Sorry Appellate Judge Tom Becker's late, but he got stuck taking the Horror Local tonight.
Can it be stopped?
"Do you think evil can be killed with bullets?"
Facts of the Case
It's 1906, and Professor Alexander Saxon (Christopher Lee, The Wicker Man) is traveling on the Trans-Siberian Express from Manchuria to Moscow with a large crate—"Fossils," he explains, when asked what's inside. But Saxon's explanation raises eyebrows when a thief who'd tried to break into the crate is found mysteriously dead with his eyes whited-out like a boiled fish.
Saxon's friendly rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), is curious about the contents; he believes he hears growling coming from the box. Wells asks a porter to have a look inside on the sly, but when the poor man does so, he releases something awful and suffers an unnerving fate.
Saxon confesses that what he'd found was a frozen ape man, perhaps millions of years old, that he was taking back to England to study—it might be the missing link!
But for now, the blasted thing is merely missing on the Trans-Siberian Express—and no one is safe from its deadly powers!
Imaginative, witty, and downright, honest-to-goodness scary, Horror Express is an exemplary early '70s fright film. Director Eugenio Martin and writers Arnaud D'Usseau and Julian Zimet take what could have been a simplistic, run-of-the-mill shocker—beastie wreaking havoc on board a moving train—and transcend the formula by adding some clever, intelligent twists, clever subplots, and colorful characters.
The story takes so many turns, it's almost dizzying, yet everything makes sense in the context of the universe created by Martin, D'Usseau, and Zimet. They've imbued the beast with a power that makes it far more dangerous than the usual rampaging ogre, and the more we learn about it, the more intriguing the film becomes. The filmmakers never "play down" to the audience. This is subversively intelligent horror, a film that requires more attention to detail than the usual genre offering.
Martin allows the story to unfold at its own pace, building suspense, and not offering immediate answers to all the mysteries; in fact, there are a number of instances where things happen that seem to make no sense until information is revealed later. The script by D'Usseau and Zimet has its own, refreshing logic and quite a few surprises. It's really not until the very end that we're quite sure where this all has been going, making for a very satisfying experience.
While it's not exactly a gore fest, Martin doesn't skimp on gruesome scenes, with many of them played so unsensationally that they become even more unsettling. On top of that, the film is quite funny, filled with ironic observations, dry, British wit, and a boisterous supporting turn by Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen) as a fearless and lusty Cossack.
Lee and Cushing bring their considerable talents and niche star power to their roles, and the result is memorable. Long-time co-stars, and close friends off-screen, their chemistry is immediate and endearing. This is one of the few films that featured them not as enemies, but as allies—grudging allies, perhaps, but the characters' rivalry adds a great deal of humor to the film. Without the name value of Lee and Cushing, it's possible Horror Express would never have been made, and in fact, Cushing almost dropped out of the film. Grieving the death of his wife, he arrived on the set in Spain and explained that he was mourning and didn't think he'd be able to make the film. Lee spoke to him about the many films they'd made together, and Cushing ultimately decided to stay on and work with his old friend. The result is a charming and dynamic pair of performances, and Horror Express is one of their finest efforts.
The two stars are well supported by an eccentric cast of secondary players, including Alice Reinheart (A House Is Not a Home) as Wells' assistant, a decidedly macho lady who gets off one of the film's funniest lines (at Wells' expense); Alberto de Mendoza (The Case of the Scorpion's Tail) as a half-crazed, Rasputin-like priest; Julio Pena (Horror Rises From the Tomb) as a police inspector trying to solve the mystery; and, of course, Savalas, whose over-the-top performance could have sunk the whole enterprise, but instead, provides a hearty counterpoint to the very proper British leads.
Add to all this some decent, if low-budget, production values, and a beautiful score by John Cacavas, and you've got a fantastically fun cult item.
Horror Express was in public domain for many years, which means there are lots of pretty miserable-looking versions floating around—you might have one yourself, picked up from some bargain bin. If you do have an old Horror Express disc, it's time to relegate it to coaster status, as this release of Horror Express (Blu-ray) from Severin is top flight.
The transfer isn't pristine; in fact, the opening minutes—particularly the credit sequence, which is in Spanish—show quite a bit of damage, and scratches turn up from time to time, but when it looks good, it looks very, very good, and that's most of the time.
For some reason, Severin sticks with a very non-Blu Dolby Mono track, which sounds perfectly fine even if it isn't the knock-yer-sox-off quality that might be expected from a hi-def disc. There's an alternate Spanish track, but no subtitles.
Supplement-wise, Severin offers some fine bonus material:
• "Introduction by Chris Alexander"—Sometimes, a little fanboy enthusiasm can be a good thing, and that's exactly what we get from this intro by the editor of Fangoria. Alexander offers his personal recollections of the beginning of his "love affair" with the film, as well as some background.
• "Audio Interview with Peter Cushing"—I'm not sure where this 1973 interview was recorded (there's an audience and Q&A session). The interview is not Horror Express-specific; Cushing talks about his entire career, and is genial and amusing. Rather than run the audio over a static image, Severin presents this as an alternative commentary track (although it doesn't last the length of the film).
• "Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express"—a fun, fact-filled interview with Director Eugenio Martin on the making of the film.
• "Notes From the Blacklist"—In an interview from 2005, Producer Bernard Gordon talks about being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Like Gordon, writer Arnaud D'Usseau was also a victim of the blacklist.
• "Telly and Me"—Composer John Cacavas offers up some terrifically entertaining anecdotes about his friendship with Telly Savalas.
Rounding out the set is a trailer for Horror Express, trailers for other Severin releases—Psychomania, The House That Dripped Blood, and Nightmare Castle—a DVD copy, and an Easter Egg on the Special Features screen that gives some background on the train station seen in the film. (Credit where credit is due on that last one, I found that on DVD Beaver.)
While I wish Severin had put a bit more into the technical presentation, overall, this is an outstanding set. Fans of the film should be thrilled, and if you haven't seen Horror Express, pick this up and get ready for a treat. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
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