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Tuesday, 21 March 2000

Horror Express
Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Angel del Pozo, Helga Line, Telly Savalas, Alice Reinheart
release year: 1972
film rating: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Probably because it requires depositing a print or two with the Library of Congress, the distributor of HORROR EXPRESS never bothered to secure an American copyright for the film. It's been available on video, including DVD, only pan-and-scan prints of rock-bottom quality; a good print has become something of a minor Holy Grail for horror movie buffs.
The long search is over; the movie is now preserved in a frills-free but pictorially adequate DVD from Image Entertainment as an entry in their spotty "EuroShock Collection." The packaging proudly declares the film to be shown in "widescreen," but really only very slight letterboxing was needed. Still, this is by far the best print available on video; if you like Cushing and Lee, it's a must purchase.

For anyone else, it's a fun rental, no horror classic, but a fast-paced, entertaining movie with some surprises and an intermittent but welcome sense of humor. For example, an imperious Russian countess warns Cossack Telly Savalas "I'll have you sent to Siberia!" His reply: "I am IN Siberia."

And indeed he is, because the movie takes place almost entirely on the Trans-Siberian Express, the railway that ran across northern Asia and Europe, from China to Moscow. The European title, in fact, translates as "Panic on the Trans-Siberian."

In 1906 China, Christopher Lee's brief opening narration tells us, he, Sir Alexander Saxton, made an amazing discovery which he continually refers to as a "fossil" (though it's not). It's the somewhat decayed but basically intact body of a creature somewhere between man and ape. As he's about to board the Trans-Siberian train, he encounters old friend Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), who's very curious about the mysterious crate that Saxton seeks to shield from all prying eyes, including those of Wells.

We've already seen odd things about the case: a Chinese thief tried to pick the lock, but is found dead with blood streaming from his now-blank eyes. The chalk of Rasputin-like monk Yevtuchenko (Angel del Pozo) doesn't leave a mark on the canvas around Saxton's crate. (A detail writers Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy forgot about later on; there's no conceivable explanation for this.)

The train heads west across the frozen wastes of Siberia, laden with the usual sorts one finds aboard movie trains: spies, adventurers, stowaways and other mysterious figures. Wells pays the baggage car attendant to sneak a peek inside Saxton's crate. While whistling the title theme, the attendant sees a glowing red eye looking back at him from inside the crate, and in no time, his eyes bleed and turn blank, too. And the ape-creature picks up the tune, whistling to itself as it picks the lock.

We eventually learn that the menace is really an alien, a form of living energy left behind on Earth millennia ago; it can absorb the memories from people, killing them in the process, or with a little more effort, can switch from one body to another. This is how heroic police inspector Miroff (Alberto de Mendoza) turns into the main menace of the second act.

The movie is pretty silly when it comes to the science half of science fiction. Examining the body of the baggage clerk, Saxton and Wells discover his brain is now as smooth as a baby's behind. "Learning and memory are engraved on the normal brain," Cushing says without the trace of a smile, "leaving a wrinkled surface. This brain has been drained." Later, fluid extracted from the eye of the now-dead ape thing proves to contain nifty little pictures of prehistoric animals and the Earth as seen from space. And when the alien force leaves the ape-creatures body to take over that of the Inspector, it brings along its left hand: the Inspector's hand is now hairy and claw-like. Huh?

The brisk pace of the movie and Eugenio Martin's generally able direction keep us moving right past such imponderables. Whenever things start to slow down, the alien kills someone else -- the train is eventually littered with bodies -- or unexpectedly develops an altogether new power -- near the end of the movie, those bodies return to life, like zombies. The script also hauls Cossack Savalas and a bunch of his men aboard the train just to keep things lively; they don't have any effect on the story, but they're certainly colorful, and Savalas (who had just starred in PANCHO VILLA for director Martin) is clearly enjoying himself as the crude but amusing Kazak.

The movie was made soon after Cushing's beloved wife died, and he almost backed out of the film; Lee talked him into staying. But actually, the script doesn't give him very much to do; his role could easily have been eliminated altogether, with just a little rewriting. However, it's unlikely that Lee would have been able to deliver Cushing's best line: when it's suggest that he and/or Saxton might have been taken over by the monster, Cushing indignantly responds, "Monster?! We're British, you know!"

Writers Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy (also known as Julian Zimet) rather unexpectedly began their careers writing (separately) minor American films in the early 1940s. Both of them were blacklisted during the 1950s; they teamed up in the late 1960s for the equally bizarre horror movie PSYCHOMANIA, and then HORROR EXPRESS. Their script here isn't exactly a sterling example of craft, but it's inventive, amusing and keeps on the track, which is more than one can say for the train at the climax. (The miniature of the train is supposedly the one built for NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA.)
HORROR EXPRESS is a likable little movie, and it will always touch the hearts of true horror movie fans to see Cushing and Lee together again. The DVD could have had more extras, but even without them, it's a must purchase for the right people.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital (mono)
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Brief bios of Cushing and Lee
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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