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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

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…