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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Retro Review: Horror Express

Last night I watched my super 8 print of Eugenio Martin's Horror Express, a Spanish-British co-production from 1972 that's so insanely outrageous it always makes for a fun view.

When I was a kid, Niles Film Products offered a full-length print of it for $295. I wanted it so bad, but it could just as well have been $20,000—I couldn't afford it. After years of awful public domain VHS and DVD copies, I finally won a print on eBay about three years ago. I think I paid $75...not too bad. And it looks a lot better than those crappy tapes.

When your movie co-stars the wonderful Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, you've got a major headstart in my book. Throw in a brain-sucking, red-eyed prehistoric alien, stick 'em all on a train barreling through the frozen tundra, add a great Euro score and you're doing even better.

Lee plays Professor Saxton, an anthropologist who unearths the fossilized remains of a primitive apeman he thinks could be the missing link in a Manchurian cave and boxes them up for a train trip to Moscow. At the station, he runs into his old adversary, Dr. Wells (Cushing), and they become reluctant travel companions. A thief attempts to break into the crate containing the fossil, and his lifeless body is found by a worker, eyes completely white.

Next thing you know, a crazy, Rasputin-y monk is praying over the body and blathering about something unholy in the crate. He attempts to draw a cross on it with a piece of chalk, but no image appears, proving its evilness. Saxton shrugs it off as a parlor trick and the crate is loaded into the train. When Wells asks Saxton what's inside the crate, he merely replies, "Fossils."

His curiosity piqued, Wells pays a baggage handler to sneak into the luggage compartment and take a look inside. He pries off a board and realizes he'll need a light to see inside. While he's gone, a moldy arm emerges from the crate and starts to pick the lock.

The workman returns just in time to try to prevent the creature's escape, but when he looks into its eyes, they glow red, and his own start to bleed and become all boiled-eggy.

His body is soon discovered, but the missing link is missing, and Saxton fesses up about his cargo. The railroad's detective, Inspector Mirov (Alberto De Mendoza), orders his men to search for the creature but warns them to keep quiet so as not to alarm the other passengers.

Of course, one of Mirov's officers is killed in short order, so he asks Wells to perform an autopsy. An examination of the brain reveals it to be "as smooth as a baby's behind," as Wells' assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) says. His memory's been drained away by the creature. Soon there are more white-eyed victims, and even when the monster is killed, it can't be stopped—it simply jumps into another convenient body—just like The Thing!

Oh, yes. Kojak himself, Telly Savalas, shows up as the leader of a regiment of cossacks, only to be snuffed shortly thereafter. The creature makes its way into the body of the monk, who helpfully explains that he's an alien being who was left behind when his group went back to their home planet eons ago. He's also able to bring his victims back to life, effectively creating a zombie army.

Now, even before the monk becomes possessed by the creature, he worships it and volunteers to become its slave. What's the deal with religious fanaticism and insanity? Oh...I guess I answered my own question. And when the creature is body-hopping, Mirov confronts the two scientists, demanding to know which one of them is the monster, to which Wells deadpans, "Monster? We're British, you know."

It's well-known that Lee and Cushing were great pals, despite playing adversaries for decades onscreen. Their favorite thing to do when they worked together was dialogue from Warner Brothers cartoons. Can you picture the elegant Christopher Lee doing a Sylvester the Cat impersonation? You can tell the two of them had a great time making Horror Express. Cushing had recently lost his beloved wife to emphysema, and although he was reluctant to take the job at first, I'm sure he was happy to be working with his old friend again.

Since Horror Express fell into public domain fairly early, some write it off as being subpar junk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Martin handles the wacky material with flair, the special effects are quite good for the day, and it's anything but a cheapie. The settings are quite ample—maybe too much so in certain circumstances. For example, a couple on the train enjoys a sleeping car that comes with a huge parlor, complete with a piano for the wife to play! But it's all part of the fun. With tongue buried firmly in cheek, this film is an entertaining 90-minute thrill ride.

Now available on Blu-Ray from Severin Films, it features a new interview with Martin, something I'd certainly like to see. The pictures on this post are captures from the new disc and it looks impressive. But if you can't wait, you can watch it online right now.

Speaking of Cushing and Lee, I also have a new super 8mm print of the 1958 Dracula (Horror of Dracula in America), from the recently departed but forever lamented Derann Film Services, which closed its doors in September 2011. Not only is the quality and color of this print stunning, it's always a surprise to see what bright blue eyes Cushing had.

Just for old time's sake, now let's watch the killing of the baggage handler—in super 8!

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