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 archive.org, 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.    

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