READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

Reader review by “Count” Otto Black.

AKA Pánico en el Transiberiano/Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express

DIRECTED BY: Eugenio Martin

FEATURING: , , Alberto de Mendoza,

PLOT: In 1906, an archaeologist discovers a frozen two-million-year-old ape-man in China. While being transported on the Orient Express, it turns out to be not only still alive, but possessed by a body-swapping extraterrestrial with incredible powers that might just possibly be Satan. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from Horror Express (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the face of it, the basic plot—a frozen prehistoric creature comes back to life and causes mayhem—has been used so often that it’s not even unusual, let alone weird. But when the mix also includes an extraterrestrial energy being who may or not be the Devil, a mad monk who is Rasputin in all but name, explicit brain autopsies, Cossack zombies with boiled eyeballs, “scientific” explanations that make the ones in Plan Nine From Outer Space sound like Carl Sagan, and the overall logic of a fever-dream, weirdness definitely starts to creep in. Also, there can’t be too many films shot in Spain that are set in Siberia.

COMMENTS: After the opening credits end, the very first thing we see is stock footage of some desolate place which a caption tells us is the Szechuan Province of China. Then seconds later, Christopher Lee’s voice-over narration informs us that it’s Manchuria. If they can’t get through the first minute of the film without losing track of continuity, a special kind of talent is clearly at work!

This indeed proves to be the case. Horror Express is a blatant rip-off of Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Both films involve archaeologists digging up pre-human hominid fossils and accidentally getting an unwanted bonus in the form of a dormant extraterrestrial life-force which exhibits amazing mental powers. In both cases the evil is linked with folklore and religion across the ages, specifically with Satanic lore, and generally causes mayhem. But whereas most copies of a much more widely-known and vastly more expensive film are feeble, cheesy imitations, this one redeems itself by going all-out to make no sense whatsoever. This movie is to Quatermass and the Pit what Star Crash (1978) is to Star Wars (1977), except that it doesn’t have David Hasselhof in it.

The movie’s genesis was very muddled, in a way that  undoubtedly would have sympathized with—indeed, this is the kind of film he’d probably have made if he’d still been making anything he cared about in 1972, and had had a lot more money than ever before, though still not all that much. Benmar Productions, the Spanish studio mainly responsible for Horror Express, were in deep trouble by 1972. Their first and second features were spaghetti westerns (technically, since no Italians were involved, they were “paella westerns”); the forgettable Captain Apache, and the ultra-violent, incoherent, and magnificently titled A Town Called Bastard (both 1971). Unfortunately they jumped on that short-lived bandwagon when it was already slowing down, and when they realized that the box-office returns on second-rate examples of a dying genre weren’t too good, they hastily jumped off again and made Horror Express in conjunction with Granada Films, another studio that came to the paella western genre just a little bit too late with Pancho Villa (1972). Since, by 1972, Hammer-style horror was also on its last legs, this radical departure didn’t revive Benmar’s fortunes, so their fourth feature was Psychomania (1973), a horror comedy so bizarre it may very well deserve a place on the List. They never made a fifth cinematic feature, and Granada never made a third.

It just so happened that Benmar had a very nice scale-model of a circa 1900 train available; conflicting sources say that it was either the one used in Pancho Villa, or the one built for Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), a movie notable mainly for Tom Baker’s interesting portrayal of Rasputin. The latter possibility is plausible, since they wouldn’t have had to alter the model, but the former seems more likely, since Granada already owned it. So, presumably the scriptwriters’ brief was to churn out anything at all so long is it was set almost entirely aboard this train, it would appeal to people who liked extra-gory westerns but wasn’t a western, and they could deliver the script in a hurry.

Contradictions, non sequiturs, technobabble pseudo-explanations, and plot-holes big enough to drive a train through (which of course they do) abound throughout, adding to the dreamlike feel. Wholesale lifts from Quatermass and the Pit that weren’t adequately thought through account for many of the details that don’t make sense. Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee) constantly refers to his priceless specimen as a “fossil,” even at one point explaining for the benefit of stupid viewers that fossils are made of stone—which is very obviously not the case with this deep-frozen monkey. The monster is constantly connected to Satan, even though the script clearly establishes that it has been totally dormant for two million years, and has never had any agenda except escaping from this planet; yet it does seem to supernaturally repel Christian symbols, even though this ability has no bearing on the plot.

And since the Martian spaceship in Quatermass and the Pit was made from an unknown substance harder than diamond, the alien in this film solemnly explains that leaving the Earth’s atmosphere is impossible unless the ship is made from a non-existent metal harder than diamond—a pretty egregious scientific blunder to make in 1972. Of course, it just so happens that by an amazing coincidence, the one guy in the whole world who knows how to make this stuff is on the train! This is completely extraneous to the main plot, since the alien didn’t arrange to be on this train for the purpose of meeting this fellow, who it didn’t even know existed; it just bumps into him and thinks “Oh, what a bit of luck!” Though it does allow for another subplot about spies which is seemingly there for no reason except that it’s the Orient Express therefore there are spies in there somewhere, and is in any case abandoned almost immediately because it’s all getting too confusing.

The whole things rattles along gleefully with one bizarre incident piling on top of another, sometimes in such a way as to suggest that the writers frequently didn’t know where they were going and just wrote anything that got them out of whatever corner they’d written themselves into. For example, when Professor Saxton is asked by the police, who are looking for a missing porter, to open the crate he has been keeping people away from so that nobody except him has seen the “fossil” it supposedly contains, he reacts in such an unreasonable manner that it suggests he clearly has something to hide, and may even be deranged. The crate is forced open, revealing, not a frozen prehistoric ape-man, but the dead body of the porter. Saxton’s “alibi” results in the following exchange between him and Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing):

Dr. Wells: Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy, and got away?

Professor Saxton: Yes I am! It’s alive! It must be!

Faced with this irrefutable logic, everybody immediately accepts that Saxton is not in the least bit implicated in the murder, and without further ado they all start searching the train for the Missing Link! Clearly the writers were fed up with the usual horror movie trope in which the stupid redneck sheriff wastes precious time locking up the guy who says the Alligator People from Uranus were responsible for the removal of his wife’s head, and arguing with more intelligent members of the cast at tedious length that the husband did it just because it appears to be incredibly obvious that he did; whereas if he’d accepted the “a big monster did it and ran away” line from the get-go, far more of the movie would have consisted of space alligator action, and far less of it of an overweight law officer being obnoxious. There’s something to be said for this argument.

Peter Cushing’s contribution as Dr. Wells is unfortunately less than it might have been. As the gleeful old rogue who gets all the best lines, he should have been a more prominent foil to Lee’s arrogant, pompous, and frankly rather unpleasant Professor Saxton. Sadly, at the time, Cushing was crushed by the recent death of his beloved wife, from which he never really recovered. He actually walked off the set of Horror Express because he felt too miserable to perform, and only returned after his good friend Christopher Lee managed to cheer him up a bit. On screen he looks desperately thin and frail (especially next to the towering Lee) and far from happy, though he manages to carry off the part with a certain aplomb. But it does look as though his part was trimmed. It’s a shame he wasn’t given more to do. The scenes with both Wells and Saxton work far better than those in which the stiff, humorless Saxton has nobody to counterbalance him.

Luckily, Alberto de Mendoza is given plenty to do as Father Pujardov. Pulling off a Rasputin pastiche while sharing the screen with Christopher Lee is a tough call, but he manages it remarkably well. I haven’t seen this actor anywhere else, probably because he did little or no work outside Spain (in this film he’s dubbed, as is everyone except the three actors you’ve heard of), but he’s a lot of fun as the religious maniac who mistakes the alien for Satan and, for reasons that are barely touched on at all and never properly explained, starts worshiping it. Oddly, a couple of scenes seem to prove that the alien really is demonic, even though the rest of the film shows us conclusively that the alien is just an alien, and Pujarov is raving mad. Which means that he gets to say things like “You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives! The Unholy One is among us!” at regular intervals, and what’s not to like about that?

Still, he’s a model of restraint beside Telly Savalas’ Captain Kazan, a demented Cossack who arrives at a very late stage in the film and talks such nonsense that even Professor Saxton is compelled to point this out twice (which, given his own dialogue, is almost hypocritical). But he’s right. What are we to make of gibberish like: “He knows that a horse has four legs. He knows that a murderer has two arms. But still, the devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack”? Saxton may sometimes resort to the “it’s true because I say so” argument, but this guy’s just a random word generator!

Kazan’s behavior is also wildly erratic; he’s equally likely to kiss somebody or savagely whip them, for equally little reason. He and his men board the train looking for revolutionaries who aren’t on it, and have never even been mentioned until now. Of course, they really board the train because it’s all been getting a bit too much like Murder on the Orient Express for a while, and a big finish is needed. What could be better than to have a scenery-chewing guest-star and a lot of armed men suddenly arrive and have an epic gun-battle with the extraterrestrial menace? Having them all turn into blind zombies with boiled eyeballs, perhaps? So of course that’s exactly what happens (possibly as a homage to the peculiarly popular Spanish Blind Dead eyeless Templar zombie franchise, which includes one film ending with a train being invaded by visually impaired undead).

One problem with the Weird Movie genre is that some of them are very, very slow. Obviously that quality in itself makes a film unusual, and contributes to its weirdness. But it also, more often than not, makes it painfully dull. Horror Express barrels along just like the express train it takes place on. You thought it was a straightforward frozen-freak-on-the-loose horror movie with occult overtones? Just when you’re getting used to that idea, it shifts gears and becomes hard science fiction in a vaguely steampunk setting that turns into a peculiar whodunit that almost looks like an alternative universe version of John Carpenter’s The Thing based on the works of Agatha Christie. Does that not sound exciting enough? Oh well then, suddenly—mad blokes with guns! Lots of them! And then, for no reason at all—zombies!

You can’t dislike a film that’s as gleefully all over the place as this one is. The confusion was undoubtedly heightened by the fact that they only had one set representing the interior of the train. Therefore the scenes in a particular carriage had to be shot all at once, then the set would be redressed and they’d do the bits in the next carriage. Obviously, trains are a very linear environment, so the action moves constantly backwards and forwards. Movies aren’t normally shot sequentially, but this one was shot in the most perversely non-sequential way imaginable.

It’s also in some ways quite surreal, probably unintentionally. For instance, the scene in which Dr. Wells, assisted by a peculiarly mannish woman whose character is never explored, saws open the skull of a murder victim. This scene is quite explicit for its time, yet oddly unhorrific, due to the ludicrous lines spoken during the procedure: Dr. Wells’ explanation of how the human brain works seems to have made up by an eight-year-old. Images of dead bodies with whited-out eyes streaming blood and sawn-open skulls recur constantly, yet never in a shocking or threatening way. They’re just lying around like found objects, and every so often the camera takes another look at them as if it can’t keep away. Dr. Wells makes an important breakthrough (resulting in yet another incredibly implausible scientific explanation, naturally) after staring intently at a dish he is served for dinner. And, strangest of all, Professor Saxton suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to remove the eye of the by now undoubtedly dead prehistoric ape and extract fluid from it. Peering at this gunk under the microscope, he is surprised to see tiny holograms of dinosaurs and the Earth seen from space. Actually it looks to me like a child’s drawing of a pizza, but this is 1906, so Professor Saxton doesn’t know what it’s supposed to look like anyway. (This is of course a mashup of two scenes from Quatermass and the Pit.)

There’s also a nightmarish sense of inevitability about the fact that—presumably because they couldn’t afford another set—we never see the interior of the locomotive, and so the train appears to be driverless. There is never any evidence the train it has an engineer, and the passengers seem to think that the only way it can be made to stop is by sending a message from the onboard telegraph to some outside agency. It does stop, very briefly, but only to allow a large group of madmen to get on, not to let anyone get off. It seems to be a self-willed literal “engine of destruction” carrying everyone to their doom. Which, in an outrageous case of deus ex machina that suggests the filmmakers couldn’t think of an ending, also comes from an impersonal outside agency. The “heroes” in fact achieve nothing other than to save their own lives and those of a few other people (not a spoiler, since Professor Saxton’s opening narration makes it clear that he will survive the movie). But the train was inevitably steaming towards its destiny from the very start.

All in all, an extraordinary film that couldn’t happen nowadays, as it would either be utterly straight-to-DVD dreadful, or knowingly so-bad-it’s-good done on purpose, which almost never works. Also, it would probably be called Cossacks and Aliens, and Paris Hilton would be in it. I think we’re far better off with what we’ve got.

Due to some mistake in the copyright process, Horror Express is already in the public domain, so you can freely and legally download the movie from the Internet Archive and other sources, though I can’t vouch for the picture quality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy exercise in Hammer pastiche… you might suspect a subterranean surrealist agenda at work, burrowing mole-like beneath the silly surfaces of the film, but you’d be sorely mistaken. The best that can be said for Horror Express is that it doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and it isn’t too proud to steal outright what other films politely borrow.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant Magazine (Blu-ray)

 

3 thoughts on “READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)”

  1. I was about 6 or 7 when i saw this movie, and it was the first one to cause me to faint. I remember my father taking me to the bathroom and wetting my face with water while telling me that “those are not real, they’re just puppets”. i never saw the ending of it, but it left such a strong impression that now i wonder if i should actually get back to finishing it or not.

  2. I’ve finally seen this (what took me so long?) and… I’m not putting it on the List unless there is a big showing of public support. I can see the appeal, but this is basically a ridiculous b-movie that, to me, doesn’t go far enough into weirdness. The weirdest thing about it is probably the dinosaurs in the eyeball fluid (!) It’s still worth a look, though, especially if your tastes run to goofily absurd b-movies with plenty of plot holes and nutty pseudo-scientific jargon.

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