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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Horror Express (1972) review


Christopher Lee (Sir Alexander Saxton), Peter Cushing (Dr. Wells), Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan), Alberto de Mendoza (Father Pujardov), Julio Pena (Inspector Mirov), Helga Line (Natasha)

Directed by Eugenio Martin (as Gene Martin)

During a cold winter, Professor Saxton (Lee) is transporting an ape man frozen in a block of ice by train back to England for study. Along the way, the creature thaws out and several corpses are discovered with their eyes turned completely white. It is soon learned that the apeman is not responsible for the gruesome deaths, but a body-hopping alien. The otherworldly being was frozen inside of the creature and uses various individuals as hosts taking knowledge and traits needed in an effort to build itself a ship to make it back to its home planet. Both Professor Saxton and Doctor Wells (Cushing) combat the creature and its army of revived corpses in order to keep the monster from reaching civilization.

A fascinating and ahead of its time sci-fi/horror amalgamation that is also one of the most fitfully entertaining 90 minutes of frightful fun you're ever likely to come across. Lee is perfectly cast as the cold, arrogant atheist professor Saxton. Cushing is also in fine form although a bit against type as Lee's unwitting partner in the whole affair. Cushing plays a somewhat horny old fellow who tries on several occasions to get in the pants of a beautiful spy (Line) masquerading as one of the passengers. Cushing even gets to indulge in some brief Frankenstein style surgery as he performs a make-shift lobotomy on one of the victims. Wells surmises that the memories of the victims have been wiped away upon the discovery that their brains are completely smooth, "like a baby's bottom", as one of the characters puts it.

Speaking of the characters, they are all (for the most part) so good and well drawn that they accentuate the quirky story in a way not normally afforded these movies. There are also several minor subplots going on that never take precedence over the main story at hand and you learn just enough about them to maintain interest in their activities.

One of the best aspects of the story is that the alien only "steals" the minds of those it deems intelligent enough to learn any knowledge that will assist in it's ability to build a ship to get home. One of the characters is a demented priest whom, once the identity of the thing is revealed, naturally assumes it is the devil(!) and then proceeds to "switch sides" so to speak. The nutty priest asks the creature if it plans to kill him and the alien retorts that the fool has nothing in his mind of any use. Towards the end, obsessed with the thought of seizing such power, the unhinged man of the cloth beckons the creature to come into him when the host body is fatally wounded.

One of the most startling scenes has Saxton and Wells remove an eye from one of the casualties. They extract some fluid from the orb and place it under a microscope. They see the last image the person, or thing saw before they died. The apeman's eye reveals dinosaurs and a glimpse of the Earth from space!

Telly Savalas has a minor, but memorable role as a sadistic cossack who, after a wire gets out about the trouble on the train, has the locomotive stopped. He and a cadre of soldiers board the train and summarily harass the passengers. Captain Kazan (Savalas) proceeds to shoot the inspector, host for the alien. With no choice left to the intergalactic visitor, the thing takes up residence within the welcoming priest. At that time, the alien proceeds to kill all the soldiers. In the very taut final moments, Saxton and Wells attempt to derail the train over a cliff stopping the alien creature for good. The thing brings the soldiers back from the dead and they pursue the remaining survivors through the train cars.

The score by John Cacavas is also very memorable and can be heard, at various times during the movie, being either whistled, played on the piano or in some other fashion by miscellaneous individuals. The score has some cues that have been used in numerous kung fu pictures and the soundtrack is available on compact disc.

Obviously taking inspiration from past sci-fi pictures, the film must have been seen by John Carpenter as some elements are strikingly similar to his remake of THE THING. The alien creature requiring a host body to survive absorbing that individuals entire being is the most obvious riff. Furthermore, the original source material for THE THING remake was the novel, 'Who Goes There?', which also had the alien creature assuming the identity of its victim. Also reminiscent of Carpenter's film, the train passengers must be tested by Saxton and Wells in order to find out who is human and who is the alien. The similarities between the two films is palpable.

In addition to the horror and science fiction elements, there are numerous funny scenes and dialog exchanges. One in particular has Saxton trying to get a ticket to board the train and the consternation brought upon by the austere ticket master. Saxton's retaliation is quite funny. The first 15 minutes or so is a bit of a running gag as Saxton has endless trouble on the train as he constantly has to explain himself to prying passengers. Another funny moment follows shortly thereafter when Saxton invades doctor Wells' room after Wells has anticipated a nightly fling with the beautiful young woman that occupies the bunk.

Another amusing scene has the creature (disguised inside a host) questioning Wells and Saxton proclaiming that either one of them could be the monster. Wells replies, "Monster...? We're British, you know." Another great scene has the alien in a train car alone with Lee. It begins asking many questions of the confident professor. You get the feeling that any moment the thing will make Saxton its next victim and just as it appears the alien will make its move, one of the characters enters and unknowingly saves him.

Directed with an assured hand and an air of professionalism (on an obviously low budget) by Eugenio Martin who also helmed the Italian western BAD MAN'S RIVER (1972). On that film, Martin utilized a nice miniature steamboat which was sometimes composited into the scenery. Here, a miniature train is used for the main location of the action. This same miniature was used in the spaghetti western PANCHO VILLA (1972) which also starred Savalas as the title character.

During this time, Peter Cushing's wife had recently passed away and it was extremely difficult for him to appear in a movie during this time of mourning. After his wife died, there was a noticeable difference in Cushing's appearance. He lost weight and his face became very gaunt. At first, he didn't want to travel to Spain but relented begrudgingly. However, after arriving in Madrid, Cushing, still overcome with grief, was adamant about abandoning the production. Thankfully, Christopher Lee talked him into carrying on and it turned out to be a most therapeutic trip for the heartbroken gentleman of horror. Cushing never lets his anguish show and gives his all to his role.

Like most foreign films, the sound was dubbed in later and Lee, Cushing and Savalas dubbed their own voices. One of my favorite movies from childhood, I first caught HORROR EXPRESS, like so many, on SHOCK THEATER. The now OOP DVD from Image is the best version out there. There are numerous dupes on various labels and I'm sure at least one of them utilizes the Image version. The disc also has a music only track and a fold-out cover replete with liner notes on the film. A heartfelt thank you to both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee-- without their participation, horror fans may not have seen one of the greatest collaborations between two of Britain's most famed actors of fantastic cinema.

This review is representative of the Image DVD. This title has been available for years on various other labels but the Image disc is the best quality so far.

DVD availability: Image Entertainment


TheReverendDoom said...

One of my favorite Euro-horrors with two of my favorite actors. I love the almost Lovecraft feel to the movie. It's a great companion to Carpenter's The Thing (which is another favorite of mine).

venoms5 said...

I'm with you on the Carpenter connection, Rev. This golden oldie from 1972 is one I can watch over and over again.

Jay Shatzer said...

I still have to see this one. I've been holding out on buying a copy hoping that they would come out with a special edition, but I guess I'll just have to order the Image DVD cause I can't take the wait any longer. Sounds like a great film.

venoms5 said...

You shouldn't have long to wait, Jay. Synapse is supposed to be re-releasing this title soon.

Jay Shatzer said...

Thank god for Synapse! This is the best news that I've heard in a long while. Don't know how it got by me though, but thanks for the update. Won't be long now.

Jay Shatzer said...

I think you might have got that mixed up. I just did a quick search and it looks like Severin is releasing it. So thank god for Severin! Hahaha. Either way it is coming out so Wooohoooo!

venoms5 said...

Lol, yeah, I couldn't remember who it was, but Synapse is releasing TWINS OF EVIL and VAMPIRE CIRCUS on region 1 DVD and I think Blu Ray, too. Check DVDmaniacs, Jay, in the Drive in/exploitation section. There's a thread about it over there.

Jay Shatzer said...

Yeah I just bought the UK version of Twins of Evil, but I'm still looking to buy Vampire Circus. Glad that Synapse is putting out that one for sure. Thanks for the DVDmaniacs thread suggestion, checking it out as we speak.

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