At a college pre-med student fraternity New Year's Eve party, a reluctant Alana Maxwell is coerced into participating in a prank: she lures the shy and awkward pledge Kenny Hampson into a darkened room on the promise of a sexual liaison. However some other students have placed a woman's corpse in the bed instead. Kenny is traumatized by the prank and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Three years later, the members of the same fraternities and sororities hold a New Year's costume party aboard a train. Class clown Ed is disguised as Groucho Marx. Prank ringleader Doc Manley is disguised as a monk. Jackson is disguised as an alien lizard. Doc's girlfriend, Alana's best friend Mitchy, is disguised as a witch. Alana's boyfriend Mo is disguised as a bird. Also along are Carne, the train conductor, and a magician hired to entertain the crowd.
As the train journeys into the icy wilderness, the students responsible for the prank are murdered one by one, with the killer assuming the mask and costume of each murder victim in turn. Carne discovers some bodies and sequesters the students in one car as the train begins its return journey. Alana recalls the prank and, remembering that Kenny loved magic, suspects the magician is the killer. However the magician has disappeared, and is eventually found impaled inside his own sword box.
Alana is sequestered in a locked compartment for her safety, but the killer is still aboard, stalking her. The killer enters the compartment but Alana escapes, and is pursued by the killer through the train. It is revealed that the assailant is Kenny all along who was disguised half the time as the magician's female assistant. Alana apologizes to Kenny about the past prank, but he refuses to accept and forces her to kiss him; the kiss causes Kenny to relive his memories from the prank and drives him deeper into insanity. Carne rushes to the scene and beats down Kenny with a shovel, causing him to fall out the open door of the baggage car to his presumed death. His body lands in a nearly frozen river and floats away as the train roars off.Ben Johnson as Carne, Train Conductor
Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana Maxwell
Hart Bochner as Doc Manley
Sandee Currie as Mitchy
Timothy Webber as Mo
Derek MacKinnon as Kenny Hampson
Anthony Sherwood as Jackson
Joy Boushel as Pet
D.D. Winters as Merry
Greg Swanson as the Class President
Howard Busgang as Ed
David Copperfield as The Magician
To create the train for the film, the producers leased an actual Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive from the Steamtown Foundation in Vermont. The train's engine was renumbered from its original 1293 to 1881, and, along with five passenger cars, painted black with silver stripes. Afterward, the Steamtown Foundation reverted the engine back to its original number and had it restored to a historic color and lettering scheme. As of July 2014, Canadian Pacific Railway No. 1293 continues to be an "operable locomotive." It currently resides in the private "Age of Steam Roundhouse" near Sugarcreek, Ohio. 1293 can be seen from time to time making runs to the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway in northeastern Ohio. Built in June 1948, in Kingston, Ontario, the Pacific-type (4-6-2) steam engine was one of the most advanced in the late stages of the steam-locomotive age. 1293 is the only operational G-5 Pacific model still in running condition of the half dozen still in existence. 1293 now bears the registered name of the Ohio Central Railroad, the operational arm of the "Age of Steam Roundhouse".
Terror Train was filmed in and around Montreal, Quebec, Canada from November 21 to December 23, 1979. It was the first motion picture directed by Spottiswoode, who would go on to make such films as Turner & Hooch (1989), Air America (1990), and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
Cinematographer John Alcott devised a unique method of lighting Terror Train. He rewired the entire train and mounted individual dimmers on the exteriors of the carriage cars. Utilizing a variety of bulbs with different wattages, and controlling them with the external dimmers, Alcott could light the set in a very fast, efficient manner. At times, Alcott also used medical lights - "pen torches" - to hand light the actors' faces.
Taking a cue from director John Ford, veteran actor Ben Johnson originally asked director Spottiswoode to give his character Carne less dialogue in Terror Train, rather than more.
There was no stage show magician in the original script, but Canadian producer Sandy Howard was a big fan of magic and admirer of David Copperfield, and a magician character was written in. Copperfield's character becomes the suspect at one point of the movie, but it turns out to be a red herring when the real killer is revealed to be Kenny Hampson. There is some confusion about David Copperfield's character's name. Twice, in the movie the Conductor calls out to him as "Ken", but this is when it is believed by he and the passengers that he is Kenny Hampson, the murderer. In the credits, he is simply listed as "The Magician".
Canadian actor Derek MacKinnon, who played the masked killer, appears in 11 scenes in Terror Train, wearing a different costume or masked disguise in each scene, including his real character of Kenny.
The movie was picked up for theatrical release in the United States by 20th Century Fox. They spent an estimated $5 million on advertising and the film grossed an estimate $8,000,000 at the box office.
The film was first released on VHS home video in 1988 by CBS/Fox Video. The film was released twice on DVD by 20th Century Fox; once in 2004 as a single edition release and again in 2008 in a triple pack alongside Candyman 2 and the original The Fog. Shout! Factory has released a new collector's edition Blu-ray Disc under their sub-label, Scream Factory, in addition to a new DVD release.
In March 2010, the film screened at the New Beverly Cinema.
Currently, the film holds an rating of 36% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, signifying "rotten". Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars, writing "The classic horror films of the 1930s appealed to the intelligence of its audiences, to their sense of humor and irony. Movies like Terror Train, and all of its sordid predecessors and its rip-offs still to come, just don't care. They're a series of sensations, strung together on a plot. Any plot will do. Just don't forget the knife, and the girl, and the blood." However, he also conceded that "it's not a rock-bottom-budget, schlock exploitation film." Variety called the film "competent" in a mildly positive review. Allmovie praised John Alcott's cinematography, but concluded, "Terror Train is too mediocre a piece of work to raise interest from anyone but the genre's most devoted fans", while Time Out London called it "better than most of its kind." Leonard Maltin concurred, claiming that the "stylish photography and the novelty of the killer donning the costume of each successive victim lift this slightly above most in this disreputable genre".