After languishing in the public domain for many years, and with a slew of very poor transfers across the board, Horror Express arrives at the Blu-ray station with what is undoubtedly the best video that it has received for the home market. However, before you get your hopes up, this is still a surprisingly poor transfer, which inevitably takes the shine off the improvements that have been made.
The film is presented at 1.66:1 and comes via AVC. An early oddity, which has been seen on other versions of the movie as well, is that the opening titles do not fully fit on the screen, with the bottom edge seemingly cropped. There is even a touch of wobble to the frame during this section. And then the big wide shot of the mountain range that fills the frame immediately after the titles have played seems too tight and vertically squashed inwards. The rest of the film, however, does not suffer from such cramped confines, unless you count the interior of the train, itself.
Another immediate thing that you will notice is that contrast runs too hot, blowing out whites and producing unnecessary highlights. This is most prevalent during the first section at the train station and then during any other well-lit interiors. Look at the overhead lamp during the trepanning sequence – there is absolutely no delineation between the bulb itself and the casing that surrounds it. Faces exhibit plenty of this blooming.
This image clearly presents richer, warmer colours, with bold and well-saturated primaries. The blood is nice and vivid, the costumes, especially those of the ladies and of Savalas' Cossack, are gorgeously rendered, with dazzling blues and greens and comic-book reds. The whites of the mind-robbed eyes is a lovely milky weirdness. There is even a luscious hue to the blues of the sky seen outside the train windows. The blacks are a mixed-bag. There are plenty of shots when the shadows are tremendously thick and solid – the porter encountering the beast in the crate, for example – and then others when they are diffused and shot through with grey, diluting their effect somewhat. And there are frequent contrast waverings in the outer edges of the frame that further inhibit the power of the blacks, but this is all to do with the source. Overall, though, I was happy enough with the disc's presentation of shadow.
For those who are used to the often diabolical images that have gone before on home video and in TV broadcasts, this disc will come as something of a revelation. Fine detail is a whole lot more apparent. We have plenty of information with regards to the wiry fur of the creature, the gloopy trails of blood dripping down faces, the panelling of the carriages, the diamonds around the Countess' neck, and the patterns on Lee's tweeds. We can also clearly see lots of rogue whiskerage and stray hairs on the backs of necks. So this is definitely a step-up from anything that has come before in a few departments.
But the problems come thick and fast when we consider how the grain has been removed and the image has been transferred. This has been achieved none-too respectfully, and the image is left with the smeary remnants of its former texture. What should be grain looks wrong and glistens like crunched diamonds, fuzzing up the edges of faces and other well-lit objects during the “hotter” instances. But, possibly worse than that, are the unsightly compression artefacts that rear up very frequently, and this is a real shame as the print is undoubtedly the best one that I have seen for the movie. Noise and streaks and flecks abound, and quite a few of them are not related to the age of the print at all. Look at the black-studded trail left behind the glass as Christopher Lee moves his wine out of shot, to see what I mean. Or the horribly digital blurring that blights motion at times. It is such a kick in the teeth. After polishing things up quite nicely with a more stable, better colour-balanced print, Severin drop the ball with the authoring. On large screens, I'm afraid this will become quite distracting and this is a poor show for Blu-ray, although the improvements over SD are certainly unmistakable.
There’s two audio tracks here to choose from here, folks. Both are in Dolby Digital, so no lossless mixes. The first, and default track, is the English one, and that is mono, and the second, in Spanish, is supposedly in stereo. I have only listened to the English track, however.
Well, considering the quality of the video, this is actually quite a good transfer, so long as you make some necessary concessions to the dubbing – which affects some characters more than others, namely Savalas - and the limited scope of the material. But dialogue comes through very clearly and with some degree of vigour, with nothing submerged in the mix. The loquacious red-wine sneer of Lee’s regal delivery is offset by the playfully reserved and chalk-brittle voice of Cushing – and the audio track savours their classical tones.
I didn't notice anything age-related hampering the mix either. It sounds clean as a whistle.
Effects come in the form of gunfire, from rifle, pistol and shotgun, harsh Siberian winds and the thundering of the train over the tracks. The sudden opening of the big doors to the baggage compartment have that great sliding heft to them, and naturally the sound of the perishing environment outside comes clamouring in every time. The subtle grinding of bone under Cushing's saw as he cuts open a skull is delicately rendered, but convincingly achieved without being comically over-elaborate. The sound of clanking chains and padlocks is also nicely robust and detailed. Even the noise of the telegrams being sent has a lively chatter.
But one of the most effective elements of the film is the haunting score from John Cavacas. The mournful yet catchy main theme plays out across the track with a reasonable level of clarity, and the more driving, “danger” theme as the dead rise to do the alien’s bidding is given plenty of rhythmic percussive vigour.
This is a fine presentation of such a vintage track. I'm not sure how much better a full lossless mix would have been, but I can't imagine any fans being disappointed with how this sounds.
You might not have thought it possible, but Severin actually find some interesting supplements to make the trip of the Horror Express more enjoyable.
In First Class, we find a simply wonderful extra that is worth its weight in gold. Although not stated as such, this seems to be an interview with Peter Cushing that was recorded in 1973 as part of the John Player Lecture Series at the National Film Theatre. With a very appreciative audience and a star who is clearly enjoying every minute, this plays like a commentary over most of the film. It falls about ten minutes or so short. In this revealing, frank and often highly amusing session, Cushing discusses how he got into the business and his brave attempts to conquer Hollywood. He talks about his days in theatre and on television, his relationship with Hammer, Amicus and with Christopher Lee. He is winningly articulate and full of brevity, his anecdotes warm and engaging, and his opinions on the genre and the films that he has made rich and full of surprises. He makes reference to people being able to watch films on cassette – this was 1973, remember – and he discusses the abortive attempt to film I, Monster in 3D, lending a nice contemporary opinion to the now-rampant craze. Listen to his anecdote about watching Psycho for the first time. He also talks about gore in the movies, citing that he thought one of the vignettes in Tales From The Crypt was a bit too much. One slight downside – and it is only slight – is that we can barely hear the questions being asked from the audience. Occasionally, his moderator repeats them, but you swiftly get the gist of what is asked anyway. But the essential thing is that Cushing speaks at great length, revealing a tremendously well-spoken raconteur who clearly relishes his opportunity to wax lyrical.
This recording was made a couples of years after Horror Express was released, and Cushing is keen to promote his latest vehicle for Hammer, which was the studio’s last in the series depicting the body-tampering practices of the obsessed baron, the great Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell, with Shane Briant and Maddie Smith, and Dave Prowse under some horrific ape-man prosthetics as the tragic, but vengeful creature. This is not a commentary for Martin’s film in any way, and shouldn’t be thought of as such, but it is a great idea to have it playing alongside the movie.
Club-Class finds us sitting with the film’s Spanish director Eugenio Martin as he discusses the genesis of the movie, the difficulty of a cast working in harsh contact lenses, and, of course, about his experience with both Cushing and Lee. Sitting alongside him, is a fairly extensive meeting with the late producer Bernard Gordon, who informs us about the debilitating cloud of doom that came with the McCarthy witch-hunts, ultimately leading to his blacklisting from Hollywood, and his ousting to more welcoming shores, along with many others. And, holed-up opposite these two there is a nice piece from John Cavacas entitled Telly and Me that focuses upon the composer's relationship with the star, and how that shaped his career.
In the Baggage Compartment is the video introduction from Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, which goes on for around seven minutes and boasts a whole lot of fan-boy enthusiasm and nostalgic love. He urges us to watch the performances of Cushing and Lee most of all, because he asserts that Cushing was at the lowest point in his life, having just lost his beloved wife. Indeed he had, and Cushing looks terribly drawn and grey, yet he is able to manufacture that Michaevelian sparkle in his eyes at a second’s notice. But what is important is that the two stars help make what is a genuinely original and unusual thriller a whole lot better. Bizarrely, this “Introduction” doesn't actually play before the film and must be accessed separately. Bit of misstep, that.
And, hanging like a hobo on to the roof of the speeding train, we come across the film’s theatrical trailer and some plugs for further Severin titles – Psychomania, Nightmare Castle and the great Cushing/Lee Amicus portmanteau, The House That Dripped Blood.
Although all of the supplements are worth your time, the Peter Cushing session is an absolute treasure.
Hop aboard the Trans-Siberian Express for a showdown with a brain-sucking beast from beyond the Tsars! Be thrilled at such wild entertainment as the Raving Rasputin with his terrifying omens and proclamations, and the Crazy Cossack who is quick with a whip and handier with an automatic. Dine in style with either a beautiful spy or a ravishing Countess, or just enjoy witty and articulate conversation with two of England’s finest scientists-cum-monster-slayers. With hundreds of miles to travel across a frozen wilderness, our onboard performances are sure to astound and excite. There’s never a dull moment on Horror’s answer to the Orient Express.
It’s the fast-track to mystery, death, hairy-hands, zombies and glaring white-eyed madness as an alien entity runs amok and disturbs the joy-de-vivre of the endless Steppe. You can’t trust anyone when the alien essence invades human flesh, so it’s great for that Agatha Christie-themed excursion. Not so much a whodunit as a who's-doing-it-now?
Severin release a cult classic chiller that has more clever ideas in it than you might think. They spruce up a film that has always looked terrible but, in so doing, create a few new problems along the way. Digital gremlins muck about and conspire to derail the good intentions of bringing this cherished genre gem to Blu-ray, but the movie still looks far better than it ever has before, and the assembly of interesting extras is made all the more valuable for the inclusion of the feature-length audio interview with the great Peter Cushing. Personally, it is worth getting the disc for this alone, but the zany Spanish/British co-production offers an irresistible combination of thrills, chills and preposterous theorising that just cannot be beaten. Throw in one of the most eerie and haunting scores from the seventies and you have a winning ticket. If only they hadn’t come off the tracks with the transfer!
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