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Horror Express

Severin // R // November 29, 2011
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 13, 2011 | E-mail the Author
It's kind of criminal that we're more than a half-decade into Blu-ray now, and I can still count on one hand how many Hammer films have found their way to high-def the world over. Severin Films is doing what they can to ease that sting, though. Horror Express may not be a Hammer film in the truest sense, but with its period setting as well as both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on the bill, it's at
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least the next best thing. Maybe even better, seeing as how director Eugenio Martín infuses the movie with the unsettling atmosphere and surreal streak of Spanish horror.

Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) has unearthed some sort of ancient fossil in the Far East. He's cagey about the specifics, but clearly it's the find of this young century, and Saxton is desperate to begin the long journey home with a trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. As luck would have it, he's sharing the train with Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), and his colleague and rival can't resist the temptation to sneak a peek. A passing glance is all it takes, though. This millenia-old creature -- whatever it is -- isn't quite dead yet, absorbing the memories and lifeforce of everyone it gazes upon. This ancient evil is soon unleashed on the train, feasting on the minds of its passengers and hiding itself in plain sight. Saxton and Wells put aside their differences to combat this creature, but how does one fight a force that can assume any form and becomes more unstoppable with every victim it claims?

Part of me is surprised it took this long for Horror Express to find its way to Blu-ray. Inescapable on weekend UHF movie marathons as well as a mainstay on public domain videos and DVDs, Severin's Blu-ray disc marks what'll likely be the first of many releases of Horror Express in high definition. Chances are that anyone reading this review has stumbled onto Horror Express at one time or another, but if you haven't, it's a movie that's well worth discovering. Much like the speeding train it's set aboard, the pace and energy of Horror Express never lag. It's one of my favorite pairings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, fighting here on the same side for once. They bring to Horror Express a certain charm and charisma that never relents, and there's an understated playfulness to their banter that sets the film that much more apart from the stiff seriousness that drags down some British-heavy genre films from the era. The ensemble cast as a whole is terrific, actually, complete with a female spy, a Russian count and his impossibly gorgeous wife, a turn-of-the-century engineer
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marveling at the prospect of space travel, and Alberto de Mendoza as a mad monk whose allegiances shift from God to this ancient evil. Without a doubt, though, Telly Savalas makes the greatest impression of the supporting cast as a vodka-guzzling cossack who storms onto Horror Express in its third act. Savalas' complete lack of restraint doesn't gel with the more serious tone of the rest of the film and yet it somehow doesn't feel the least bit out of place...a blustering burst of energy that arrives just when the movie begins to need it.

As is the case with all of my favorite Spanish horror films, Horror Express is wonderfully atmospheric. Director Eugenio Martín takes full advantage of the isolation and claustrophobia that are part and parcel of a train carving its way through this frostbitten stretch of Siberia. Despite being shot on a very lean budget, Horror Express certainly doesn't look cheap, boasting a convincingly period production design and enduring makeup effects work. I first discovered Horror Express some twenty years ago, and its most horrific imagery -- bleeding eyes that soon roll over white -- were instantly seared into my mind. Watching the film again for the first time in ages, those unnerving visuals still hold up tremendously well. I've always been enthralled by the concept of an unstoppable force that hides in plain sight, from The Thing to The Hidden to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Horror Express seizes hold of that concept with remarkable effectiveness, and the film throws in so many gleefully unexpected twists and turns that it never feels as if it's marching in lockstep with some stale formula. As bizarre and insane as Horror Express can get, it somehow avoids ever getting derailed into camp. The body count is impressively massive, and I can't help but watch in awe of the gruesome crescendo to which it builds.

At first glance, Severin's take on Horror Express looks as if this might be the definitive release the film so richly deserves: a high definition presentation at its original aspect ratio, a slew of extras, and its original Spanish credits restored in their entirety. Though this is still without a doubt the best Horror Express has ever looked on home video, I have to admit to being deeply disappointed by how sloppy the authoring of this Blu-ray disc is. If the compression on this disc had been fielded with any level of skill or competence, Horror Express would've easily come highly recommended. This, though...? At best, it's worth a rental or fishing out of a bargain bin, and I hate to say that about a film I love so much. Rent It.

I'm pretty sure there's a pun here about how much of a trainwreck Horror Express is on Blu-ray.

As you'd probably expect from a public domain mainstay like Horror Express, it's not exactly surprising that the source is weathered and caked in dust. That end of things is actually pretty tolerable, though. As heavily speckled as Horror Express is, it's not overwhelming, and this transfer steers clear of any jumps or judder. There's really only one sequence in the movie -- the creature's first on-screen assault -- where black levels pack much of a wallop, otherwise paling in comparison to the pure blacks of the pillarboxing bars. The palette skews sepia, which seems appropriate given its turn-of-the-century setting, although fleshtones still never look quite right even by that standard.

If those were where the laundry list of complaints ended, that'd honestly be pretty alright with me. I mean, clarity and detail are at times better than expected, particularly the fine patterns in some of the wardrobe that are rendered much better than what the DVD in this two-disc set is able to deliver. It's just that the most terrifying thing about Horror Express isn't the ancient, brain-sucking creature on the train but the shamefully incompetent compression. There really isn't any visible film grain; just a swarm of compression artifacts that look distractingly different from frame-to-frame. Sputters and stutters in the compression sap away much of the fine detail. Looking at the actors' hair, for instance, the definition flickers in and out of view depending on how each frame is compressed. The image also breaks up whenever there's even the slightest bit of motion. Take a look at what happens when Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing shake hands, for one. Hell, look at anything in this screenshot when opened to full-size. I've saved these images as uncompressed PNGs to keep everything as faithful as I can to what's on the disc:
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It looks even worse in motion, but I can't really duplicate that effectively in a review. I guess screenshots can help me explain how unnatural and digital the texture often is, though. I'm not sure if the image has been filtered or if that's just a side-effect of the incompetent compression, but you'll absolutely be able to see what I mean:

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This AVC encode for Horror Express is so overcompressed that it takes up a paltry 11.7 gigs of space. Sometimes when Blu-ray reviewers gripe about anemic bitrates, they mean that if you pause the movie, press your nose right up against your television, and squint and stare for a minute, you'll see some artifacting in a corner or something. That's unfortunately not the case with Horror Express, where the missteps in the authoring are glaring and unmistakable. If the problems with this Blu-ray disc were limited to just speckling and wear, I really do think I would've given Horror Express a pretty enthusiastic review. After being ravaged like this in the digital domain, though...? Even with the bargain basement sticker price that Horror Express is going for at Amazon, a disc this poorly authored is a really tough sell. I'm genuinely surprised a company with Severin's reputation would put their stamp of approval on something so shoddy.

Horror Express is pillarboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and as you probably could've guessed from all those complaints about the way it's been compressed, the movie and its extras are crammed onto a single layer Blu-ray disc. The second disc in the set is an anamorphic widescreen DVD.

In a way, I guess it's a good thing that Severin didn't bother with lossless audio this time around; I can only guess that the already overcompressed Horror Express would look even worse if it had to make room
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for DTS-HD Master Audio or whatever. Instead, this Blu-ray disc features the same Dolby Digital mono (192kbps) tracks as the DVD, defaulting to English and also featuring Spanish audio. That Spanish track is monaural rather than the stereo that's listed on the menu, and for whatever reason, there aren't any English subtitles to go along with it.

I had to dial down the volume a lot lower than normal for it to sound comfortable, but once I did, the English track sounds alright. The mild, persistent hiss in the background is easily shrugged off, and no pops, crackles, or dropouts ever get in the way. Dialogue remains consistently discernable and relatively clean throughout. Unremarkable but fine. It may be worth noting that unlike previous releases, this version of Horror Express uses the full Spanish credits rather than fading out. That means there's a little over a minute more of the score at the very, very end. The shift in audio isn't seamless, no, but it's still kind of a thrill to see this restored at long last.

  • Introduction (7 min.; SD): You'd think Horror Express would give you the option of watching Fangoria high sheriff Chris Alexander's introduction before the movie starts, but instead, it's shuffled off to the 'Extras' menu. That's kind of a shame because Alexander's detailed and wildly enthusiastic intro does a tremendous job setting the stage, and it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you tuned in after watching Horror Express. Swing by the extras menu first.

  • 1973 Interview with Peter Cushing: Horror Express doesn't have a traditional audio commentary, but this endlessly charming 80 minute interview with Peter Cushing is the next best thing. It plays over the movie as a commentary would, drawing to a close about eight minutes early. Horror Express isn't touched on at all, but with as much as I love this conversation with Cushing, I can't say I mind all that much. Speaking in front of a very enthusiastic audience, Cushing chats about the early days of his career when he tried to bill himself as Peter Ling, working alongside Laurel and Hardy, and the very stark differences between American and British studios. Not surprisingly, though, his work with Hammer dominates the conversation, including his thoughts on whether or not Hammer horror would translate to the stage, how the studio's classics had endured so well that they were constantly drawing in new fans, and the difficulty in keeping such familiar characters fresh in one movie after another after another. Easily the best of the extras on this Blu-ray disc.

  • Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express (14 min.; HD): I also really enjoyed this interview with director Eugenio Martín, who opens the conversation by noting that Horror Express was made primarily to get some use out of the train sets from Pancho Villa. Martín also discusses how the movie mashes together so many different genres, how difficult the contact lenses were to work with, and the cult status Horror Express has earned over the years. Not surprisingly, the interview is dominated by talk of the film's three stars, from Lee and Cushing's professionalism to Savalas' energetic inventiveness on the set.

  • Notes from the Blacklist (31 min.; SD): This 2005 interview with the since-deceased Bernard Gordon was produced with a Samuel Bronston boxed set in mind. It follows that the conversation
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    emphasizes Gordon's writing, particularly his work for Bronston during the blacklist, rather than the handful of films he produced like Horror Express. This is a terrific interview, painting a compelling picture of what it was like to work in Hollywood as McCarthyism was starting to get a foothold and just how damaging the blacklist truly was. Gordon speaks at length about several of the films he contributed to, such as El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Circus World, and, most smirkingly, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis' Hellcats of the Navy. The course his career took, his disinterest in compromising his values, the blacklist casting a wider net than just filmmakers in Hollywood, and having his name reinstated on more of his films than any other blacklisted writer are among a few of the other topics of conversation.

  • Telly and Me (8 min.; HD): Composer John Cacavas speaks about his career and his lifelong friendship with Telly Savalas, including the surreally amazing story about how the two of them first met. His music for Horror Express is touched on briefly.

  • Trailer (3 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def theatrical trailer. Elsewhere on the disc are trailers for Nightmare Castle, Psychomania, and The House That Dripped Blood. The latter is sourced from low-quality video, but the other two are served up in HD.

For what it's worth, this Blu-ray disc loses the isolated score from Image's DVD release.

The Final Word
Even with as much as I love Horror Express as a movie, substandard compression and lossy audio make this Blu-ray disc extremely difficult to recommend. With as little care or effort clearly went into the authoring of this disc, its $29.98 list price is indefensible, and even the $13.99 it's going for at Amazon as I write this seems like kind of a tough sell. Despite its many flaws, this is still the best that Horror Express has ever looked on home video, and all of its extras are well-worth a look, but I'd still suggest waiting for the price to ease back some more before shelling out for a purchase. Rent It.
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