Welcome, friends, to the Year of Blood! For the next twelve months, we'll be exploring the world of horror films with that special seasonal flair: a mere sampling of the many, many films that take place on a holiday or other special event. Happy New Year, everybody, and here's to a fun, death-filled 2012!

The story goes - and it's too perfect to be true, but also too perfect to not repeat it - that producer Daniel Grodnik woke up from a dream one night, turned to his wife, and asked what she thought about the idea he'd just had, to set Halloween on a train. "That's terrible", she said, and by the next afternoon, the hastily-titled Terrible Train had turned into Terror Train and Grodnik had already sold it off. Note that Grodnik's name does not appear anywhere in the credits, but that's Hollywood.

Actually, it's not - it's Canada. And as the slasher fan of taste and discretion* knows, the Canadian slasher is a different animal than its American counterpart. Not structurally, not like the Italian gialli, which are really an altogether different genre. Without being different in any obvious functional way, Canadian psycho killer pictures are somehow less crass and stupid; even at their worst, they demonstrate a level of commitment from the filmmakers involved that bears no resemblance to the shockingly rancid depths to which the American slasher could and very frequently did sink (I recall Kevin Olson starting a similar discussion quite a while ago; I don't believe in making appeals to authority to prove myself right, but if I did, Kevin would fit the bill very nicely). So even if it does bear a remarkable similarity to Halloween, but on a train - Jamie Lee Curtis is the Final Girl, and a good, solid character actor is on hand to grant a rock-steady foundation for even the loopiest turns that the story takes - Terror Train is also a considerably better movie than the phrase "Halloween on a train" almost certainly conjures up. Truth be told, it's one of the best slashers I have seen from the nascent year of 1980, when Friday the 13th broke big and kicked off the subgenre that would for define so much of the cinematic culture of the decade to come, proof that adherence to formula (which hadn't quite ossified yet) and a healthy level of exploitative tackiness aren't impediments to genuinely smart writing. Not for nothing is the film regarded as a classic of the form among those who've seen it, though for no reason I can quite make out, it is not as well known as fellow Class of '80 slasher pictures like F13, Prom Night (another Canadian picture starring Curtis), or New Year's Evil (which takes place on the same holiday), none of which are as good as our present subject.

Its spectacularly crappy and anonymous title might have something to do with it. Also, it takes a while for Terror Train to distinguish itself from the pack. The opening scene, and indeed, essentially all of the first 25 minutes or so, are unmemorable boilerplate. On New Year's Eve, at a bonfire held by the pre-med students of the Sigma Phi Omega fraternity, a prank is pulled; not a clever prank, nor a nice one. In a nutshell, the gentle, nerdy virgin Kenny Hampson (Derek McKinnon) is led to believe that he has a shot with renowned hot chick Alana Maxwell (Our Jamie Lee), takes her to his room inside, and finds a dead body waiting in his bed. The last we see of him is a high-pitched scream, as the opening credits usher us three years into the future, where the Sigma Phi boys are taking their best gals on a real swell New Year's costume party and trip on an excursion train that goes, I don't know, somewhere in Canada. This has been arranged and paid for by the chief prankster of Sigma Phi, "Doc" Manley (Hart Bochner), who was the very same fellow responsible for humiliating poor Kenny, an event that causes Alana some amount of guilt, though everyone else has forgotten it.

Alright, not everyone else. Kenny himself certainly remembers the shit out of it, and he's planning a revenge: first step is to stab one of his old tormentors, Ed (Howard Busgang), in the stomach with a sword, and steal his costume - a rubber mask that suggests Albert Einstein disguised as Grouch Marx - and sneaks his way onto the train, but not before disposing of Ed's body by stashing it right underneath the train wheels, all the better to be crushed to an unrecognisable pulp the second they pull out of the station. Things then proceed exactly as you would anticipate: the Sigma Phis drink and party and wear idiotic costumes, and Kenny kills them in such a way that nobody can quite figure out what's going on right away, because hey, costumes; though the train's conductor, Carne (Ben Johnson, the previously-mentioned character actor), has some considerable suspicions when he sees pools of blood that appear and disappear inexplicably, underneath costume-clad young people who seem to be dead and then mysteriously aren't.

Even in the early going, a couple of things separate Terror Train from just about any other 1980s slasher film you could name: first there is the simple matter of Johnson, whose craggy authority lends almost as much gravity to this film as Donald Pleasance does to Halloween, though Johnson is of course not able to match Pleasance's florid enthusiasm. Second, there's the whole basket of character drama centering around Alana and her tight circle - her boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), her BFF Mitchy (Sandee Currie), who's also dating Doc, and Doc himself. It slowly becomes apparent that Alana has been annoyed for some time at Mo's inability to function without Doc's guidance, and she regards this as bad not only because her boyfriend is a bland follower, but because Doc is a petty bully. It's not Ibsen, but considering the expectations one is likely to bring to the film, there's a lot more nuance and depth here than meets the eye.

As it happens, things start to take a turn for the damned odd when a magician - and that's how he's credited, "The Magician" - appears in a scene a propos of nothing, delighting everyone with his tricks. This magician happens to be played by David Copperfield, in simpler times before his statue-vanishing days, which only makes it weirder that for no reason, Terror Train stops short in its mission of being a body count picture with above-average character dynamics to show us five minutes of sleight-of-hand. Incidentally, sleight-of-hand is way less interesting when there is editing going on around it, removing even the tiniest need for actual skill on the part of the magician (though director Roger Spottiswoode does occasionally let Copperfield show off in longer takes, and thus keeps the material from being completely wasteful).

So far, so good - and it is good, which threw me when I started to realise that I was legitimately enjoying Terror Train as an entertaining thriller and not just the soothingly disposable trash that I have learned to expect and demand of my slasher films. Nobody in the cast is a patch on Curtis and Johnson, of course, but a surprising number of them are pretty darn okay, and the average level of acting is higher, I am modestly chagrined to admit, than it is is Halloween itself. Spottiswoode, making his first film, reinvents no wheels, but he and editor Anne Henderson make an effective motif out of using the exterior of the train as a punctuation mark (there are some gags about cutting from a scream to a whistle, and that sort of thing, that work better than they really should); and he gets some pretty fantastic mileage out of the cramped, difficult interiors of the train, aided undoubtedly by cinematographer John Alcott, whose name may or may not be as naggingly familiar to you as it was to me. He was, for the record, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of no less a film than Barry Lyndon, did the "lighting camerawork" on A Clockwork Orange, and earlier in 1980 had already lensed The Shining, and I think this is sufficient to make him indisputably the most talented motherfucker to ever shoot a slasher film. The really sad thing is that he never picked up again after Terror Train (1982: The Beastmaster), unless you are a sick ass and consider Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes to be Kubrick-quality filmmaking.

But I am going astray. The point is that Terror Train is smart, fit filmmaking, and it is rather dazzling to think that Spottiswoode's skills would would actually drop from a slasher film debut to such deathless titles as Turner & Hooch and the bantamweight James Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies, but sometimes you get the bear, and sometime the bear gets you.

It's around the one-hour mark that Terror Train goes from being surprisingly decent to really damn great by slasher standards, and even kind of pretty good by the standards of decent, functional, God-fearing modes of cinema. I will not tell you why, because it involves T.Y. Drake's script suddenly ripping off the mask and revealing that all along, it has been smarter than we thought. First there's a sudden blast of exposition that reshapes everything we've had in mind about Kenny; and then there is a reveal that explains why, as a matter of fact, all of that pointless David Copperfield nonsense was not pointless whatsoever. What amazes me even more than this - and more still than the unexpected disposal of some of the side Expendable Meat characters, though in 1980 I suppose that no manner of Meat death was "standard" - is that Drake springs a twist ending on us, and then springs a twist ending that breaks up the first twist ending, does it in a way that feels completely natural, and especially, does it in a script were we did not for half a second expect any twist ending at all: there was not a single blessed thing anywhere in the first 70 minutes to suggest anything but the most obvious possible read of everything, which is that a kid who was traumatised to the point of insanity is wreaking bloody revenge on his tormentors. The last quarter or so of Terror Train, honest-to-God, kept me on my toes, and that is something a slasher film should not be able to do. It does, yes, dive into some spectacularly unfortunate gender politics around this point, but a slasher film without dubious gender politics would be like a 1930s comedy without racial stereotypes: better for you, but somehow inauthentic.

The cherry on top is that the Final Girl sequence is a real pip, a dance of death between Alana and the killer staged back and forth through the train in the best exploitation of the setting that the film has yet experienced. And damn me, but I left Terror Train feeling not just satiated as one will after watching a slasher film, full but slightly queasy and aware of the imminent fact of indigestion, as after the final bite of a Big Mac with large fries; I was engaged, and delighted. It's such a snazzy way to end what was already an irreproachably decent flick that it's even easy to overlook that Terror Train has effectively no gore to speak of and blandly-staged killings: amazingly, when you have compelling, entertaining filmmaking on your side, you don't need to do anything tawdry to keep things interesting.

Body Count: 9, I think, but it's a little hard to tell for certain; it gets a little elliptical towards the end. Undoubtedly 7, and I'm upwards of 95% of 8. A respectable number for its generation, gore or not.