cycle. We all know that far too many queer kids sit at the bottom of that pecking order.
I’m not absolving bullies of their guilt. Like so many queer people before me, and so many now, I’ve experienced my fair share of bullying. From the whispers in the hallways, to, at times, physical violence, I know the pain of simply growing up queer. However, in the midst of trying to figure out who you are in your adolescence, it’s natural to act out in ways that cause damage. Bullies often come from broken homes and grow up in oppressive situations, but so do countless other kids, queer youth included. What makes one kid hurt others can make another kid hurt himself. When youth can’t accept who they are, actual faults and hidden strengths included, it becomes impossible to break this cycle.
At its heart, I think that is what Terror Train captures best. Doc Manley could be seen simply as a bully, but underneath that cocky smile and snide contempt is a soul that can’t break free. On the outside he seemingly has anything a person can want. Gorgeous Mitchy as his side. President of the fraternity. Promising career. But underneath it all is a wealth of emotions that he can’t acknowledge.
Doc directs the bulk of his contempt and anger at Alana. At first, we don’t know why, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that Alana has one thing Doc does not. Alana has Mo. He watches with pain in his eyes as Alana and Mo steal kisses and share laughs. Each time Mo’s focus turns to Alana, Doc acts out in different ways. He turns to alcohol, hook-ups with whatever girl is handy, and, most tellingly, succeeds in driving a wedge between Alana and Mo.
Doc and Mo find themselves alone and lounging in the VIP Lounge. (Seriously, this train has EVERYTHING!) Mo begins to vent his frustrations about his relationship with Alana, fearing that she is going to break up with him. Doc, in a moment of true vulnerability tells Mo, “Well, if she dumps you, you always got me you know. I mean it.”
Kenny works his way through the students, leaving Doc and Alana for last. When Doc discovers Mo’s dead body he drops his carefully crafted facade and let’s his rage and heartbreak show. He expresses more pain and grief for the loss of Mo than he does for his other friends, including Mitchy. Only after losing what he envies and desires the most, does Doc finally let what is inside of him out.
Doc saw in Kenny a weakness that reflected upon himself. As Alana says earlier in the film to Doc, “You can’t have a good time without hurting someone.” Like many bullies, Doc was punishing himself, by punishing Kenny. There’s a nifty bit of symbolism when Kenny, dressed in Mitchy’s witch costume, finally corners Doc, clad in his monk’s robe, in a locked compartment. When Kenny slits Doc’s throat, it’s as if Doc’s inability to accept himself is wielding the knife.
Prior to Doc’s death, he and Alana finally, albeit a bit too slowly, put the pieces of Kenny’s evil plan together. While looking through an old yearbook they learn that Kenny had been a magician in college. Kenny, the ultimate chameleon, worked his way onto the train as The Magician’s assistant. Yes, the leggy blonde female who aided David Copperfield in his tricks was Kenny the entire time. What I find interesting is that this, while a shocking revelation for the film, wasn’t portrayed as deviant or disgusting. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Openly gay Derek McKinnon, the actor portraying Kenny, is a professional drag queen and female illusionist. His scenes as the assistant aren’t played for laughs but rather used to illustrate how skilled Kenny is at adapting whatever look or personality he needs to survive.
In the final act, Alana is left alone to escape Kenny. What follows is a surprisingly tense chase scene, as Alana rushes from train car to train car trying to escape her past. The final confrontation plays out as an apology. Alana tries to reason with Kenny, but to no avail. The pain of the prank, the trauma of the betrayal is too much for Kenny. He can’t forgive Alana for her part in his pain. After a brief battle, Kenny falls to his death as the train crosses an icy bridge and lands in the frozen waters below. Alana is left alone, friendless, and riddled with guilt; her world now irrevocably changed.
Sensitive, effeminate Kenny Hampson tried to fit in and found himself punished for who he innately was. Doc Manley lost his life, never fully accepting who he was. The cycle continues. I can’t condone Doc’s bullying, though I understand his need to control a flaw he feels inside. I can’t justify Kenny’s revenge either, but I certainly understand the desire to retaliate. Most queer youth would. It’s difficult to watch this film and not feel some form of sympathy for Doc or Kenny. In good horror, you hate the villain. In great horror, it’s impossible to know who the villain truly is.
Terror Train is available to view on Blu/Ray, DVD, iTunes, and Amazon.
Queerness: 4/6 Kinseys