Terror Train 1981 ***

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The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

Perfect 1985 ***

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A much-hyped movie that unexpectedly crashed and burned at the box office, James Bridges’ Perfect emerges on streaming circa 2019 as an unfairly maligned movie. Re-teaming Bridges with star John Travolta, after their hot Urban Cowboy collaboration, promised much. Throw in Jamie Lee Curtis, hot from Halloween and Trading Places, and what could go wrong? Particularly as Travolta gets to dance as part of the fitness-instruction theme, a hot topic for 1985.

The problem is, Travolta’s character isn’t a dancer, he’s a journalist, and for once, Perfect is a movie that seems determined to get the key issues of journalistic ethics out there. Adam Lawrence (Travolta ) is introduced working on a tricky interview for Rolling Stone with a John DeLorean-type figure; the disgraced businessman grants him an interview, and Lawrence refuses to turn over the tapes to the feds. A journalist does not have to reveal their sources, but Lawrence faces jail-time for his actions.

This is all very interesting, and well caught; the Rolling Stone offices are meticulously rebuilt for various scenes, and Travolta’s boss is played by a real Rolling Stone editor. But Perfect is better known for the other storyline, in which Lawrence infiltrates an LA fitness club looking for an expose on the rampant sexual promiscuity he imagines. Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis) shares her story and her bed with Lawrence, but she’s got a natural suspicion of journalists after a bad experience, and their relationship is turbulent to say the least.

Perfect is a thoughtful exploration of journalistic ethics; critics focused on the propulsive dance scenes, of which there were few. Although both movies were based on magazine articles, Bridges’ film is not intended to make Travolta cool in a Saturday Night Fever Way. Instead, it’s Curtis who really resonates as a wronged woman who is keen to protect herself from a predatory press; she’s terrific in this film, and Travolta isn’t bad either. Perfect accidentally baited and switched an audience who probably just wanted to see Curtis and Travolta dance to some of the hideous music featured here, but as a time-capsule of LA circa 1985 (Carly Simon cameos, Boy George mania!), it’s a enjoyable look back at weightier preoccupations, albeit in a famously airheaded era.

Knives Out 2019 ****

knives-out-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit that runs very much against the popular tide; such tried and tested entertainments are rarely in vogue. Exhuming Murder on the Orient Express didn’t breathe much life into the Agatha Christie stakes, and drawing rooms, insurance policies and old-school detection are hardly the ingredients for box-office success. It’s surprising, then, that despite trailers that indicate a camp-as-Clue pastiche, Knives Out is an engrossing puzzle that constitutes that rarest of commodities, a good story well told.

With no real need for spoilers, Knives Out begins with a death, and immediately tips the audience off to the guilty party. It reverses the expectations of a whodunit, and leaves us guessing where the story will go next. Of course, there’s plenty of suspects who look guilty as sin when it comes to having motives against author Harlan Thronbey (Christopher Plummer); practically his entire family have their knives out for him, providing juicy roles for stars such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Meanwhile Thronbey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) has her own secrets to hide, and there’s knowing cameos from Frank Oz and M Emmett Walsh to keep cineastes happy. And leading the way is Benoit Blanc, a detective played by Daniel Craig with a deft comic touch. It’s not been easy finding vehicles for an actor of Craig’s charisma, but Blanc makes an ideal focal point here, playing off his Bond image with an eccentric, slightly incompetent investigator.

Knives Out brings something fresh to the genre; the artwork of antique knives in the living room of Thronbey’s house matches up nicely with the broken spirals of shattered glass on Marta’s phone. There are wheels within wheels in the convoluted narrative, and red herrings often merge with the plot-points; there a charming conceit whereby clues are deliberately obscured under the noses of the detectives, and a cheerful dog unknowingly retrieves items of potential value.

The clichés that Knives Out turns inside out have been dormant so long that younger audiences might not realise they exist; it’s hard to imagine the Joker generation being familiar with such musty enterprises as 1961’s What A Carve Up! But that’s exactly where Knives Out goes, and hopefully the fresh take on the country-house murder will spark joy in amateur detectives worldwide.