Monday, October 08, 2007

MOVIE OF THE DAY . . . BUT FIRST A REMINISCENCE. I believe it is sometime in 1979. My grandfather and I have walked across Route 73 and gone into the department store known as Two Guys. The skinny thirteen year old that is me naturally makes for the book section. I scan the paperback racks: an Agatha Christie mystery novel. . .a short story collection called Alfred Hitchcock's Noose Report. . .a novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. . .then I notice a table of hardcovers. And there it is: a great big marked-down remainder copy of "Monsters and Vampires" by Alan Frank. What a find! Tons of huge horror movie stills; half of them in full color and all of them on glossy paper. At that moment, I was flipping through the first actual book on horror movies I would ever own. I had read Famous Monsters of Filmland for years, but this? This was, to my pre-teen mind, a book for grown-ups about horror movies and my grandfather bought it for me then and there.
I'll tell you I poured over that book for weeks; soaking in the photos of Christopher Lee putting the bite on some poor damsel and Leonard Whiting scooping up the bloody arm that has fallen out of his medical bag. I read the accounts of all the Hammer Dracula films and the exploits of Dr. Frankenstein. Many of the films discussed and the stills reproduced I had never seen before and this added to the exotic allure of each turned page.
One still, however, produced in me a peculiar sense of deja vu. It was from a film I was certain I had never seen so why was it so familiar to me? Telly Savalas, Kojak himself, wearing a red coat with fur collar and cuffs; his eyes white as ping pong balls, blood trickling from his eyes, nose and mouth. Puzzled, I recalled another still similar to this one depicting a bald corpse with those same white eyes and bleeding eye sockets lying on a table; it's head neatly trepanned so that the top of its skull could be lifted off revealing the exposed brain beneath. Where had I seen this before? I was sure I had. A lengthy search of my back issues of Famous Monsters soon solved the puzzle.
Several years before, an issue of FM had featured a still from the then-recent Spanish production "Horror Express". As I said, I had not actually seen the film but the photo of that man with the white eyes and detachable skull had obviously taken up residence in some dark corner of my mind for all these years. Alan Frank's book dredged up the memory once again. It wasn't until the early 80's that I actually saw the movie I had long wondered about. What a tasty thrill it was to pop my bargain-priced VHS copy into the VCR and finally watch the film from which these iconic, memorable stills had been taken and which apparently had made such a strong impression on me. And I wasn't disappointed.
"Horror Express" is a creepy little spook show right from the start with its odd, whistling main theme composed by John Cacavas to its wintry, circa 1900 "Murder on the Orient Express"-like mise-en-scene. Christopher Lee plays Alexander Saxon: a scientist who finds a fossilized 'missing link' in the frozen wastes of China. He crates up the creature and prepares to ship it back to London in triumph. While waiting at the Trans Siberian Railway platform, the chained crate attracts the attention of a shady character who is later described as being able to open any lock with only a pin. Left momentarily unguarded, the lock is picked and the crook takes a look inside. The next thing we see is the crook's dead body lying by the crate; his eyes have become a ghastly solid white and blood is trickling from his mouth, nose and eyes. A nice touch occurs when the monk kneels next to the corpse and demonstrates with a piece of chalk how he can write a cross on the concrete train platform but cannot write a cross with the chalk on the crate itself; proof positive of the presence of evil inside the crate.
Peter Cushing bounds onto the scene as Lee's scientific rival Dr. Wells. A colorful cast of characters is quick to join him on the train: a gruff police inspector, a mad Rasputinesque monk, an aristocratic Russian Count and Countess, a bookish and bespectacled young engineer, Cushing's matronly and mannish assistant and a femme fatale undercover spy who insinuates herself into Cushing's sleeping car. It's common, I think, for "Horror Express" (original title: Panico en el Transiberiano aka Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train) to be seen as cashing in on the success of 1974 film hit "Murder on the Orient Express" starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast including Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and many others. However, "Horror Express" actually predates the famous Agatha Christie flick by two years! Particularly remarkable is the strong resemblance the Rachel Roberts character in "Orient Express" has to Cushing's assistant in "Horror Express". However, there are other minor parallels between the films (besides the obvious setting of a train full of eccentric characters rocketing through a snowy, Eastern terrain while said characters are found dead one by one). The young engineer in "Horror Express" slightly foreshadows the more jittery Anthony Perkins character in "Orient". The femme fatale in "Horror" superficially resembles the Vanessa Redgrave character in "Orient" in attitude and bearing if nothing else. The Russian Count and Countess in "Horror" parallels the Count and Countess Andrenyi (played by Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset in "Orient"). "Horror Express"'s Russian countess carries a small dog everywhere and the ancient Russian Princess Dragomiroff (played by Wendy Hiller in "Orient Express") travels with 2 small dogs. The fanatically religious monk in "Horror" matches the zealous (if weak-minded) Ingrid Bergman character in "Orient". And there are other parallels as well: including the fact that both films feature a police inspector traveling on their respective trains. It would seem a short step to accusing "Murder on the Orient Express" as having lifting a lot of inspiration from "Horror Express". However, it would seem more logical to suppose that "Horror Express" took a great deal of inspiration from Agatha Christie's novel (which "Murder on the Orient Express" follows surprisingly closely for a film adaptation). One can then make the claim that, perhaps, the makers of the Christie film adaptation just may have been aware of "Horror Express" and taken some minor inspiration from that as well. It all looks to me like a case of circular cross-pollination.
Meanwhile, back in the monster movie. . .
The ominous crate has been safely (!) tucked away in the train's baggage car. Cushing secretly bribes the baggage clerk to sneak a peek at what's inside the crate. That night, the clerk (whistling the film's main title music) removes some nails from the wooden crate and looks inside. The gruesome missing link, suddenly animated, fixes the clerk with a glowing, red eye. The clerk stumbles backwards; his eyes and nose trickling blood. With a cry, he falls to the floor with eyes staring wide and white! It is revealed that the monster absorbs the skills and smarts of whomever it kills by showing the monster using the skills of the dead criminal to pick the lock on the crate with a bent nail and free itself (while also whistling the main title theme it learned from the baggage clerk). Later, when Cushing observes the white eye on a fish he is served for dinner, it is revealed that the white eyes of the victims results from the creature boiling their brains inside their skulls with it's deadly, glowing gaze. Besides all this, the monster also displays the unique talent later in the film of being able to reanimate the corpses into walking zombies with blood-dripping white eyes.
Telly Savalas joins the train around this time as a particularly brutish and unpleasant cossack investigating the mayhem on the train. Savalas offers a bravura, scenery-chewing performance which is totally appropriate to his character. He is also given several funny lines. When the police inspector introduces himself as an officer of the law, Savalas bellows "Everybody's under arrest!" He waits a beat, deftly removes the inspector's gun from his pocket, and adds: "Including you!" When the Countess complains of rough treatment by threatening to go to the Czar and having Savalas sent to Siberia, Telly scoffs "I am in Siberia!" The entire cast, in fact, acquits itself surprisingly well, with Alberto de Mendoza visually memorable as the film's Rasputin stand-in who becomes corrupted by naughtiness. Lee and Cushing superb as always with several amusing bits of business as well. At one point, when the inspector accuses Lee and Cushing of being the monster, Cushing huffs: "Monster?!? We're British, you know!" Director Eugenio Martin (under the name Gene Martin) keeps the film moving at a fast clip as is the film itself was a speeding train. Martin co-wrote the screenplay with Arnaud d'Usseau (for which they won a best screenplay award at the 1972 Sitges festival).
The aforementioned musical score by John Cacavas features a spaghetti western-like whistled main theme which Peter Hutchings (in his book "Horror Films") compares to the haunting melody sung by Mia Farrow at the beginning of "Rosemary's Baby". The score also utilizes elements of Russian balalaika music, Greek folk dances, Chinese leitmotifs a la Fu Manchu and 70's "Superfly" wah-wah guitar along with the traditional creepy mood music. The soundtrack was actually available on a CD (combined with Les Baxter's music from "Cry of the Banshee" and "An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe") on the Citadel label. Tony Thomas' fine liner notes from the CD include quotes from Peter Cushing about the film. The actor apparently enjoyed the film although location filming in the dead of winter left him feeling "extremely unwell". Quoted by Thomas, Cushing described "Horror Express" this way: "It's all about mad Russian monks, Cossack ruffians and the atom bomb, pretty damsels, hordes of sinister detectives and Russian and Chinese police. . .all played by Spaniards, of course." Despite Cushing's odd and erroneous mention of the atom bomb (in a film set around the year 1900), he captures the spirit of the movie very well.
"Horror Express" is a fun, energetic and well-made little horror film which I never tire of watching (and neither does Cheekies). All the elements mentioned above contribute to making the film a spooky thrill ride which any horror fan should enjoy -- especially around Halloween. But always remember: Don't look in the monster's glowing red eye! Eye-blood dripping on your popcorn tends to spoil everyone's appetite.


Cerpts said...

And by the way, I believe the scary missing link monster's name was, in fact, Derwood.

You can ask Cheekies if you don't believe me.

Cheekies said...

Ahhh a classic cerpts (the thing not the person) movie if ever there was one. I do believe I have to concur that the monster was indeed named Derwood.

Cerpts said...

Holy Mittens in Heaven!!!