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Horror Express Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 24, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    Horror Express Review

    All aboard the Horror Express!

    Next stop … madness!

    In a terrific SF/Horror spin on Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, this Spanish/British co-production from 1972 puts us aboard the opulent carriages of the speeding Trans-Siberian Express and places us at the mercy of a brain-sucking star-beast that can hop from one body to the next, hiding amongst the passengers and causing panic and mayhem. With bloody-eyed corpses turning up left, right and centre, and a contingent of disrespectful Cossacks climbing aboard to wreak their own kind of havoc, it seems that only Horror's most resilient duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing can thwart the terror and stop us and the train plunging straight off the tracks and into hellish oblivion.

    Well, this is great stuff that fuelled many a nightmare when it was aired regularly on TV in the lates seventies and early eighties.

    You already know that you’re onto a winner when you’ve got the aristocratic double-act of Cushing and Lee spearheading the production. Even if the dialogue was utter tripe – which, for the most part, it isn't - they would still bring a certain character to it, a refined eccentricity and sense of credible decorum, that would make it all sound intelligent, important and, often against all the odds, believable. When they were opposed to one another, as in many a Dracula yarn, the demarcation line was stark and vivid, their innate chemistry twisted into a feral rivalry that genuinely crackled. When the two worked as a team, which was altogether rarer, they were like the last bastion of the British Empire, redoubtably squaring-off against all-comers, clinging to a sense of propriety and possessed of a determined practicality that now seems both quaintly doomed and touchingly bittersweet. Here, they start off as “professional” rivals, with Lee's Professor Alexander Saxton a fussy curmudgeon fiercely protective of his discovery, and Cushing's Dr. Wells a bit of a sly dog who playfully hopes to upstage the more obtuse boffin by secretly learning just what it is he's got hidden away in that strange box in the baggage compartment. Naturally, the two will find that they are on familiar ground once the death-toll commences and Saxton realises that his new toy is responsible ... and then it will only be right and proper that they join forces.

    Lee plays the starched and stuffy Saxton as a pompous buffoon, which is a little against type for such genre nobility, but he does so with a knowing wink to the audience. Saxton boards the train with a rather suspicious packing crate containing the frozen remains of a creature that he believes to be the missing link. He's already caused a fracas at the station in Peking as the dead body of a notorious thief has been found lying beside his crate with his eyes completely white. Clearly there is something spooky going on with his “box of bones” as the delectable Countess Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa) calls it. Her little dog doesn't like it either, but it is the pesky proclamations of the Rasputin-like priest that cause the most disquiet. With a complete lack of diplomacy he asserts, in front of everyone on the crowded platform, that whatever is in the crate is “EEEEE-VILLLLLL!” Let's just hope that he isn't getting the train as well, eh, Professor? Fat chance of that – he's the spiritual consul to the Count and Countess, isn't he?

    At least Saxton has a sort of ally in his professional rival, Dr. Wells … if he can keep him from prying the cover off the crate for a sneaky peak, that is. But when the porter that Wells paid to drill a spy-hole in the crate goes missing and allegations from the officious Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena) begin to fly in the Professor's direction, it seems Saxton has no choice but to allow them to open the box. And inside it is the brain-drained porter … and no creature! Which means, my dear fellow, that although two million years old, and with only one eye, it is up and about and hungry for human grey matter! And, it is still on the train ...

    Tickets please!

    Spanish director Eugenio Martin was under contract to make three films for American screenwriter Philip Yordan, who had moved to Spain in the 60's to help form Samuel Bronston's movie-making enterprise after helping to pen a slew of epics for Anthony Mann – El Cid, 55 Days At Peking, The Fall Of The Roman Empire. The first of these, the Westerns Bad Man's River and Pancho Villa, both 1971, were problematic and needed considerable re-writes that Martin, himself, undertook. And they didn't make much money either. Considering that the train and a section of railroad, plus the intricate model miniature of both, that was used in Pancho Villa had been so expensive, Yordan insisted that the third film take place on a train so that they could get some kind of return on their expenditure. Hence, Horror Express. Two blacklisted screenwriters, now living in Spain, Arnaud D'Usseau and Julian Halevy and another McCarthy-escapee in Yordan's partner, Bernard Gordon, who would assume the role of producer, took advantage of some of the Villa sets and the gaps in the shooting schedule to scribe the story and to purloin its main star in Telly Savalas, who played the Mexican revolutionary, for this third picture.

    The resulting film served as a clarion call to the world that Spanish Horror was alive and well. Together with Jorge Grau's awesome The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974), and the ever-popular Tombs Of The Blind Dead series, this marked a swingshift in audience appreciation of genre-fare hailing from paella studios. Of course, in more recent years, Spain has produced some absolute classics of the fantastique in The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth for Guillermo Del Toro, and also The Orphanage and Julia's Eyes. By comparison, Horror Express seems pulpish and absurd, but it is undertaken with such verve, wit and style that its ideas and imagery are conveyed with just as much integrity. Imagination and ambition were certainly not lacking in this third film … the one that Yordan probably didn't pin a great deal of hope on.

    Horror Express is notable for many things, but one of the most pertinent and sentimental is that this is the first film that Peter Cushing made after his beloved wife, Helen, succumbed to cancer in 1972. As was extremely well known, Cushing simply adored her, and virtually lived for her. Her passing devastated him and left him in a limbo from which he, personally, never recovered. He claimed that from now on he was “just killing time” until they could be reunited, and that his life was thoroughly empty without her. But knowing her time was short, Helen had urged his close and life-long colleagues, especially Lee, to drag Peter to work if necessary, knowing that he would simply give up without any reason to live. As Cushing frequently and most upsettingly stated “Life without Helen is simply unbearable” but look at the performances that he delivered in this last and most emotionally torn phase of his life. His swansong as the Baron in Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, and his final showdown with the Count in The Satanic Rites Of Dracula as Lorrimer Van Helsing, his portrayal of the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (actually the best performance in the film, if not the entire franchise), Sebastian Grisbane in the fun cameo mash-up House Of Long Shadows and even his hammed-up guest spot in the spoof Top Secret. Even when reduced to his lowest ebb, Cushing was able to deliver the goods with consummate professionalism. It was Lee who literally compelled him to appear alongside him in Horror Express, and as fine as his performance is, you can clearly see how haggard and drawn he looks. Yet that sparkle is there in his eyes, and there is a guarded sense of humour to his portrayal that is as winning as ever.

    Even if the theme of the story seems to have a trace of John W. Campbell’s hugely influential novella Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing) in it's DNA, Eugenio’s visuals, themselves, act like a sort of template for how John Carpenter opened his 1982 adaptation of the alien shape-change thriller. Together with that mournful and haunting, post-60’s main theme, the movie opens with a curious title montage of lights warping and travelling across the screen. Given the setting of the movie, it could be taken, at a push, that these are surrealist depictions of the locomotive’s headlight as seen approaching through a dark tunnel, but, upon closer inspection and a more considered opinion, it is clear that what we are witnessing is an abstract impression of stars and supernova painted against the dark void, representing the voyage across the galaxy that the being from inside the crate has taken. This is sort of mimicked with the opening saucer-crash of The Thing – a intergalactic prelude to an earthbound adventure. But the clincher to this connection is the very next shot after the titles (which are the original Spanish ones, incidentally) have played. Suddenly we are confronted with an indomitable, primordial mountain range that fills the frame, end to end, immediately suggesting an epic and inhospitable wilderness – which is exactly how The Thing begins. Going the extra step, we actually see Professor Saxton and his ragtag procession of Manchurian guides then travelling across the barren landscape and making their bizarre discovery in the tomb of a frozen cave – the sort of important discovery that those Antarctic scientists would also learn to regret.

    Who loves ya, baby?

    Although we now know how he came to be in the film, it is still a complete delight to find Telly Savalas cropping up as a rogue Cossack commander languishing with his troops at a wayward station in the tundra. God knows where his demonstrative Captain Kazan found the Russian beauty that he has snuggled under a wolfskin beside him, but his sudden appearance is something that gives the movie a wild vodka-shot in the arm. Although he'd been seen in many things by this time, most notably The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes, Savalas wasn't yet the household name that he would become with his portrayal of tough New York detective Kojak, which would commence a couple of years later. Thus, it was only afterwards, and perhaps even more so now, after all these years, that his presence in the movie is really felt with any great impact. A film that could have seemed quite small and undemanding thus becomes incredibly rich and colourful with such robust characters strutting up and down the carriages.

    As Kazan, Savalas is larger-than-life. He brings a delirious quality to the movie that actually evokes the style of the Spaghetti Westerns more than anything else. Just watch his exchange with the station-master to see what I mean. This is text-book Leone or Corbucci, highly stylised bravado with a self-reverential chip on the shoulder. However, if we are totally honest, he really isn't very good – overacting terribly and saddled with dialogue that is pure gibberish. Lee's Saxton, himself, actually says at one stage, “What is he babbling about?” Quite. But he still brings an oddball danger to the mix, another threat to the beleaguered passengers.

    Famously, Savalas brought with him his friend and jazz composer John Cavacas (who was born in the States but was of similarly Greek heritage) and helped to give him his big break in the movies. Although he failed to get the tunesmith the job of composing for Pancho Villa, a score that eventually went to Anton Garcia Abril, one of Cavacas' ballads did actually make it into the film. Savalas didn't give up, though, and swiftly inveigled the ex-Army Bandsman into the new production. Cavacas creates a wonderfully eerie, yet mournful main theme that incorporates the wailing hooter of the train and even gets a rendition whistled by the porter, then the monster and even gets played on the piano by the Countess Irina. His success with Horror Express would bring Cavacas into contact with Phillip Martell, the head of music for Hammer, who would then enlist him to score the studio's eighth Dracula movie, 1974's The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Enjoyable hokum, Satanic Rites gets a bad rap, but it actually has a few neat ideas in it and, at least, makes the Count's transition to the modern day a little more cogent than the previous Dracula AD 1972. But it was Cavacas' score that provided the film with its impact, and his ability to combine contemporary jazz and R&B rhythms with more traditional orchestral horror scoring was something that was apparent even in his more avant-garde work for Horror Express. At the same time as working on the disaster movies Airport 1975 and Airport '77, Cavacas would return the favour to his friend Savalas by scoring the actor's enormously popular Kojak TV show, with yet more dynamic and memorable music, not to mention that furiously urban Schifrin-style main theme, as well as arranging twelve songs for the star on his own wacky album This Is Telly Savalas!

    As well as a brilliantly intense and teeth-clenched performance from Pena, whose Inspector seems to be permanently on-the-boil, the film finds great support from Alberto de Mendoza, who is magnificent as the demented Father Pujardov. More than anybody else, it is the lapsed priest who provides the iconic imagery of the tale. With his bedraggled raven hair, biblical beard and warm, though clearly mad, Patrick Troughton eyes, he cuts a figure both imposing and sympathetic. His ravings are earnest and implacable, his gestures with the cross and his accusatory finger are electrifying. And with his wonderfully modulated style, he totally hauls the rug from beneath Savalas' feet during the frantic last act.

    Anyone seen my Missing Link?

    The monster, itself, is a remarkable creation. Played by Juan Olaguival, this is a frosted, hirsute behemoth that resembles a cross between a Yeti and Brian Blessed, a foul beast that must have provided the inspiration for the fearfully hulking brute-monster that Cushing and Shane Briant would stitch together in Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, that would come out the following year in 1973. Yet as intimidating as this lost creature is, there is something about him that, even from our first glimpse of him in that frozen nest, seems to suggest a sort of intelligence and dignity that his physical appearance would tend to refute. Martin ensures that we notice the little elements that he has stolen from his victims – such as being able to pick a lock, or even whistling that melancholy main theme – and this becomes a great device that lends a lot to a character that could, and in most cases would, have been merely a “thing” best left in the shadows, and just an embarrassment when it popped out.

    A scene of the creature, hidden in a passenger compartment whilst troops search the train, keeping poised and silent, with a hairy hand hovering over a sleeping little girl’s face is tremendously well done. I love the fact that we aren’t exactly sure what his desperate intentions are should she awaken and spy the beast in her midst. There is a sort of tenderness, and a contemplative nature on show that certainly appears to have been deliberately directed that way. His face is not contorted with bestial rage, he is merely regarding the child … and clearly praying that she doesn’t wake up and scream. It is apparent that he doesn’t want to hurt her at all. We are afraid of this thing, but we also sympathise with it. This is yet another great element about this film, and something that is so often overlooked. But he is dangerous too. When in the throes of mentally capturing his prey, the beast’s one good eye glows a lovely light-bulb red. When his unearthly essence is passed to someone else, their eyes then glow, and there is something of a Stan Winston T800 Arnie head about the effect – all clay and latex inhumanity illuminated by an inner diabolism. It is cheaply done … but it is so effective at the same time.

    The link to Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell can be further seen in the graphic depiction of some illicit brain surgery and eyeball investigation. Under the wan illumination of a swinging lantern, Cushing saws through a noggin with some finely realistic flesh-and-bone grinding sound effects, and lifts the lid on the poor chap's brain-pan – which we see in delightful close-up. “Smooth as a baby's bottom!” chirps Wells' potato-headed assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart), as they make the profound leap of cinematic logic that the victim's brain has been sucked-dry of all its memories. This sequence must have been slightly trimmed when the film was first aired on British TV because I remember seeing it for something like the third time, whilst I was still only around nine years old, and suddenly you saw a lot more of the proceedings. The monster even makes a return trip to examine his victim, perhaps bemused at the jack-in-the-box trick the humans have done to it. All this said, Horror Express is not a gory film … well, not much. The rest of the nasty stuff is detailed via bloody eye-sockets and eyes that roll over white like an attacking shark whenever the alien entity gets hungry for more intelligence, and puts that “mesma-stare” on his next mental meal. But this is one of the film's most memorable aspects. Not only is it visually striking – the victims writhing in a sort of doomed ecstasy, all shot with weird helter-skelter angles, zooms and protracted longeurs that actually make you feel quite uncomfortable – but it is also such a strange concept. David Cronenberg would latch onto the idea with Scanners, even turning one character's eyes completely white, and Lucio Fulci would enjoy making eyes bleed in City Of The Living Dead, but Martin's film is the definitive eye-roller.

    Change here for the miniature mountain!

    The script can be very witty too. When Cushing’s doctor-cum-detective realises that he will have to perform an impromptu trepanning on a newly discovered victim he whispers in Miss Jones' ear to enlist her assistance. Noting that the good doctor has been sitting with the beautiful Natasha (Helga Line) in the dining-car (well she's beautiful until she goes off on a doomed spot of espionage, when she suddenly looks just like a man in drag!), she blithely replies, “Yes, well at your age, I’m not surprised.” Ahh, nice one, Miss Jones! And then there is the classic retort that Cushing delivers when Inspector Mirov claims that either of the two scientists could be the monster - “Monster? We're British, you know!” But the screenplay can drop the odd clunker as well. After the discovery of the porter's body, Inspector Mirov informs his soldiers that their search for the creature must be done quietly because he doesn't want to “panic the passengers!”, yet when he calls upon Dr. Wells to examine a body only moments later he simply blurts out in the dining-room that “there's been another killing!” When queried by another passenger about this, Mirov then snarls at him, “You didn't hear a thing! You understand?” Not very good at keeping a lid on things, this guy. And then there's the grand moment when Saxton tells the Inspector what he believes the official, himself, should be advising all the other passengers do to for their safety whilst everybody on the train is actually stood around him and clearly hanging on his every word.

    And don't get me started on the whole “images retained in the eye's fluid” malarkey that Lee and Cushing bang on about. It suits the story, I suppose, but nobody, even in 1972 was buying this theory. It wouldn't have been so bad if Martin hadn't opted to show us these images through the microscope. A floating Inspector Mirov, then a dinosaur, a pterodactyl and then … the Earth seen from space – a cycle of things witnessed by the beast. Well, it just looks ridiculous. But I suppose that this can be forgiven with the wonderful exchange that Saxton has with the alien regarding its intentions, and the beast's own detective work regarding “special steel” and the ability to break the bounds of gravity. There is a helluva lot of speculative conjecture at work here, far more than in the majority of genre offerings that were coming out of Hollywood around this time.

    European films have always had a distinctive mood that sets them apart from the norm. There is an artier, more flamboyant, more intense attitude to them, and a certain roguish eccentricity. At times it seems as if Cushing and Lee have literally got on the wrong train and found themselves hurtling very far away from Bray Studios. Their presence is essential to the movie, yet still strangely ill-fitting at the same time. But this only adds to the otherworldly ambience of the film. We feel as out-of-place as they do, yet they become the resilient rock that we can cling to. When one of Mirov's armed policemen raises a rifle-butt to strike Saxton in the face, seeing Lee and Cushing stand firm and unflinching is the sort of patriotic stance that would make Bond proud. Thus, the duo do not only add a level of class to the production but a last-gasp Empirical defiance to a world that had irrevocably slipped from such a grip.

    A ride on the Horror Express is a cult trip that is well worth taking.