Tubi’s Remake Of The 1980 Slasher Goes Off The Rails Fast [BHFF]

Jan 12, 2023

Of all the horror movies to remake, Tubi could do a lot worse than 1980’s “Terror Train.” Sure, the original is one of the countless slashers made in the wake of John Carpenter‘s 1978 classic “Halloween” and its massive success. But it’s also an underrated example of the subgenre’s formula and moral themes. On New Year’s Eve, a group of pre-med students pulls a prank on an awkward pledge who ends up traumatized in a psychiatric facility afterward. Three years later, the same group celebrates New Year’s again, this time on a party train with a bunch of costumed classmates. But someone else is on board, too: a masked killer targeting the six involved in the prank three years earlier. Could it be the same pledge long-forgotten by the students?
READ MORE: ‘Terror Train’ Trailer: Tubi’s Reimagining Of 1980 Slasher Hits The Streamer On October 21
Of course it is, but the predictability of “Terror Train” is part of its charm. While it lacks an iconic killer and inventive kills, the film remains a solid showcase of the slasher’s traditional codes and conventions. It also cements Jamie Lee Curtis’ legacy as the archetypal final girl. After her role in “Halloween,” and then “Prom Night” earlier in 1980, “Terror Train” is the third time in three years Curtis plays a young heroine with enough conscientiousness and moral aplomb to defeat the film’s murderer. Has anyone played the final girl better, except maybe Neve Campbell‘s Sydney Prescott? David Copperfield‘s magician is also a capable bit of narrative misdirection: the outsider whose ambiguous motivations bolster the film’s themes.  
Moreover, Copperfield’s sleight of hand reinforces the original’s simple ethical principles. While revenge blinds the killer and pranks and costumes likewise blind Curtis’ friends, she and the magician distinguish between reality and illusion enough to save their respective hides. In “Terror Train,” the film’s moral scope lapses over the subgenre’s usual punitive stance on drugs, alcohol, and pre-martial sex for a broader judgment on misbehavior. Its message is simple: bullying is wrong, and vindictive violence is worse. But even worse is the inability to master or see through life’s myriad illusions. If one doesn’t understand the art of the trick, the skillful act that outwits an audience or opponent, how else will one recognize that it’s the killer who’s behind that friend’s costume mask?
The magical dynamic of the original makes a new “Terror Train” ripe with potential. In an era in horror where retcons and “reimaginings” reign supreme, what about a version of this movie where appearances are even more deceptive? The original’s killer is already a slippery master of disguise, slinking in and out of other people’s costumes. What if they also impersonate voices perfectly, like in “Scream 3“? Add some surveillance and gaslighting over text messaging and social media into the mix for good measure. And don’t forget about the original’s gender-bending climax; a minefield in this day and age, but potent with possibilities for a “Terror Train” revamp with a transgressive subtext about gender identity and sexual fluidity.  
In other words, it wouldn’t be that hard for Phillipe Gagnon to direct a more provocative version of “Terror Train” for the 21st century. So why did he and writers Ian Carpenter and Aaron Martin settle for the lamest of remakes? Tubi’s version of “Terror Train” isn’t a reinterpretation or a reassessment so much as an almost identical redo of Roger Spottiswoode‘s 1980 film. Characters with the same names get killed in the same ways in the same set pieces. And what has changed is entirely cosmetic, with the killer losing his original translucent Groucho Marx mask to instead dress up as an evil clown. As for the cast, now multicultural and representing every demographic (except for the token gay friend), they run through the same dialogue and plot twists, only with updated contemporary references.
It begs the question: why remake “Terror Train” at all if it’s not going to be campier, more violent, and take some risks? Gagnon isn’t all that interested in exploring the cruelty and perversion lurking at the edges of Spittiswoode’s film. Instead, he plays it safe as a director, thinking it’s enough to cast Robyn Alomar, Nadine Bhabha, and other ethnic minorities in lead roles to shake things up. While everyone’s acting is passable (save for Tim Rozon‘s magician), they merely repeat what their character did in the 1980 version.  Matias Garrido‘s fratboy Doc may riff on cancel culture at one point, and the magician’s backstage musings now carry a layer of class resentment, but to what purpose? They lend a film that already lacks nuance an even triter flair.
The same goes for this version’s updated climax, which gelds the original’s seediest elements. Yes, the 1980 film’s cross-dressing finale doesn’t fly as easily these days, but Gagnon could have done better than supplant it with a staid rip-off of “Friday The 13th.” Instead of a reveal that glances at a disturbed psyche’s penchant to don any disguise to inflict revenge, this film boils everything down to maternal rage. Of course, Spottiswoode’s film barely explores Kenny’s psyche, much less his sexual identity, ratcheting him up as a clichéd crazy person who wants retribution. But that’s infinitely more intriguing than a riff on Betsy Palmer refusing to let the memory of her son’s death sink beneath the ripples of Camp Crystal Lake. There are other depths this film’s set-up could explore, particularly of the psychosexual variety. Gagnon’s choice not to do so here is a disservice to his source material.
Then again, “Terror Train” was never exactly an all-time classic. The original’s dark, dusky train is far superior to this film’s brighter, glossier one, but it’s still a stifling setting to shoot a slasher movie in. Train cars cramp whatever virtuosity a filmmaker may have for creative killers: tight corridors and bathrooms aren’t conducive to Panaglide POV shots. But there’s no excuse for Carpenter and Martin explaining away their easiest route to transcending those trappings (internet and cell phone service) by having the party train run on an abandoned circuit in the wilderness. As the train goes, so does “Terror Train”: going around and around in its redundancy that the audience can’t wait to disembark. [D+]

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