Wednesday, December 22, 2010

31st October 2010: Horror Express (1972)

Horror Express

Spain/UK 1972 colour

aka Panic In The Trans-Siberian Train, Pánico En El Transiberiano

Director “Gene”/Eugenio Martín Writers Arnaud d'Usseau, Julian “Halevy”/Zimet

Cast Christopher Lee (Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton), Peter Cushing (Dr Wells), Alberto de Mendoza (Father Pujardov), Silvia Tortosa (Countess Irina Petrovski), Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan), Helga Liné (Natasha)

Tonight's film takes me all the way back to 1979, when I was a nine year old kid living in Bahrain. Betamax had arrived in the Middle East, and suddenly all of the films I was previously denied access to were there, on seventh or eight generation dupes, distributed though the network of pirate video stores I would later call the Betamax Grapevine. Horror was the vine's forbidden fruit, and I started to gorge myself: slashers, Italian gore movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then Hammer films, and those of Britain's horror superstars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. No matter what dire projects they lent their marquee value to, Lee and Cushing would always give their roles a certain class and gravitas, and in the midst of the filmic chaos a dignified retreat. It was early in this voyage of discovery that I stumbled upon the two playing turn-of-the-century scientists battling a brain-sucking Neanderthal on the Trans-Siberian Express. The film was called Horror Express from 1972, and I went bananas over it.

It's always a terrifying moment going back to those defining moments in your childhood, only to discover you were so far off the mark. Not so with Horror Express. I hadn't seen the film in thirty years, yet I remembered it almost scene by scene. It's every bit as bizarre as I recalled, and just as classy. Christopher Lee is note-perfect as a humourless fossil expert Alexander Saxton jealously guarding his latest acquisition in Arctic Siberia – the intact body of a primitive man encased in ice. It arouses much interest, not least from a nosy fellow scientist Dr Wells played by Peter Cushing, with whom he reluctantly ends up sharing a carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express back to Europe. A thief at Shanghai's station, then a baggage attendant, quickly discover the body is no longer frozen – and whose glowing eye sucks out their memories, leaving the victims' eyes white and ringed with blood, and their brains smooth as an egg. Agh, those eyes! They've haunted me since childhood, and no matter how often the brain-suckling scenes are repeated, they still unnerve me.

It's an alien intelligence in the body of the caveman, or possibly something much darker. The first person to notice the stink of true Evil is a Rasputin-like monk with more than a passing resemblance to the late great Paul Naschy, little more than a trained monkey in the employ of a Polish Count and his flirtatious wife, who spends much of the film's running time throwing herself at the disinterested Lee right under her husband's nose. The wide-eyed mystic believes the creature in the trunk is Satan himself walking amongst mankind, and readily abandons his faith to learn the creature's power and drink greedily from its endless well of knowledge. “Science is immoral”, the Countess reasons with the amoral Darwinist Lee, and it's this clash of Godless science and faith, superstition, and the age-old belief that knowledge is inherently evil – the apple in the Garden of Eden, the hidden eleventh branch on the Kabbalah's ten branch Tree of Life, the yawning Abyss representing the absence of God and thus Satan himself - that gives a counterweight to the rest of the film's jibber-jabber and brain sucking.

The real revelation of Horror Express is Kojak's Telly Savalas as the cossack officer, and quite possibly steals the show screaming “Peasants!” at the passengers and gargling vodka like listerine. For a cheaper, less polished version of Hammer's more distinguished productions, the period detail is extraordinary, particularly in the Shanghai station sequences, and as expected Lee and Cushing's presence balance the film's spiralling lunacy, the strain almost palpable as they soldier through the polyphonous babble of pseudo-science and peer through microscopes at line drawings of pterodactyls. And as if it couldn't get any stranger comes an ending so out of left field, and such pure Grand Guignol, it firmly cements the film as one of my favourite horror films of all time.

Sometimes it's good to revisit an old friend, especially on those special times of the year. From all of us at Schlock Treatment, Happy Halloween everyone, happy All Saints Day tomorrow, and have a ghoulish Day Of The Dead on Tuesday, as we take you for a night journey on the Horror Express.

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