Happy New Year! ‘Terror Train’ Dares to Ask Whether Dying Is Preferable to Watching a Bad Magic Show SuperNayr

On Friday nights — and special occasions!— IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: You Know, Getting Murdered on a Train Might Still Be Better Than Going to Times Square

The underwhelming New Year’s Eve party is a universal human experience if there ever was one. The holiday is ostensibly the biggest night of the year for debauchery, but burnout, outlandish expectations, and rowdy crowds often turn it into a letdown that makes it a little easier to trade our holiday cheer in for January discipline. But no matter what disappointing experience comes your way tonight, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not trapped on a moving train with a loose slasher villain and, even worse, a magician who is dying to show you his act.

WONKA, from left: Timothee Chalamet, Hugh Grant, 2023. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: Jonathan Glazer attends "The Zone of Interest" Special Presentation premiere during the 67th BFI London Film Festival at The Royal Festival Hall on October 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for BFI)

Wedged between Jamie Lee Curtis’ 1978 breakout performance in “Halloween” and the ’80s sequels that solidified the actor’s status as her generation’s defining scream queen, Roger Spottiswoode’s “Terror Train” is a slasher deep cut that every horror completionist should seek out at least once. Conceived after producers came up with the simple idea of making a version of “Halloween” that takes place on a moving train, the well-intentioned knockoff follows a group of pre-med students who decide to celebrate their looming graduation by renting out an entire train on New Year’s Eve to throw a costume party. (The actual logistics that went into this are never quite explained, but the party seems fun enough that I’m willing to look past it.) When a masked killer begins wreaking havoc on the passengers, Jamie Lee is once again forced to go into Final Girl mode to save the day.

“Terror Train” begins with what clearly seems like a kick-ass premise, even if everyone’s astonishment at the presence of a locomotive engine seems more appropriate for a 1930s movie than an ’80s teen flick. And while it remains entertaining until the end, the film takes some weird turns that explain why it never reached the heights of “Halloween” and was quickly relegated to midnight movie territory. For one, Spottiswoode is either unable or unwilling to actually show most of the film’s best kills. He gives us setup after setup before cutting away right when things are about to get gory — a mortal sin in the eyes of many horror aficionados. The film also features an early appearance by David Copperfield, playing a magician onboard the train who dazzles passengers with elaborate illusions during their final minutes on earth. The sometimes fun, sometimes grating dramatic structure of “Kill>Magic Trick>Kill>Magic Trick>End Credits” is something you truly can’t find in any other film.

While it’s far from a high point in mid-20th century slasher canon, “Terror Train” is a fun mashup of college antics, dated haircuts, and slasher violence that builds up to a surprisingly strong final showdown and whodunnit reveal. If you’re not invested in drinking overpriced champagne or refreshing your phone to see if Phish plays Gamehendge at the Garden tonight, checking out this piece of slasher history is a great way to end 2023 on a high note. —CZ

“Terror Train”20th Century Fox Licensing/Merchandising / Everett Collection

The Aftermath: Should Auld Magician’s Assistant Be Forgot, ‘Terror Train’ Is Free on Tubi

“Do it for the story” counts among the worst platitudes of the 21st century.

The trite turn of phrase, seemingly accepted by the broader populace in the waning days of #YOLO, argues one should frivolously expend effort on bad experiences for the sake of humor and hindsight. It’s the sort of shitty advice you might follow when agreeing to play ASMR sex operator to a vulnerable young man and a naked cadaver (not since “Mother’s Boys” has a Jamie Lee character been so wildly reckless with a virgin’s psyche!), or signing on to star in cinema’s most hellish locomotive concept to exist pre-“Snowpiercer.” (And that’s counting both “The Polar Express” and “The Midnight Meat Train.”)

Still, as the clock turns 2023 into 2024, and IndieWire After Dark begins its first new calendar year celebrating midnight movies, I’ll admit there’s a shred of wisdom in the grating expression. Following in the steps (tracks?) of past column picks “Event Horizon” and “The Perfection,” as well as offbeat genre mainstays like “Sleepaway Camp,” “Terror Train” is the sort of middling slasher worth recommending if only for its staggering self-seriousness and final-act surprise. It justifies itself not with a particularly smooth ride, but with a dogged plan to reach its decidedly inventive destination at full speed: a combustion engine of creativity as inspired as Alan’s flippy haircut.

First-time director Spottiswoode stumbles around with his framing, pacing, and tone like a half-drunk bike cop on parade duty; so the reveal that obvious killer Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) was in fact the obvious killer isn’t narratively satisfying. But the hidden-in-plain-sight magician’s assistant drag twist has an inarguable appeal oddly evocative of that old psychology video with the basketball players and the gorilla. The film’s flaws largely overwhelm its successes — Copperfield is spectacularly deadpan, but why is the magic so bad? — and there’s nothing to recommend the script from T. Y. Drake. But we’ll always have that gloriously awful red wig, sparkly bodysuit, and the smile of a murderer whose lethal moves were largely motivated by costume envy.

Ending our year on this enjoyable stinker feels fitting. Board the “Terror Train” and raise your glass to 12 months that were, to paraphrase the last flick honored by IndieWire this year, “nice… confused but nice.” —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Terror Train” for free with ads on Tubi and Plex and rent it on various VOD platforms. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions from the 2023 holiday season…

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