Sunday, October 20, 2019

Horror Express

(1972) Directed by Eugenio Martín; Written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet; Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña and Telly Savalas. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“They say that this is a cult picture – I think it is… But when we shot the picture, we didn’t have in mind that, we just were doing an adventure story that we liked, and that was all. …But now, when I look back…when you have Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly (Savalas), the train, the sober sense of humor of the story, and the scent of adventure that pervades the picture, maybe the whole thing works, but who knows which picture is going to be a cult picture? Impossible to know.” – Eugenio Martín (from 2011 interview)

Horror Express (its original Spanish title was Pánico en el Transiberiano, aka: Horror on the Trans-Siberian Express) could be the best Hammer film not made by Hammer. Of course, considering the inclusion of the production company’s two biggest stars, Christopher Lee* and Peter Cushing, and the period horror setting, it would be easy enough to make that error. The Spanish/British co-production was filmed in Madrid on a budget of roughly $300,000. Much like Hammer’s modestly budgeted films, the filmmakers made every penny (or equivalent) count,**/*** with inventive use of sets, good effects, and a strong cast.

* Fun Fact #1: Mr. Lee’s name is misspelled in the opening credits, as “Cristopher Lee.” Oddly enough, his name is spelled correctly in the closing credits.

** Fun Fact #2: Martín used the same train model from another production, Pancho Villa (1972).

*** Fun Fact #3: According to the Blu-ray commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, only one train carriage was used in the shoot, but the interior was re-arranged to fit the requirements of the individual scenes.

Set in 1906, Horror Express opens in the frozen wastes of Sichuan Province, China, where Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) has made the discovery of a lifetime, a two-million-year-old ape man. At the train station in Peking, he encounters rival scientist, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), who takes a keen curiosity in his specimen. Once the train starts rolling on its icy journey, the former adversaries are forced to become allies, when they learn the specimen isn’t quite dead. A malevolent force trapped inside the prehistoric hominid threatens anyone who gets too close. After some passengers meet with gruesome ends, the mysterious intelligence transfers to Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña).

One of the film’s most intriguing concepts (similar to the creature in John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?) is that the alien creature builds on the cumulative knowledge of the countless animals/people it’s absorbed, jumping from host to host over the millennia. It’s not a pretty process, however, as the memory transfer boils the victim’s skulls, leaving their eyes white.* When Dr. Wells examines a sample from one of the unfortunate victim’s eyes under a microscope, it yields an astonishing secret. Stored within the eye, are images from the prehistoric past, including a view of the Earth from space. Held under scrutiny, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Not only did the memories somehow survive through the years, but were passed on from the simplest to the most complex organisms (What sort of memory would a protozoan have?). Also, it’s clear that the creature had ample opportunity to take over Professor Saxton prior to boarding the train, yet it chose another host. What is it about the police inspector that’s favorable to Saxton?

* Fun Fact #4: According to Martín, the actors were unable to see while wearing the opaque contact lenses used in the film, so they had to rehearse without wearing them.

Cushing and Lee never fail to captivate whenever they’re on screen together. Because he was grieving his beloved wife’s death earlier that year, Cushing almost decided to pass on the film. Thankfully for us, he was convinced by his co-star and close friend to continue. Despite the emotional pain Cushing was experiencing at the time, his performance is never off the mark. It’s a tribute to his professionalism that he maintains an endearing, genteel presence that complements Lee’s more brash characterization. Although Cushing might seem somewhat subdued compared to Lee, he delivers the film’s best line. Approached with the suggestion that one of them is the creature, Dr. Wells dryly remarks, “Monster? We’re British, you know.” Lee is suitably imperious as snooty Professor Saxton, who bristles at anyone who contests his authority or credentials.

Just in case we’re led to believe this is all Cushing and Lee’s movie, a third lead is thrown into the mix two-thirds of the way in. Telly Savalas seems to be having a great time as Cossack leader Captain Kazan. He doesn’t chew the scenery as much as devour it. Savalas steals the thunder from the other two leads in the brief time he’s on screen, with his contrasting style. One of the most enjoyable things about his performance is he’s so unpredictable, as when he gargles a goblet of wine, much to the chagrin of the refined passengers. Depending on your point of view, his over the top approach is too much or just right. To my taste, it’s exactly the shot in the arm the film needs.

Another performance worth noting is Alberto de Mendoza* as Father Pujardov, a Russian priest who bears a strong resemblance to Rasputin. He initially warns about the evil that’s being brought aboard the train, but eventually does a complete turn, falling in league with the alien. Alice Reinhart also deserves a nod for the thankless but vital role of Dr Wells’ assistant, Miss Jones. Sadly, her appearance in the film is all too brief, when her character succumbs to the monster.

* Fun Fact #5: According to the Blu-ray commentary, Olive Gregg provided the English voices for the women in the film, while Robert Rietti dubbed the voice for Alberto de Mendoza’s character.

Director Eugenio Martín makes good use of limited resources for Horror Express, exploiting the claustrophobic confines of the train to maximize the tension. We’re trapped, along with the characters, as the Trans-Siberian Express hurtles toward its destination (and their destiny). John Cacavas memorable score adds to the film’s air of mystery (The whistling elements seem to prefigure the music for Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files). Horror Express does everything a good horror thriller should do. Like a train on a tight schedule, it hits all the right stops, with a series of twists and turns, intrigue and surprises. Hop aboard if you dare.

* Side Note: See the Arrow Blu-ray if you can. It looks the best it’s ever likely to look without going back in time and re-filming it, shot for shot.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Scared Sh*tless in the ‘70s

“I am a man of fifty-two years that is still dealing with his first ten years of existence. I am trying to recuperate from those first ten years.” – Guillermo del Toro (from 2016 interview by Keith McDonald and Roger Clark, Guillermo del Toro, At Home with Monsters)

So many of us spend X amount of dollars and fruitless hours, trying to get back something they can never regain, watching discs or streaming their favorite movies and shows from yesteryear. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s not the fond memories, but the moments that creep you out that are truly the gift that keeps on giving. I spent my precious pre-teen years in the ‘70s, cementing my lifelong love of horror and sci-fi, but of course, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. In a feeble attempt to re-experience the nightmares, I put each of my top offenders to the test. So, grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair, and sit back while I take you on a brief tour of childhood trauma lane:

Frankenstein (1931) One of my earliest memories of watching a horror movie wasn’t in the theater, but on the small RCA TV in my parents’ bedroom, viewed furtively through my fingers. Frankenstein’s monster was certainly an imposing spectacle for five-year-old me, but that wasn’t the half of it. It was Mae Clark’s (playing Dr. Frankenstein’s bride to be) screams as Boris Karloff’s creature takes her by surprise, that induced the shivers.  

Does it hold up?
As a classic of horror cinema, of course. Is it still scary? Not so much. Jack Pierce’s signature makeup and Boris Karloff’s sympathetic portrayal are a winning combination for sure, but today the Frankenstein creature seems more worthy of our pity than revulsion.

Terror from the Year 5000 (1958) In the dim, cobwebby recesses of my memory, I vaguely recall a horror show on KTLA in the early ‘70s, Monster Rally, hosted by Seymour (Larry Vincent) that was my oldest brother’s favorite. I only remember bits and pieces of the show, since I was usually asleep by the time it came on. One fateful evening, I popped out just in time to watch a scene in which a man in a lab coat was puttering around in a laboratory. He adjusted a dial on some beeping equipment, watching a tall, windowed chamber, while delving into mysteries we weren’t supposed to know (you know the drill). Something goes wrong, and a screeching lady bursts out of the chamber, embarking on a one-woman rampage.

Does it hold up?
Are you kidding? Looking at the scene now, it’s tough to get in the head of my younger self. Clad in a sequined unitard, the object of my childhood fright looks more like an escapee from a second-rate Vegas act than a fugitive from the future. Once again, it was probably the screeching, more than anything, that set me off (Hmm… I see a pattern emerging). The movie was later mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which makes me a bit sad, because for little old me, Terror from the Year 5000 was pure terror in the suburban family room. Note: Getting a good quality screen shot from this movie is about as likely as getting a decent shot of bigfoot (Hence, the cryptid-quality pic that you see above. Let you your mind fill in the blanks.).

Live and Let Die (1973) My earliest movie theater memory involved the drive-in, watching Roger Moore’s debut as Agent 007. Of all the bewildering sights and sounds in the film, the sequence that stood out was Baron Samedi’s (Geoffrey Holder) voodoo ritual, with his maniacal laugh and skull-like visage. I watched him (or more accurately, his simulacrum) rise out of the graveyard, only to witness James Bond shoot him in the head, blowing off half his skull, and watching the eyes roll back. I couldn’t distinguish between the fake Baron Samedi and the one played by Holder. I couldn’t process what I thought I saw, although it didn’t seem to affect Samedi, who appeared in subsequent scenes.

Does it hold up?
It’s still kind of a weird scene, but it doesn’t have the same effect. I can understand why the whole switch-and-bait thing with real versus fake Samedi would be confusing to my developing five-year-old mind, but scary? Not really. You gotta love Holder’s hearty laugh, though.

Jaws (1975) I still have vivid memories of seeing this at the dear departed Van Nuys drive-in. I got my first shock in the opening scene, where Chrissie’s (Susan Backlinie) moonlight skinny dip takes an unexpectedly fatal turn. The biggest fright, however, was reserved for later, when Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) discovers Ben Gardner’s head bobbing up through a hole in his submerged fishing boat.

Does it hold up?
Damn right. The Ben Gardner jump scare has become a one-trick pony with multiple viewings. In contrast, the visceral opening scene still haunts me. Quint’s (Robert Shaw) speech about the Indianapolis probably sounded like “blah, blah, blah” to seven-year-old me. Now, it chills me to the bone, as a sobering reminder that it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see, that frightens the most.

Coma (1978) By the latter part of the ‘70s, my (significantly) older brothers were already in college, doing their own thing. This left my parents without someone to watch me (a babysitter would have been out of the question, in their minds). Invariably, I saw quite a few movies in the theater that I probably wasn’t prepared to see (Coming Home, from the same year springs to mind, but that’s for another time and another discussion). A few scenes that freaked me out involved medical procedures, partially dissected corpses, organ harvesting, partially nude coma patients hanging on wires, and watching someone smothered by an avalanche of cadavers – heavy stuff for any 10-year-old (mind you, this was PG).

Does it hold up?
Decades after my initial viewing, the film holds up surprisingly well. Director Michael Crichton (working from a novel by Robin Cook) crafted a pretty solid medical thriller, filled with intrigue and shocks aplenty. The scene where Geneviève Bujold’s would-be assassin get buried under a pile of cadavers is still unsettling. Thanks to this film, what really sticks with me are the existential fears of going into surgery, and not knowing if you’ll wake up. And with increasing population and rising medical expenses partnered with corporate greed, the idea of a large-scale organ-harvesting operation doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Alien (1979) With multiple sequels, prequels and crossovers, it’s hard to imagine that when the first movie came out, there wasn’t anything else quite like Alien. Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s otherworldly biomechanical designs were like nothing else I had seen before. I cringed at the scene where Kane (John Hurt) unwisely peered into an activated alien egg, followed by his famous demise in a later sequence. Thinking about the creature in its final form, with its vaguely insectile, skeletal appearance, kept me awake at night, wondering what was lurking in the shadows, waiting to grab me. 

Does it hold up?
Hell yes! The original remains creepiest. Giger’s artwork, steeped in phallic and yonic imagery, has stood the test of time. Ridley Scott’s film hits all the right notes, and no quantity of inferior sequels (Aliens excluded) nor attempts to explain away the origin of the creatures can diminish the impact of the initial film.

SIDE NOTE: The last three examples feature William Shatner. What is it about Shatner that merits his appearance three times in this piece (in all fairness, the first scene of the three I reference only has Shatner in a peripheral)? I honestly can’t say. Perhaps someone can help me analyze my deep-seated trepidation that comes with Shatner’s screams. I’ve never found Shatner himself particularly frightening, although his face indirectly contributed to the creation of the Michael Meyers mask, so there’s that.  

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Yes, you read that right. Star Trek: The Motion Freaking Picture. The first film, based on the original TV series has a reputation for being visually spectacular, having an unforgettable Jerry Goldsmith score, and (at least to some) being kind of dull. There is, however, one scene that disturbed me to the core. While the recently refurbished starship Enterprise is being rushed back into service, the transporter malfunctions, killing two crewmembers. We only see indistinct, distorted images in the transporter room, but the thing that got me the most were the weird, high-pitched screams. When Admiral Kirk asks about the status of the poor crewmembers, he’s told, “What we got back didn’t live very long.” My mind was left to fill in the sordid details – all this from a G-rated film (thank you 1970s MPAA).

Does it hold up?
Say what you want about the movie’s languid pace or derivative storyline, the film still has its virtues (watch for a future review). And 40 years later, the transporter accident scene hasn’t lost its power to unnerve me. The idea that a device could tear someone apart on the atomic level and (hopefully) re-assemble the pieces, a sort of death and re-birth, never fails to give me the creeps.  

The Outer Limits, “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (1964) Yes, everyone seems to mention “The Zanti Misfits” as their nightmare-fodder of choice, but for me, it was the episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.” Shatner plays Col. Jeff Barton, an astronaut who just returned from a perilous one-man journey to Venus. He encounters a terrifying event while descending into the planet’s atmosphere, with a hideous creature reaching out to him.

Does it hold up?
Well… I can appreciate the results, keeping in mind the show’s low budget, coupled with pressure to deliver a new monster every week. On the other hand, what freaked me out as a kid, an obvious puppet on strings, doesn’t quite have the same impact now. Something that occurred to me while revisiting the episode after several decades, was how this was a thinly veiled exploration of PTSD, its effects on the traumatized individual, and the impact on the people around them. Outside of Barton’s puzzled wife, he had a conspicuous lack of a support network. Hey, if that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.

Star Trek, “The Man Trap” (1966) A hideous creature that drains the salt from people’s bodies attacks Captain Kirk (once again, it’s something about his agonized cries that sold it). The alien monster was the stuff of nightmares to my young eyes, looking something like an overly hirsute Morlock, with dead eyes and oversized sucker hands.  

Does it hold up?
My recollection of the episode, obscured by a fog of muddy memories, led me to believe that the salt monster had a lot more screen time than it actually does. It’s only briefly seen at the end, since it spends most of the film disguised as one human or another. It remains one of the original series’ most effective creatures, although I can’t help but feel sad for it, as the last of its kind.