I first took this trip on Terror Train for the anthology, Butcher Knives and Body Counts: Essays On the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film, edited by Vince A. Liaguno and published by Dark Scribe Press.
“Death?” I asked.
“An infinitely large house in which you never have enough fresh towels and somebody is always in the bathroom ahead of you,” said Zombos, tipping the last drops of Royal Brackla from his glass onto his tongue.
“Interesting,” I said. We were whiling away the moments of boredom with a word association game. I finished my Manhattan. I like it with three dashes of Angostura bitters and two ounces of Italian vermouth. "How about...slasher?”
Zombos slumped in his leather wing chair, deep in thought. I waited. The triple-chime from the Promoli fantasy clock on the mantle roused him.
"Shake and Bake," he answered.
"Shake and Bake?"
"Yes. You know the slogan; gotta be crispy, gotta be golden, gotta be juicy."
"I don’t see how it relates to the word slasher," I said, still perplexed.
"Simple enough. Take one big, unsympathetic, psychopathic killing porkchop of a silent killer, add frisky-until-dead young adult seasonings, shake vigorously in a plastic see-through bag, then cook until the red juices flow."
"I’m not sure it’s always that simple," I said.
"How so? Can you name me one slasher film, not including Psycho, of course, that is not prepared out of the bag?" Zombos slumped back down, content he was right.
"Terror Train," I said without hesitation.
He sat upright. "Terror Train? How is it different from every other slasher?"
"Well," I began, Kenny, the killer, is a sympathetic average kid, smaller than a porkchop, and he doesn’t use weapons bigger than a toolbox or need gasoline. More importantly, although he can whip up enough masculine aggression to commit messy murder, he’s somewhat confused and definitely uncomfortable with expectations about his gender, leading to his inability to blend into being an insensitive, oversexed clod like the other frat boy jocks. It’s their in-your-face masculinity that terrorizes him enough to turn him into a screwball hell-bent on revenge."
Zombos interlaced his fingers and settled back into his chair. "I recall the film."
I continued. "Sure, it blends those elements we’ve come to expect: a holiday—New Year’s Eve—timeframe; a fairly isolated location created by the premed kids renting an antique locomotive—without a working radio—for a last fling party before graduation; and a traumatic backstory providing the impetus for mayhem. But..."
"But?" repeated Zombos, listening attentively.
"While the plot is threadbare around the fringes, there’s a tad more complexity weaved into the characters than first meets the eye. Certainly more than today’s bland seasoning of young victims," I said.
"Really? How so?" asked Zombos, leaning forward to refill his glass.
I took a breath and continued. "You can see a spectrum of masculine certainty all the way to uncertainty on display, from the comfortable manliness of Ben Johnson’s train conductor to the gender-bending masquerade of Kenny, who has no social identity of his own, nor clear sense of his masculine side. Now in the middle, to provide contrast, you have Jaime Lee Curtis’s Alana, who is firmly feminine with masculine sensibilities bordering on manliness, and the queer relationship between Hart Bochner’s Doc Manley and his best bud—and Alana’s boyfriend—Mo."
"Queer in the sense of gay?" asked Zombos, holding his glass midway, waiting for my answer.
"Well, yes and no or even maybe. I don’t think the use of the name ‚Manley, is by accident. Doc is certainly jealous of Mo’s relationship with Alana, and does everything he can to sabotage it. Is he just a control freak or is there something deeper going on? On the surface he comes off as being obnoxiously masculine, yet when Mo is killed, Doc acts like he’s lost more than a friend when his emotions overwhelm him. I would even go so far as to say he acts more feminine when and after it happens. I mean he freaks over the sudden loss and lovingly cradles Mo in his arms as he screams for help. I think he has a stronger bond with Mo than just frat boy friendship; I think he’s in love with Mo."
Zombos downed his drink in one gulp and leaned forward. "Let me see if I understand you. Kenny, the killer, is confused about his gender—"
“Let’s say he’s made very uncomfortable because of it," I added. "Before Doc Manley suckers him into bedding down with a ripe autopsied corpse, sending him to bedlam for three years, we know Kenny is shy and frail in both appearance and spirit, awkward in his physical sexual identity with the girls, and a misfit in the college social scene because of all of the above. Sadly, this makes him more of a real character, someone many of us can relate to from our own experiences with the social scenes in high school and college."
"And Doc Manley is compensating for his unwanted mixed-gender identity by outwardly acting more masculine," said Zombos, "but inwardly feeling more feminine in his relationship with Mo," as more of a thought than a question.
"Which is why Doc scapegoats Kenny," I said, completing Zombos’s thought. "Deep down, Doc is strongly attracted to Mo, but Doc knows to fit in on campus he’s got to play the machismo card, the ideal-of-manhood expectation college society expects of him: jock, alpha male, and lady-killer all rolled into one neat little package; which can become problematic if you’re gay and sensitive or straight and sensitive. So Doc takes out his frustration over this unwanted, but still strong, feeling toward Mo by playing his sadistic joke on Kenny in an attempt to exert his control over it. So, you see, there’s more to this story than the usual hack and slash."
"Indeed," said Zombos. "With what you have just said, Kenny’s transvestite disguise and costume swaps with his victims can be viewed beyond their utilitarian plot-use for hiding his true identity aboard the train.
"Definitely," I replied. "While he changes into the costume of his latest victim to more easily commit his murders, he doesn’t need to masquerade as the magician’s female assistant. Just before the train leaves the station, he murders that annoying jokester Ed, and uses his Groucho Marx costume as a disguise to board the train. So why does he bother to masquerade in drag, at all? Is it just a pretense, or is it really who Kenny feels most comfortable with being?"
Zombos sat back in his chair and thought about what I said. The clock chimed half-past the hour as he continued to mull the question over. "Because...," he finally said, "the relationship between the magician and Kenny mirrors the relationship between Doc Manley and Mo."
"Bingo!" I said. "Ken, the magician played by David Copperfield in an almost effeminate manner, becomes infatuated with Alana. Kenny, who has feelings for Ken, eventually murders him out of jealousy. I admit I’m stretching a bit here, but there’s no explicit reason given for killing Ken. He just winds up skewered through the ears. But the relationship between Ken, and Kenny as his female assistant, and Doc’s relationship with Mo, contain some tantalizing similarities too good to ignore. It appears the costumes weren’t the only disguises in use aboard that train."
"But when Kenny eventually confronts Alana for that kiss he never got," said Zombos, "he goes off his rocker again, and relives that night three years ago."
"That’s right," I explained. "He realizes, after all this time, her kiss doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t resolve his gender identity confusion as he hoped it would. Alana represents the feminine and masculine in harmony, something which Kenny cannot resolve. Curiously enough, the resolution is provided by Ben Johnson’s assured manliness wielding a mean axe."
I prepared another Manhattan while Zombos poured another drink, but added more ice this time. We sat in silence for a little while.
"Jaime Lee Curtis," said Zombos.
"Hot, take-charge babe," I answered, then said, "Ben Johnson."
"Saddle soap and Old Spice," he answered.
We continued our word association game until the sunlight crept quietly into the library and the soul-lifting aroma of Chef Machiavelli's Turkish coffee drew our attention elsewhere.