Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Horror Express (1972)

One of those international co-productions which proliferated in the seventies, Horror Express is a film which holds fond memories for me, as I recall seeing it when it first came onto UK TV when I was still in my teens.  I watched it again recently, on the Horror Channel, and still found it bizarrely entertaining.  The film, which mixes science fiction with horror, apparently owes its genesis to the purchase of a set of train miniatures and sets by the producers, who then structured two movies around their investment.  (The other film was the western Pancho Villa, which starred Horror Express' 'Special Guest Star' Telly Savalas.   Which leads one to assume that shooting on Pancho Villa ended early and Savalas still had a day, or two, left on his contract, explaining his fleeting presence in Horror Express).

The period train setting inevitably gives the film something of a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, a feeling emphasised by the presence of an eclectic collection of passengers - Russian aristocrat, Rasputin-type mad monk, police inspector, lady safe cracker, scientist and a pair of British paleontologists - and a plot structured around an investigation into who is killing the various characters.  (It later transmogrifies into a 'who is the monster?' investigation).   The focus of the action is the frozen prehistoric ape man, possibly the 'missing link', which Christopher Lee's Professor Saxton has discovered in Manchuria and is now transporting back to Europe on the train.  The discovery has attracted the attention of Lee's rival Dr Wells (Peter Cushing), who is desperate to examine the contents of Saxton's crate, stowed in the baggage van.  Unfortunately for both of them, the frozen creature is host to an alien life force desperate to find a way back to its own planet.  As the ape man begins to thaw, the alien fries the brains of various characters who approach it, acquiring their knowledge and memories.  After a brief rampage, the now reanimated ape man is shot and killed by a police inspector travelling on the train, but not before the alien presence has transferred itself to the inspector's body.  Saxton and Wells are inevitably forced to join forces as the killings aboard the train continue. Things are complicated by a mad monk who believes the alien is Satan and decides to swap sides and become his acolyte and Savalas' Cossack officer and his men who board the train at a remote station. 

The film's greatest strength is undoubtedly the presence of Cushing and Lee, both on excellent form, delivering well judged performances: playing it relatively straight, but knowing when not to take things too seriously.  By contrast, Telly Savalas delivers an incredibly over the top performance in his relatively brief appearance.  He gives the distinct impression that he is only there due to contractual obligations, barely keeping a straight face, with his Captain Kazan coming over as a New York gangster rather than an Imperial Russian officer.  It is, however, a hugely entertaining turn, which doesn't seem as jarring as it should due to the fact that the whole film feels slightly surreal.  Indeed, it is one of those movies whose scenario is heavily dependent upon the viewers' suspension of disbelief. As long as you accept the initial set up of a frozen fossil hominid playing host to an alien intelligence, then everything that follows more or less makes sense.  That said, even if you accept the initial scenario, there are several developments which strain that suspension of disbelief.  Why, for instance, does the Inspector's left hand turn into a hairy replica of the ape man's hand when he is taken over by the alien?  The transference of physical charaxteristics of the previous host makes no sense.  Moreover, when the alien subsequently jumps into the monk's body, neither of his hands turn hairy.  He does, however, acquire the hitherto unmentioned ability to reanimate the dead as zombies.  

But these are minor quibbles.  Horror Express is a thorough;y enjoyable, albeit barking mad, movie, with surprisingly good production values, convincing miniatures work, entertaining performances from its leads, a reasonably original concept behind its plot and is well paced, to boot.  With the presence of Cushing and Lee, its period setting and somewhat light hearted tone, Horror Express is reminiscent not so much of a Hammer film, as some have claimed, but rather a Tigon production of the same era, Blood Beast Terror or The Creeping Flesh, for instance. (Both of which are utterly barmy movies which I've enjoyed immensely).  Anyway, Horror Express is currently part of the Horror Channel's rotation (although they've sourced a pretty poor print for their screenings), so you can check it out for yourselves.



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