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 just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror any more.

Hollow Man (2000)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven very acutely critiqued his own choices when he observed of Hollow Manit really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that… there might have been twenty directors in Hollywood who could have done that”. It isn’t such a wonder he returned to Europe, and to quality, for his subsequent films. If Memoirs of an Invisible Man failed to follow up on the mental side effects of being seen right through found in HG Wells’ novel and (especially) in James Whale’s film, all Hollow Man does is take that tack, with the consequence that the proceedings degenerate into a banal action slasher, but with a naked Bacon instead of a guy in a hockey mask.

It’s not every day you see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents – by himself.

Gemini Man (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ang Lee seems hellbent on sloughing down a technological cul-de-sac to the point of creative obscurity, in much the same way Robert Zemeckis enmired himself in the mirage of motion capture for a decade. Lee previously experimented with higher frame rates on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to the general aversion of those who saw it in its intended form – 48, 60 or 120 fps have generally gone down like a bag of cold sick, just ask Peter Jackson – and the complete indifference of most of the remaining audience, for whom the material held little lustre. Now he pretty much repeats that trick with Gemini Man. At best, it’s merely an “okay” film – not quite the bomb its Rotten Tomatoes score suggests – which, (as I saw it) stripped of its distracting frame rate and 3D, reveals itself as just about serviceable but afflicted by several insurmountable drawbacks.

I have a cow, but I hate bananas.

The Laundromat (2019)
(SPOILERS) Steven Soderbergh’s flair for cinematic mediocrity continues with this attempt at The Big Short-style topicality, taking aim at the Panama Papers but ending up with a mostly blunt satire, one eager to show how the offshore system negatively impacts the average – and also the not-so-average – person but at the expense of really digging in to how it facilitates the turning of the broader capitalist world (it is, after all based on Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite).

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.