Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Horror Express (1972)

On an expedition to Szechuan, China, in 1906, Dr. Saxon (Christopher Lee) finds what he believes to be a missing link -- an ape-man, thousands of years old, frozen in an icy cave. The "fossil", as Saxon describes it, is crated up for a trip back to England. But people begin to die around the crate at the station even before it's loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express...

"The two of you together... that's fine. But what if one of you is the monster?"
"Monster? We're British, you know."

Peter Cushing is one of my favorite actors, but I haven't studied much about his personal life. Both of his autobiographies are still in print and I plan to read them at some point. Two things I do know about him: 1) So far, I haven't read a disparaging word about him by anyone with whom he worked. He truly was "the gentle man of horror", and 2) he didn't really recover after the 1971 death of his wife Helen.

Horror Express was the first film he made after this loss. According to the DVD liner notes, Cushing informed Bernard Gordon, the producer, that he wouldn't be able to do the film on the same day that he arrived in Spain for shooting. Gordon spoke with Christopher Lee. At the hotel that night, Lee monopolized the conversation between the three men, trying to put Cushing in a good humor and not let him have an opening to voice his concerns. Lee followed up his farewells with "See you at work tomorrow, Peter," and filming began the next day. The two would remain close friends until Cushing's death in 1994.

There isn't much pointless exposition in the film; things happen quickly aboard this train. There are a few leaps of logic here and there. Dr. Saxon's belief that the frozen fossil is now alive and killing people turns on a dime when confronted by Cushing's character Dr. Wells. Overall, however, the story is quite good, taking some cues from John W. Campbell, Jr.'s story "Who Goes There?", also filmed as The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982), with an alien creature frozen in the ice and able to move from body to body, stealing memories as it goes.

The script takes the story deadly serious, but there are some great moments that give a nod to, and celebrate, the previous horror films of Cushing and Lee. They seem to be enjoying their time in this production and it shows in their work, particularly their line delivery (as in the quote above). Dr. Wells' assistant has some of the best sarcastic quips. Note also the cuts between scenes of a character cutting steak and the autopsy of the baggage clerk. It could play as a parody of the genre, but the talent involved in front of -- and behind the camera -- raise it more to the level of homage. The duo also shares more screen time together here than in almost any other.

The film was produced by Scotia International, a US-UK production company that made several movies in Spain, mostly westerns. It was a low-budget film even then ($300,000) and some of that shows on the screen at times, but there was also some innovative and creative work done with this production. The makeup for the victims of the monster required custom-made all-white contact lenses. Red plastic lenses with lights inside were fitted over the eyes of the actors playing the characters possessed by the monster, and the lights were activated by a technician on the set.

There are some genuinely creepy shots in the film, and the environment of the characters being isolated on a speeding train rolling through a winter wasteland heightens the effect. The train car sets were left over from the production company's version of Pancho Villa filmed prior to this, with Telly Savalas in the title role. All the scenes set in a particular train car were filmed at once, then the car was redressed as another car for more scenes. The miniature train and its tracks were re-used as well, to spectacular effect in the final scene.

There are two interesting moments that I want to highlight. Dr. Wells is shown having dinner in the dining car with a stowaway (later revealed to be a spy), but also with a faraway look in his eyes. She mentions that her glass is empty, bringing him back into the moment. "Forgive me, my mind was elsewhere." She asks, "What is it?", to which he replies, "Sorry, I can't tell you." We believe that it's the murdered baggage clerk and the monster on the loose that are on his mind, but I can't help but think that it is also Cushing's grief over his wife that shows through in this scene.

Lee's character, Dr. Saxon, develops over the course of the film, although in staggered steps. At the beginning of the film he is stoic, single-minded of purpose in the cause of scientific discovery. In conversations with Countess Pretrovski over the course of the film, we see him develop a soul. He realizes that he "doesn't care as much as he should" about the deaths that have occurred. By the end of the film, when the creature (in the body of a Rasputin-like monk) offers him knowledge, the history of the planet that the creature has acquired over the years, if it is released, Saxon understands that life is more important than scientific discovery.

I watched the out-of-print 1999 Image DVD of the film. Horror Express is in the public domain, and has been the subject of many low-quality VHS tapes and dollar-store DVDs. "Digitally mastered" doesn't mean restored, however. This has been the best presentation so far but the print used has some scratchy moments, and the DVD is in non-anamorphic letterbox. There are three pages of liner notes in the snapper case, and on the disc are text filmographies for both Lee and Cushing. The one real extra is a good one: the isolated music and sound effect audio track. Many European films made at this time did not record audio on set, with the actors (or other voice actors) dubbing in their lines later. Lee, Cushing and Savalas dubbed their own characters for English-speaking markets.

Severin Films is currently restoring a film print for eventual release on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be found on YouTube (with ads or without) and the Internet Archive in various file formats. Hulu has it but apparently the film cuts off after 59 minutes...


Dawg said...

You are a sensitive guy, Mr. Kaiju. It's an interesting speculation on Cushing's being "brought back to the moment" and his wife's grief.

Well played, sir - well played!

I think I need to check this out - Mr. Christopher Lee is a SUPERCOP! - just like my nephew, Jackie.

Dawg said...

Also, by the way, how did you view this film? It's not available via netflix, although I saw something about it being released on DVD and blu-ray soon?

Kaiju said...

Thank you!

I have the Image DVD. There may be some dollar-store DVDs floating around out there. The Severin Films DVD/Blu-ray will be worth checking out when it's done.