Skip to main content

Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express
(1972)

(SPOILERS) This berserk Spanish/British horror boasts Hammer titans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both as good guys!) to its name, and cloaked in period trappings (it’s set in 1906), suggests a fairly standard supernatural horror, one with crazy priests and satanic beasts. But, with an alien life form aboard the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow, Horror Express finishes up more akin to The Cassandra Crossing meets The Thing.


Countess Petrovski: The czar will hear of this. I’ll have you sent to Siberia.
Captain Kazan: I am in Siberia!

Christopher Lee’s Alexander Saxton, anthropologist and professor of the Royal Geological Society, has retrieved a frozen corpse from Manchuria. Believing it might be the Missing Link he crates it up to transport home via the titular train. Other passengers include his colleague and rival Dr Wells (Cushing), an international spy, and an antic monk called Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, strikingly lunatic), who for some reason has the ear of a Polish Count (George Rigaud) and Countess (Silvia Tortosa). Eventually, none other than Telly Savalas, as Cossack Captain Kazan, rocks up to investigate matters, before he and his men are duly transformed into zombies (Savalas seemed to make a bit of a habit of appearing out of the blue in third acts during the ‘70s – see also Capricorn One).


Professor Saxton: That box of bones, madam, could have solved many of the riddles of science.
Countess Petrovski: I have heard of evolution. It’s… it’s immoral.
Professor Saxton: It’s a fact, and there’s no morality in a fact.

There can’t help but be a flavour of Murder on the Orient Express to the setting and liberal distribution of “suspects”, but it’s the clash of early twentieth century pseudo-scientific thought with religious zealotry, by way of science fiction trappings, that gives Horror Express its cachet. Saxton preaches the true religion of science, but his over-reaching quest for knowledge is as dangerous as Pujardov’s for sacred fulfilment and meaning. Kazan, the practical materialist, arrives occupying the confident middle ground, but is quickly revealed as ill-equipped to deal with the forces manifesting on the train.


This blending of religion and aliens has been fertile terrain for science fiction and horror fare; if Horror Express is widely acknowledged to have taken its monstrous premise from John W Campbell’s Who Goes There?, this aspect also derives from the science/ magic/ superstition blurring found in Nigel Kneale’s take on ancient astronauts (Quatermass and the Pit) and later John Carpenter with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. A more contemporary parallel can be found in Doctor Who, with stories like The Daemons, and particularly the Tom Baker era (Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl, City of Death) linking alien life forms to the evolution of mankind.


This alien comments that it survived for millions of years in protozoa and fish, and that “the history of your planet is part of me”. It doesn’t appear to have pushed mankind’s development, like the Fendahl or Scaroth; rather, like Carpenter’s The Thing, it accumulates the knowledge and memories of those it infests or drains. Later, it offers a Faustian pact to Lee (“Let me go and I will teach you to end disease, pain, hunger”), emphasising the running theme of Satanic inversion (on account of the mad monk); at the climax – rather bafflingly, if it could have done this all along – it makes the dead to rise, a blasphemous version of the saviour. And, like a decidedly less benign E.T. (also the subject of Christ metaphors), “I was left behind, an accident”.


Its actual motivation is rather murky – does it live merely to destroy and inhabit? That it is given voice at the climax suggests a reasoning force (Carpenter’s film wisely eschews this, so keeping the terror primal and instinctive, for all the alien’s technological prowess), but it really does little but kill people, an energy being bent on survival.


One of the most captivating ideas in Horror Express is one Kneale earlier used in Quatermass and the Pit, to depict a dead Martian’s race memories. This then resurfaced in the Tom Baker story The Ark in Space, wherein the Doctor links himself up to the dead insect Wirrn queen. We learn that images are retained in the fluid of the eyes of those the creature has inhabited; visual memory is held not in the brain, but the lens itself. As a consequence, Wells and Saxton are able to scrutinise pictures of the Earth in prehistoric times (“It’s a brontosaurus!”) and from space; the eye of Satan.


Father Pujardov: You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives! The unholy one is among us!

Pujardov is revealed as a devotee of anything that can bring him the spiritual attainment and knowledge he seeks (as such, Saxton, in refusing the creature’s offer, is shown to be morally upright, despite his disavowal of such limited perspectives when viewed through the untainted microscope of scientific theory). De Mendoza’s performance is delightfully demented, the express’s very own Rasputin (he’s even referred to as a mad monk), and the holy man practising demonic deeds (“Come unto me, Satan!”) recalls the aforementioned ancient astronaut Doctor Who story of the previous year, The Daemons, even if Pujardov makes for a no-holds-barred nutter in comparison to the Master. (Among other colourful Pujardov lines, the standout is, “There’s the stink of Hell on this train. Even the dog knows it”).


Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster?
Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express’s appeal is as much down to the proliferation of fine and funny lines as its themes and idea. The screenplay was written by Americans Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, and exhibits a deliciously playful approach to its period’s historicity. Savalas’ Cosack is so arch its untrue, with his exclamations of “Peasants! Peasants!” and wry response to Wells’ “But what if the monk is innocent?”; “Ahhh, we have lots of innocent monks”.


Countess Petrovski: My husband, the Count Petrovski, says that in the fifteenth century your King Henry betrayed us to the Russsians. Hmmm?
Professor Saxton: I hope that you and your husband, madam, will accept my profoundest apologies.

There’s also Irina’s memorable summation Englishness (“Oh, yes, England. Queen Victoria, crumpets, Shakespeare”) and the exchange between Saxton and Wells regarding the incapacity of his corpse (“The occupant hasn’t eaten in nearly two million years”). Cushing in particular is granted the wonderfully incredulous,

Dr Wells: Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago, got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there, then locked everything up, neat and tidy, and got away?


Even the probably unintended laughs (“My God, it’s the baggage man!”) can be seen as self-aware. The unlikely ability of the creature, when sucking out memories “Iike chalk erased from a blackboard”, to leave the brains of its victims wrinkle-free is summed up by Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) with “Smooth as a baby’s bottom!” Which I’m fairly certain is the only time that’s ever been said about a brain. It’s also unclear why the creature should develop a Neanderthal hairy hand when it has taken over a new victim, other than as an effective signifier of it as a host.


The effects are mostly very good, by virtue of being minimalist; the creature, only revealed in the dark, is identifiable by its glowing red eyes, while its victims are signified by the whites of theirs, fringed by blood as if their corneas have burst. Martin’s direction is inventive, and he’s aided by an infectiously jangly – very un-Hammer, which is in its favour – score from John Cavacas. If the Hornby model of the train going over a cliff isn’t fooling anyone, the final ominous shot of the Earth receding into space is an effectively portentous point to leave matters, echoing the fears expressed on the express earlier (“A creature like that – how would it ever die?”)


The picture was titled Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express in Spain, and one presumes it was a desire to beef it up elsewhere as a “legitimately” English affair that saw Spanish director Eugenio Martin billed as the more anglicised Gene Martin. He employed sets from his previous movie, Pancho Villa, which also starred Telly Savalas. This was Cushing’s first feature following the death of his wife, and he was considering pulling out until Lee persuaded him to remain.


It’s easy to understand why Horror Express has established a cult reputation. Many of the Hammers are revealed as rather stolid affairs, but beneath its formulaic veneer, Express flaunts an appealingly vital European sensibility, and a welter of inventiveness in its mash-up of ideas. It’s one thing to riff on Who Goes There? by transposing it to the turn of the century, quite another to then relocate it to a locomotive stoked by tensions between increasing pervasive science and under-threat religious thought, while lacing the whole concoction with calculated humour. And then bring on Telly Savalas! It’s no masterpiece by any means, but Horror Express is sort-of brilliant.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert.

Dr. Strangelove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (SPOILERS) Kubrick’s masterpiece satire of mutually-assured destruction. Or is it? Not the masterpiece bit, because that’s a given. Rather, is all it’s really about the threat of nuclear holocaust? While that’s obviously quite sufficient, all the director’s films are suggested to have, in popular alt-readings, something else going on under the hood, be it exposing the ways of Elite paedophilia ( Lolita , Eyes Wide Shut ), MKUltra programming ( A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket ), transhumanism and the threat of imminent AI overlords ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and most of the aforementioned and more besides (the all-purpose smorgasbord that is The Shining ). Even Barry Lyndon has been posited to exist in a post-reset-history world. Could Kubrick be talking about something else as well in Dr. Strangelove ?

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) (SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection , though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental. Appreciation for