The idea for Terror Train (1980) came from a dream that Daniel Grodnik had. One weekend night after seeing the films Halloween (1978) and Silver Streak (1976), Dan woke up and said to his wife, "What do you think about putting Halloween on a train?" His wife answered, "That's terrible". He jotted down "Terrible Train" on a piece of paper on his nightstand. In the morning, he changed the title to "Terror Train", wrote up 22 pages, and made a deal on it with Sandy Howard's company at 3:00 in the afternoon.
By the time this picture was ready to be launched, actress Jamie Lee Curtis had already earned the title of "Scream Queen" or "Queen of the Horror Pictures". This was because of her frequent appearances early in her career in such horror films as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980) and Prom Night (1980). Including Terror Train (1980), Curtis appeared in all of these four films in less than two years.
All or at least most of the filming of the train scenes had to be scheduled for night shooting. This was because the environs of the gigantic Montreal warehouse which housed the train was too active and noisy during the day. Shooting would begin at 6 pm at night and continue through to the early hours of the morning.
The opening prologue of the college bonfire was the very last scene of the movie to be filmed. It was added during post-production around one month after principal filming ended as a tie-in to the origins of the character Kenny Hampson.
Magician David Copperfield once said of this movie that he appeared in: "Film is a magnifying glass for magic, so I had to be very careful. What you see on screen is exactly what the extras saw during shooting".
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis once said of her character in this film: "There are certain things a heroine in a thriller has to be. She has to be vulnerable, so that the audience identifies with her and is rooting for her. But she also has to have an enormous inner strength to overcome the evil, or terror, that is pursuing her. I play the same kind of character as I did in other films. But Alana - the girl I play - is stronger and more defined".
Reportedly, veteran actor Ben Johnson asked director Roger Spottiswoode to give his character Carne less dialogue rather than more. Spottiswoode once said that Johnson said to him: "'Now Roger. I'm sure I've told you this before but on my first day working with John Ford, he took me aside and said 'Ben, when you're in front of the camera, you're not going to need too many words...you just won't need them. They can get in the way'. 'So Roger', Ben says, 'you go through and take out all the extra dialogue you can'. He told me that was sound advice from Mr. Ford and he wanted me to take it. He wanted me to go through the script and get rid of all the extra words he didn't need! He said, 'I know most of your actors want more words and more scenes but that's not me. I listened to Mr. Ford and he was pretty right about things. You can just take most of the words away'".
Actor Ben Johnson once said of this movie in which he co-starred: "I hadn't even read the script for Terror Train (1980) when I told Roger [Spottiswoode, the director] I'd do the role. I had enormous admiration for his work on the [Sam] Peckinpah films, and I knew he'd make one helluva fine director".
According to Wikipedia, "Cinematographer John Alcott devised a unique method of lighting Terror Train (1980). 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".
The first four of the five weeks shooting took place aboard the locomotive inside a warehouse in Montreal in Quebec, Canada. The fifth week of principal photography was used for filming location exteriors of the train. The loco was steamed up and taken out for shooting of such sequences as those seen of train with a snowbound backdrop.
Snow was an integral story element for some of the movie's location exterior shooting. Movie News magazine (Australia) reported that "Everybody had been praying for snow, which plays an important part in the script. As if by magic, several inches of snow fell during the first night [of exteriors shooting] outside". Jokingly, this has been attributed to the presence of co-star, magician David Copperfield.
The film was notable for a particular novelty story element gimmick whereby the villain puts on the costume of his last victim. As such, the killer in the film is constantly seen in different outfits throughout the movie.
The movie was filmed aboard actual train cars that were converted for the production to allow space for large camera equipment. Due to this lack of room, a special dolly (carriage) was built for the cameras.
The production got around half a day behind in its shooting schedule and frugal producer Sandy Howard wanted to take out five pages of the script according to director Roger Spottiswoode. As such, reportedly, creative differences arose between producer Howard and director Spottiswoode. However, producer Harold Greenberg settled the dispute and came to the rescue by writing out a check for $25,000 to cover the over-run.
The name of the classic Hollywood actor-comedian and movie-star whose face was represented on one of the masks was Groucho Marx. The image of this mask was the most dominant used in the movie's promotional materials.
This horror movie's location exteriors were filmed in the Canadian province of Quebec which had icy cold temperatures during the shoot. Ironically, scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis' next suspense movie after Terror Train (1980) was Road Games (1981), set and shot in quite the opposite of conditions, in the dry, hot and dusty Nullabor Plains of Australia.
The make and model of the locomotive was a June 1948 built Canadian Locomotive Company excursion train which was leased to the production from a steam train museum, the Steamtown Foundation, in Vermont in the New England region of the United States. The train was painted black with silver stripes for the film, along with its five Steamtown cars which were used with the engine. Director Roger Spottiswoode has said of the transport of the train cars from Vermont to Montreal for the production: "They were driven up on the rails. The train cars were put together and they got a pass and sent them up. I think we had five weeks prep time and it took us about two weeks to find those trains and select the carriages and get permission. The train took about three or four days to get to us. It's not very far but it had to get through customs... this and that. As I remember, there was a crew working on it as it traveled to Montreal".
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The killer was played by Derek McKinnon, a Canadian-Nova Scotia stage actor who appears in eleven scenes total throughout the movie. In each scene, he appears wearing a different mask or costume as well as his character Kenny Hampson.