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Some Americans that went to Europe to catch the wave of 1960s film activity tried their hand at directing and producing. Actor Mel Welles found an interesting second career, while actor/writer Mickey Knox discovered a new world of shaky financing and unenforceable showbiz contracts. Producer Sidney Pink relocated to Denmark to make a pair of fantasy films more cheaply than he could in Hollywood. Later in the decade he enjoyed a string of successes in Spain.
Blacklist victim Bernard Gordon worked in Spain as well, writing for producers Samuel Bronston and Philip Yordan. A decade later he produced a trio of films with Eugenio Martín, a competent director who had filmed second unit for Luis Buñuel on Tristana. The most widely seen of the three films is 1972's Horror Express (Pánico en el transiberiano), a lively and agreeable horror- sci-fi hybrid. 1 Gordon and Martín pulled a real coup in the casting department, snagging both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for the lead roles, and American star Telly Savalas for extra fun.
Horror Express has a lightweight but unbreakable storyline. Stuffy Professor Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) finds a fossilized 'missing link' in Szechuan Province, and packs it in a carefully locked crate for shipment on the Transsiberian Express. Along for the long, cold ride are: another Englishman with an eye for the ladies, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing); a Rasputin-like mad monk named Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza); the Russian countess (Silvia Tortosa); a police inspector (Julio Peña) and an industrial spy, Natasha (Helga Liné). General Pánico kicks in at the outset when Saxton's fossil proves to be very much alive and loose on the train. Passengers turn up dead with their eyes burned white and bleeding. When the monster is cornered and shot, it transfers its life-force to a new host, and the killings continue. The Cossack Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas) boards the train to put paid to the creature, only to see his troops transformed into a platoon of the Living Dead. Saxton and Wells maintain a proper British rationality, but find themselves at a loss when it comes to defeating the menace: just looking at one of the possessed demon-men is deadly.
Bernard Gordon must have had a fun time cooking up the story for this one. Back in the 1950s he labored for relative nickels and dimes grinding out scripts for Sam Katzman quickies like Zombies of Mora Tau and Hellcats of the Navy. Horror Express is eclectic to say the least. The monster fossil seems inspired by elements of Quatermass and the Pit and Attack of the Crab Monsters. The glowing-eyes and the horde of blind dead attackers are consistent with Spanish horror cinema of the time -- tacky but effective. The clever notion to stage the drama on a claustrophobic train chugging through a snowbound landscape may have been dictated by production practicality -- the producers had access to an excellent train set constructed for another movie. One very spooky detail is that the monster's deadly eyes are only effective in the dark. Saxton and Wells make use of an oil lamp to neutralize their inhuman opponent.
We can soon guess why Lee and Cushing accepted their roles - the script allows them to play reasonable heroes instead of monsters or not fanatics. We're told that Chris Lee talked Cushing into taking the job to raise his spirits after the recent loss of his beloved wife. Peter Cushing's character is a pleasantly superficial fellow who entertains a beautiful passenger in his room, makes petty jokes and even bribes a baggage man to peek into Saxton's secret shipping container. Although there isn't as much comedy relief as some reviewers seem to think, Saxton and Wells remind us superficially of the comedy duo Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford from Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, the ones that worry about cricket matches back in England even as their lives are threatened. When a soldier suggests that Wells or Saxby could be the host of the body-hopping menace, Cushing's Wells is most offended: "Why, we're British!"
Although given equal billing on American posters, Telly Savalas' Cossack Captain is an abbreviated guest star turn. Blundering onto the train with a dozen armed men, Captain Kazan is more interested in establishing his superiority and turning a profit, than catching monsters. He prepares to have the priest Pujardov shot the moment a passenger names him as a possible suspect: "Ah, we've got plenty of priests." As it turns out, the passengers have more to fear than just the monster. Both Kazan and the Imperial Russian authorities are prepared to kill everybody on the train to resolve the problem.
Almost all of the exterior views of the train (and a Siberian outpost) are miniatures. Most of the miniature shots filmed from a low angle with a real sky in the background look great, while other angles make the large train model look like a toy. The interior train sets are quite good. Most of the costumes are acceptable, although some of the Russians look altogether too Spanish. The original hairy horror-man from China is only adequate, although he does have a wicked clawed hand, and his one remaining glowing eye is unexpectedly creepy. Director Martín's uses editing to solve his "death gaze" problem - he throws the image of a victim out of focus, cuts, and then refocuses on an altered makeup. The makeup effects are crude but jarring, especially views of various possessed monsters with glowing eyes.
The science in this thriller is designed for story convenience, not credibility. When Dr. Wells' post-mortem opens up a victim's skull, the "smooth, featureless, blank" brain inside indicates that all of the victim's memory has been extracted. Later on, fluid from the dead creature's grisly eye is put under a microscope. As in a View-Master presentation, Saxon immediately sees absurd latent images of dinosaurs and the earth from space, proving that the original alien monster had been on the earth for millions of years, and saw our planet from a viewpoint in outer space. It's fun to see Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and several other actors playing this hoary scene as if it were top quality Michael Crichton pseudo-science.
The crazy script is actually very consistent with its fantastic details. As the creature absorbs human brains its reserve of knowledge and special talents grows exponentially. After a thief is killed, the beast knows how to pick locks with a bent nail. Presumably interested in returning to space, the disguised alien asks a civil engineer what he knows about the subject. When the engineer says that he was a student of the Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsilkovsky, the creature adds him to his brain-harvest queue. Priest Pajardov is a thinly disguised Rasputin clone. Convinced that the powerful alien is The Devil, he switches allegiances and offers himself as a vessel for possession. The rather chilling final shot sees the Pajardov-alien driving a barreling locomotive through the Siberian night, his coal-red eyes staring through the frosty glass like a deranged Casey Jones. 2
Severin's Blu-ray of Horror Express presents this grindhouse favorite in a quality transfer that we never thought would come to pass. Image Entertainment's older DVD was faded and scratched, and the 35mm print I saw in 1975 (with It's Alive) at the Fairfax Theater looked even worse. Severin has secured an original Spanish element in excellent shape, giving us the opportunity to evaluate the handiwork of cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa. Offhand, it looks as if most of the in-close monster footage was shot in pickup sessions ... sometimes the lighting doesn't match very well. (Note: the image on Severin's new disc is much, much better than the scans I found to illustrate this review.)
The film has an original Spanish main title sequence. The very clear English language version is accompanied by a slightly quieter original Spanish track. Unless my ears are being fooled, Christopher Lee voices himself in word perfect, mellifluous Castillian Spanish. But no English subtitles are present.
The combo package contains a second DVD disc with a standard-def pressing of the film.
Severin has gone to some trouble to assemble its extras. Director David Gregory's interview with Bernard Gordon is repurposed from an unreleased DVD of 55 Days at Peking. Gordon talks a lot about the blacklist and his helpful/exploitative relationship with the prolific Philip Yordan. A second newer interview with the aged Eugenio Martín, is conducted in English. Martín's comments are good but on the slow side. We can't help but think that he would have much more to say if he'd spoken in his native Spanish.
A third track on the feature carries a 1973 audio interview with Peter Cushing, which in itself will be a major purchase point for horror aficionados. The friendly and accommodating Cushing never gave a bad interview, and he's a pleasure to listen to: the actor's devoted fan base has continued to grow. Severin has also assembled a video interview with composer John Cacavas, who parlayed an encounter with Telly Savalas into a career in film and television music. The last of the extras is a mannered introduction to the film with Fangoria Magazine editor Chris Alexander, who pitches his approach to the fan-boy level. I will readily admit that I'm not the audience for the "hey dude check it out" attitudinizing.
An original English language trailer for Horror Express lets us see just how sloppy a trailer could get for a '70s horror film with wide distribution. The dramatic and colorful cover painting on the disc box is a classic. I'm assuming that it was adapted from some English advertising art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Horror Express Blu-ray rates:
1. Gordon hired a fellow blacklistee, Julian Halevy, to help pen the script. Halevy's real name was Julian Zimet, but the blacklist prevented him from using it when he wrote Edgar G. Ulmer's The Naked Dawn, Henry Hathaway's Circus World and Andrew Marton's Crack in the World, films produced in Mexico, Spain and England. François Truffaut said that The Naked Dawn was the formative basis for the script of his Jules and Jim, but the kudos went to director Edgar Ulmer. This is the kind of career connection-breakage caused by the blacklist.
2. I was robbed! A Super-8 movie I shot in the UCLA dorms in 1971 is a horror sketch about a zombie creature with pupil-less eyes that kills a bunch of people just by looking at them. Friend, fellow film student and future multiple Oscar-winner Randy (Randall William) Cook handled the makeup for my monster. I had to guide the student actor through his role because he couldn't see anything once the makeup was on. Built up with mortician's wax, Randy's monster makeup was actually kind of scary. Luckily, I kept some photos of Randy touching up his work on the roof of Sproul Hall. (UCLA's Pauley Pavilion is in the background, screen right).
Teams of private detectives have been unable to produce any evidence to prove that Bernard Gordon and Eugenio Martín stole the idea from my eight-minute never-shown-anywhere timeless masterpiece. Eight former college friends promised to testify that my brilliant film idea was indeed completely original. They no longer answer my phone calls, which should tell you just how powerful is the Gordon-Martín conspiracy to silence me. I remain certain that the true story will some day come to light.
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T'was Ever Thus.