Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Horror Express (1972)

If you watched scary movies on TV in the 70s and early 80s, "Horror Express" was inescapable--if you don't recognize the title, you probably thought of it the same way I did, as "that movie with the white eyes bleeding from the head". I always caught it late at night, long after I should have been in bed, and it's one of those rare films that is just as good whether you're an adult or a kid. The plot finds two British men of science aboard the Trans Siberian Express fighting a shape shifting evil presence that one of them has freed from a cave during an expedition in Manchuria. The fact that the two leads are none other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing immediately gives "Horror Express" all the cred it would ever need, and even though it wasn't made by Hammer Films, the fact that they're in the movie makes it seem that way.
"Dude...I've been sleeping for a couple million years, what time is it?"

Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee) is an anthropologist who discovers what appears to be the fossilized remains of a prehistoric humanoid creature. With the creature's body packed in a crate, he boards the Trans-Siberian Express in China, along with fellow British scientist Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing). The two are rival colleagues, and Saxton is originally intent on keeping his discovery a secret until he can return to England. Before they even leave China, a local thief is found dead on the train platform next to the crate, his eyes bleeding and now completely white. A Polish Count and his wife encounter the scene while boarding, and their spiritual advisor, a crazed monk (Alberto de Mendoza), insists the contents of the crate are evil.  Wells becomes suspicious of Saxton's "fossil", and pays the baggage man to look inside the crate once everyone has boarded. When the man looks into the crate, the creature reanimates and kills him with its glowing red eye, which causes the man's eyes to go white. The creature then picks the lock and escapes, hiding on the train and claiming other passengers as victims, all of them found with white, bleeding eyes. Finally it is gunned down by a police inspector, Mirov (Julio Pena), but before it dies it locks eyes with him, somehow transferring itself to his own body.
"You call THIS vodka?"
Wells and his assistant perform an autopsy on one of the victims, deducing that the creature has drained its victims brains of all memories and knowledge. By extracting fluid from the dead fossil's eye, they are able to see images in the liquid that reveal a prehistoric Earth, as well as the planet as seen from space. The evil presence is an alien form of intelligent energy that is able to jump from body to body, and has survived on the planet for millions of years, transferring hosts until it became trapped in the body of the apelike creature that Saxton discovered. It is intent on absorbing enough knowledge to escape the planet and return to its own galaxy, with only Saxton and Wells in a position to stop it.
"Siberia..!? I thought we were headed for Ibiza!"
Most of the action in the film is contained to the cars of the train, which is pretty amazing when you realize that the filmmakers only had one train set that was redressed several times to simulate different cars. Legend has it that Cushing arrived on the set for this film mourning the recent death of his wife, and he informed the director that he couldn't do the film because he was too distraught. Christopher Lee intervened by simply reminiscing about old times with Cushing, who fortunately forgot all about quitting the picture and did the job after all. Just having the two of them together in the movie would have been enough, but we also get none other than Telly Savalas in a brief but juicy role as a Cossack officer who boards the train with a group of his men and roughs up the passengers in an attempt to find the "murderer"--of course his eyeballs end up like hard boiled eggs like all the other victims in the film. Another familiar face is Helga Line, who had an extensive film career in Spanish movies and appeared in several genre films, including "Vampire's Night Orgy". "Horror Express" doesn't have the budget of a Hammer film, but it's so efficient that you'd never know it. The exterior shots of the train are miniatures, but extremely well done miniatures. The glowing eyeball effects are excellent too, especially since they were probably very difficult to pull off in 1972.

An image harvested from fluid in the creature's eyeball reveals...a child's dinosaur book?
Alberto de Mendoza really steals the show as Pujardov, the mad monk whose character ends up taking center stage by the end of the film. Pujardov starts the movie by ominously warning the others that Saxton's crate contains "pure evil", melodramatically warning the others about the presence of "Satan". After it has migrated to Inspector Mirov's body, Pujardov becomes awed by it and offers to do its bidding. Instead it says to him "Fool, there's nothing worth taking in your brain." But when it is gunned down while using Mirov's body, the creature is forced to migrate into Pujardov anyway. Saxton himself declares earlier in the film that religion is superstition when one of the other characters refers to Darwin's Theory of Evolution as immoral, but at one point the creature confronts him and tempts him like the devil; faced with the fact that Saxton could kill it, it instead offers to teach him the secrets of science that it has absorbed over the millions of years it has survived. Both Saxton and the monk could be right about the creature, as it could both prove and disprove the human concept of Satan and evil in general. I love that this movie has such a great concept behind it, which makes it all the more interesting once the visual shocks are diluted by years of viewing.

"Horror Express" is definitely one of the greatest movies to feature Cushing and Lee, and they deliver a lot of the best lines as well. At one point Mirov (actually the creature) suggests that one of them could actually be the monster, to which a shocked Cushing responds "Monster? We're British, you know!" Telly Savalas is a total anachronism in this film and it's brilliant; he basically shows up, acts like Kojak for a few scenes, then turns into a white-eyed zombie. 

There are obvious parallels to "The Thing", or more specifically "Who Goes There?", the short story that inspired "The Thing", but the script is original enough that it stands on its own. The wackiest scene is when Cushing and Lee examine the liquid contents of the creature's eyeball and find that they can see images of the things the creature has seen in its lifetime, including dinosaurs (which are textbook illustrations). "Horror Express" is completely dubbed and was almost surely shot silent, with the entire audio track created in post-production. The result is a claustrophobic sound design that really enhances the atmosphere of a cramped, moving train. The gory elements are very effective, too, like one scene where Cushing uses a nasty looking saw to cut open the head of the dead porter's corpse during the autopsy. Those bleeding eyes, though...those will stick with you. I remember the sick feeling it used to give me when I watched it as a kid, with a combination of dread, excitement, and mystery.