Monday, November 28, 2011

Horror Express (1972): “Part ape, part man, it lived two million years ago!”

Horror Express is one of those sad orphan films of the public domain, just a little more recent than most.  I watched it via, which I’ve previously mentioned.

Manchuria, 1906:  A scientific expedition led by Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee in an excellent fur hat and mustache) discovers a frozen/fossilized corpse in a cave, perhaps a missing link.  Returning to Shanghai, Saxton comes across fellow researcher and rival Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), and they book compartments on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Even before the train leaves, the death of a thief who tries to get at Saxton’s specimen (now residing in a large crate), and the mutterings of a deranged Russian priest (Alberto de Mendoza) suggest the corpse isn’t as dead as it seems.

Soon, as the dark-eyed priest continues to make dire pronouncements, the corpse, a mummy-like creature with straggly hair, escapes the crate and sneaks around the train, leaving a trail of white-eyed, bloody-faced corpses.  “This brain has been drained,” says Dr. Wells, conducting an skull-sawing autopsy on one of the victims.

It transpires that the creature uses its glowing red eye to suck the consciousness out of its victims, and eventually it is tracked down and shot.  The passengers grow complacent, but the evil isn’t finished with them.  An ancient alien parasite, it seemingly cannot be stopped. To demonstrate just how old the thing is, there’s a very silly scene where Lee and Cushing use a microscope to view unconvincing prehistoric images stored in the creature’s eyeball.

I would have guessed Horror Express was a Hammer production, but it was actually Spanish, shot in Spain (Spanish title: Pánico en el Transiberiano) and directed by Eugenio Martin.  Lee and Cushing work well together as always, and some of the supporting cast, particularly de Mendoza, are also good.  Telly Savalas hams it up in the last third of the film as the Cossack Captain Kazan.  Despite the low budget, the settings are agreeably exotic.  The train speeds through snowy Siberian forests while dastardly doings occur in the claustrophobic, rattling compartments.  The soundtrack is pleasantly eerie, with fuzzy guitars and haunting whistles. 

The somewhat atypical setting and plot, along with the presence of Lee and Cushing, put Horror Express a small step above mediocrity.    

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Them: Best of the Giant Bug Movies

A shell-shocked little girl wandering through the New Mexico desert.  A mangled, deserted travel trailer.  An eerie piping from the desert wastes (“must have been the wind… it’s pretty freakish in these parts”).  A devastated general store in the midst of a sandstorm, the electric light bobbing wildly in the wind.  So begins the classic 1950s monster movie Them!, one of the best of the genre and certainly the best of the giant insect sub-genre.

The film starts out slow and sinister, as grizzled police Sergeant Peterson (James Whitmore) and fresh-faced FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) try to solve a string of disappearances and murders.  The lonely desert, with tumbleweeds, blowing sand, and howling wind, is used to great effect.  Soon, the doctors Medford, a father and daughter team of myrmecologists from the Department of Agriculture join the team, having identified a mysterious footprint as that of an oversized ant.  As the senior Dr. Medford, the great character actor Edmund Gwenn (who was in his late seventies when the movie was shot) injects a great deal of energy and humor to the film.  As his daughter, Joan Weldon gives a rather bland performance, perhaps aided by the fact that no romance really develops – it’s all about the ants.  Still, most of the acting is quite decent.     

The special effects, using enormous ant puppets, are surprisingly effective, and the first appearance of a giant ant, looming monstrously over a sand dune, is thrilling.  Much of the film is action-packed, with an arsenal of machine guns, flamethrowers, bazookas, and grenade launchers being deployed to combat the red (ant) menace.  Soldiers descend into creepy, dark ant nests in scenes reminiscent of the Alien films.  The pacing slows a little too much in the middle, but picks up again as the ants begin to spread across the country.  The finale is tense, claustrophobic, and, naturally, chock full of ants.      

It turns out the ants have mutated as a result of radiation from the first atomic bomb test.  As Dr. Medford gravely states, “When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world.”  Nuclear-age warning, communist allegory, or simply a good science fiction horror story, Them! is a must see.