Wednesday, October 7, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Horror Express

Horror Express (1973)

As I've alluded to before, Horror Express is a comfy old shoe of a horror film to me. It ran incessantly during October when I worked at a comic shop (as it was the only VHS horror film we had). It got to the point where regular customers could whistle the theme song right along with the baggage man. Eventually it became nothing but a Lee/Cushing/Savalas noise in the background of my day, something so familiar as to be invisible.

Just because it's familiar doesn't mean I was looking forward to it, however. I'd seen it a little too much back in the day and wasn't sure I could really find enjoyment in it anymore. I envisioned my attention drifting - wandering back to days spent sorting comics, running games and selling *shudder* packs of whatever card game was then attempting to usurp Magic's place.

It's been 15 years or so since I last saw it, though, and as I was already planning to watch a Christopher Lee film I figured, what the hell 

And a bonus appearance by Grand Moff Tarkin!
The Medium
I had that VHS tape for a long time after I stopped working at the shop, but I never did watch it again. Last night I actually went into the basement and dug into old boxes looking for it, but I think I gave it to my brother Scott along with a lot of other old VHS horror movies. It's available for streaming for free on Hulu, but it's a pretty low-quality copy. I ended up watching it on Amazon instead, and the quality was significantly better, though still cropped.

The Movie
That theme song really worms its way into your head, doesn't it? Within seconds I could hum the whole thing again. Hell, even the extended train whistles during the opening credits had me experiencing flashbacks to new book days and putting comics in subscriber files. Once the movie started in earnest - with Christopher Lee providing a voice-over about his 'doomed' Manchurian expedition - I was able to settle down and just enjoy the film.

"Air holes, AIR HOLES! How many times do I have to tell you?"

 And Horror Express is a fun - if low-budget - Hammer-lite romp of a horror film. With Christopher Lee as the prickly, slightly amoral scientist, Professor Saxton, and Peter Cushing as his more good-natured rival. (Though it is Cushing's Doctor Wells who unleashes the true horror on the train, by dint of a little outsourced science espionage. How'd your curiosity work out for you, Doctor?) And of course, Telly Savalas as the Cossak officer Captain Kazan. If there's any real complaint that I have about this movie it's that there is nowhere near enough of Captain Kazan and his pithy pronouncements. On honest Cossak indeed.

"Am I, or am I not, the coolest person in this room? No - your expressions is confirmation enough."

 What we have is a "monster loose in an enclosed space" story, like Alien or The Thing, but in this case the enclosed space is the early 1900's Trans Siberian Express. It seems Professor Saxton has uncovered a 'missing link' specimen on his expedition to Manchuria and is transporting it to England. Of course it's not really dead - and soon the bodies are piling up, all of them with blood pouring from their all-white eyes.

The monster makeup is quite good, and the camera doesn't linger so we're not forced to examine its flaws too closely. Mostly we see a hairy arm and claws as well as glowing, red eyes. There's some fun incidents of grue, like the autopsies wherein we learn that the victims brains are now smooth as a baby's bottom. (A result, we're told, of their memories being drained.)

"I just wanted to catch the red-eye! No? I'll get my coat..."

 Things seem to come to a premature end with the creature shot down by Inspector Mirov. It's just a cue for things to get more crazy and interesting, however, as the scientists inspect the remains and discover the eye fluid contains images of everything the creature has ever seen. Including dinosaurs. Including the earth - as seen from space! I'm not saying it's aliens. But it's aliens. 

"Let's science the shit out of this!"

This movie is just so much fun, really. It goes to crazy places. Revived ape-men not enough? How about aliens? No, how about body jumping aliens? Still not enough? Hold on, we're going full on zombie horde as the movie careens along. Throw in the good Captain, a lady spy, a Count and his wife, a Rasputin wannabe and more white eyeballs and train models than you can shake a stick at. Whatever else, the movie is never boring.

And there are some genuinely interesting and visually poetic moments. There's a shot of a character, possessed by the alien and staring out the frosted window of the train into the howling snow and darkness that could easily have been the cover to a classic horror novel. Another moment after a whirlwind of death where a character is shot standing over the massed bodies of his foes could have been right out of The Matrix.

The Bottom Line
Yeah, Horror Express is a low budget film with some flat lighting and characters, a theme song that quickly gets on the nerves, and roles that don't exactly require Cushing and Lee to work at their highest level. But you know, they're not phoning it in, either. Everyone seems to be making an effort, and even if it all doesn't quite make sense at least it's not boring. I certainly enjoyed the hell out of it.

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