Sunday, October 13, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: H is for Horror Express (1972)

Framed as a letter of explanation from Professor Alexander Saxton to the British Royal Geological Society circa 1906 on what exactly happened in the aftermath of his fossil-hunting expedition into Manchuria, China, why it ended in calamity, and where the blame lies for its disastrous outcome, our rip-snorting tale of adventure, mystery, and intrigue, wrapped around terribly macabre and ghastly things well beyond all rational thinking will do its very best to answer all of the above.

It begins when Saxton (Lee) and his team of sherpas discover something peculiar frozen in the Himalayan ice: a perfectly preserved yeti-like creature, whom Saxton feels is the missing link that will go a long way toward proving Darwin’s contested theories on evolution, making it the discovery of the century. Thus, speed and secrecy is the key as Saxton crates the specimen up and heads for Beijing, where he books passage on the Trans-Siberian Express as the first step to getting back to England.

Well, at least he thought he did but the stationmaster (Roca) claims no such reservation was ever made and the train is all booked up. Then, as Saxton fails to sort this out they’re interrupted by the arrival of an old acquaintance -- well, more of a friendly professional rival, Dr. Wells (Cushing), and his crotchety assistant, Miss Jones (Reinheart), who also need to get themselves and some specimens on the train. But unlike Saxton, Wells has the cash and the guile to grease the proper wheels. Luckily, the British Empire comes through when a military contingent shows up with orders to assist Saxton and get him on his way. And just like that, his reservation magically appears.

Meantime, on the loading platform near the baggage car, Saxton’s large crate proves too big a temptation and a curious thief clandestinely picks the lock to see what treasures are hidden inside but is in for quite the shock. And when Saxton arrives shortly thereafter to oversee the loading of his priceless specimen, the thief is found, having dropped dead, cause unknown. This draws the attention of two people:

First is an Eastern Orthodox monk named Pujardov (Mendoza), the spiritual advisor of the Polish Count Marion Petrovski (Rigaud) and his daughter, Countess Irina Petrovski (Tortosa), who are also waiting to board the train. Sensing the hand of the devil in this business, Petrovski declares the contents of the crate to be cursed; which is a load of superstitious twaddle to Saxton, who vehemently dismisses any such notion even though the monk cannot draw the sign of the cross on his crate with a piece of chalk. And the second person keenly interested is an Inspector Mirov (Peña), who runs security for the railway.

Mirov recognizes the thief, a master lock-picker, but Pujardov says that’s impossible because the man was blind. And on closer inspection, the corpse shows signs of hemorrhaging from the mouth, nose and eyes, and, sure enough, the dead man’s corneas seemed to have disappeared; as if his eyes had been boiled white. Assured there is nothing inside the crate except a harmless fossil, Mirov is satisfied for the moment and allows Saxton to load it onto the train. But once it’s securely on board, a curious Wells bribes the baggage-man to take a look at what’s secreted inside once everyone else clears out.

And once the train gets rolling, turns out the stationmaster had the last laugh by sticking Saxton and Wells in the same compartment, where they’ll get to be bunk-mates to their mutual annoyance. And then things get even more crowded when a woman named Natasha (Liné) ducks in to avoid the conductor (Jaspe). Seems she has no ticket but must get to Moscow immediately and quickly charms Wells into letting her hideout with them.

As it turns out, Natasha is a spy on a mission (-- the green silk dragon dress should’ve been our first clue), which the film isn’t ready to reveal quite yet but even money says it has nothing to do with the crate but something to do with the Petrovskys, currently lounging in their private car with Pujardov, who is still wigging out about the Devil being onboard the train. Mirov is also lingering around, as is a young man named Yevtushenko (del Pozo), an engineer, who also dabbles in many other scientific disciplines, which makes him extra curious as to what’s in the crate, too.

But it’s the baggage-man (Israel) who gets the first look at what’s inside as he starts disassembling the crate's hinges to circumnavigate the padlock. But it’s more like what’s inside gets a good look at him. See, not only has Saxton’s anthropoid “fossil” defrosted in the interim, but it has somehow revived! And as the man stares at what’s inside the box, and it stares back at him, the thing’s surviving eye glows red, causing some kind of fatal hemorrhagic seizure. And after the entranced man falls to the floor dead, his bleeding eyes boiled white, the creature deftly picks the remaining locks, liberates himself, and then stuffs his victim inside the crate, puts it all back together, and locks it up tight, leaving it just as it was -- like some master criminal covering his tracks.

The next day, when the baggage-man can’t be found, Mirov takes charge, proximity links the disappearance to the death back at the station, and demands to know what’s really in the crate. When Saxton refuses, Mirov has his men break it open, which reveals its grisly contents. Unsure of what happened and highly uncooperative, Saxton is confined to his compartment, where he confesses to the visiting Countess Irina that somehow, illogical as it may seem, the creature he found is somehow alive and loose on the train. 

Meantime, Mirov coerces Wells and Jones to do an autopsy on the porter, where they discover the man’s brain is “as smooth as a baby’s bottom.” And after conjecturing with Saxton, they believe the creature is somehow able to drain and absorb the memories and abilities of its victims through their eyes, which explains how it was able to pick the lock, thanks to the thief, and able to find a suitable hiding place thanks to the porter’s familiarity with the train.

Relating all of this to Mirov, he and his men start searching the train to flush out the creature and destroy it. Meantime, Natasha makes her move, heading to the baggage car, where she breaks into the safe and steals a pouch belonging to Count Petrovski. Unfortunately for her, the anthropoid had been hiding in the baggage car this whole time and pounces, painfully sucking her brain dry. Then Wells, looking for Natasha, stumbles on the scene. It’s too late for the girl, but at least he knows to avoid eye contact while struggling with the creature. This commotion also draws the attention of Mirov, who puts several bullets into the attacker, saving Wells and killing it. And while the threat seems to have been eliminated and the day saved, things are actually about to get a whole lot worse...

A native of New Britain, Connecticut, Bernard Gordon moved to Hollywood in his early 20s to pursue his dream of writing for the movies. He caught on as a spec-script reader at Paramount in 1941, providing detailed analysis of screenplays submitted to the studio, noting what worked and what didn’t work from concept to story, characters and dialogue, to pacing and structure, and right on down to the script’s marketability. A long time lefty and political activist, as he moved up the ranks of his department, Gordon supported the unionization of all facets of the studio system and helped found the Screen Readers Guild in 1943. Unfortunately, when World War II ended studios made a not-so-clandestine effort to clean house of anyone with overt political leanings -- especially those considered to be Communist sympathizers.

Thus, Gordon and many other union organizers got the axe. And while barely eking out a living as a private investigator's assitant, fellow lefty William Alland reached out to his old colleague, offering him a chance to adapt his story idea for Flesh and Fury (1953) as a vehicle for Tony Curtis over at Universal. The film was a hit, and Gordon and Alland followed that up with The Lawless Breed (1952), which helped launch Rock Hudson and cemented Alland’s standing as a producer at Universal International, where he would team up with Jack Arnold for the studio’s resurgent creature feature boom with It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Gordon, meanwhile, was now in demand and on the verge of signing a multi-picture contract with UI in 1953 when word came he’d been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, who were trying to root out Communist influences in Hollywood. Ignoring the HUAC subpoena for as long as he could, hoping it would just blow over, Gordon was never actually called to testify. If he had, he was determined to be an uncooperative witness. But as things turned out, it was all out of his hands when Alland testified and started naming names, including Gordon’s, which landed him on the notorious Hollywood Blacklist.

Despite this setback, Gordon kept writing and ghost-writing under several different aliases and fronts. Producer Charles Schneer hired Gordon on the sly, which netted a string of highly entertaining creature features for Sam Katzman’s B-unit at Columbia: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957) -- all written under the alias of Raymond T. Marcus. “Marcus” also contributed to the script for Schneer’s Hellcats of the Navy (1957), starring Ronald Reagan and his future wife, Nancy Davis. In a later interview, Gordon would bitterly note, “It was ironic that I could not put my name to that script due to a blacklist the movie's star (and notorious Commie-baiter), Ronald Reagan, denied ever existed."

Then, after a few more crime-capers for Schneer and Katzman -- Chicago Confidential (1957), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), Gordon packed it all up and moved to Paris, France, where he started working for Philip Yordan. Yordan was a (disputed) Academy Award winning screenwriter and film producer, a flim-flam artist, and a wily bastard by most accounts, who had turned fronting for blacklisted talent into a cottage industry. He usually had no less than four banned writers on his payroll churning out scripts for The Naked Jungle (1954), Men in War (1957), No Down Payment (1957), and God’s Little Acre (1958), which he took sole screen credit for and took half the fee.

And with this rotating stable of writers, Yordan had developed a solid reputation as a script doctor. And when producer Samuel Bronston called, looking for help to salvage his faltering production of King of Kings (1961), with an offer of $400,000 upfront, a house in Paris, plus an unlimited expense account, Yordan left a burning vapor trail behind him as he headed to Europe, taking several of his writers with him, including Gordon. And since Yordan had essentially burned every bridge with nearly every studio in Hollywood, he decided to stay there and continue to work for Bronston.

Born in Russia, Bronston migrated to the United States in 1939, where he caught on at MGM, which soon found him heading back to Europe, specifically Paris, to work for the studio's production unit there. But it wasn't long before Bronston formed his own film company, Samuel Bronston Productions, which cut its teeth on a couple of bio-pics for Jack London and John Paul Jones. However, Bronston's biggest claim to fame came in the 1960s with a series of large-scale mega-blockbusters, involving star-studded casts of thousands, including King of Kings, El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). To save costs on these massive productions, Bronston set-up shop in Spain, building a gigantic studio in Las Rozas near Madrid.

Gordon would serve as a script doctor on El Cid through Yordan, adding several love scenes to the story to satisfy Sophia Loren’s demanded changes before she would sign on to the picture. And he would later claim that he came up with the idea of using the Chinese Boxer Rebellion as a framing device for 55 Days at Peking, which Yordan initially rejected but then later claimed the idea as his own, resulting in a picture with “no characters, no story, and no history” in what Gordon referred to as a “big, massive, stupid picture.” And once again, he was called on to shore things up, doctoring scenes to appease some temperamental actors -- David Niven and Charlton Heston, and wound up writing Ava Gardner’s character out of the movie when she failed to stay sober during shooting, causing massive delays when she’d up and disappear. But the film was important because Gordon demanded and received screen credit for his contributions -- under Yordan's credit, ‘natch, officially breaking him out of the blacklist.

Unfortunately, with the runaway costs of building the studio combined with the lackluster box-office performance of 55 Days at Peking and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which crashed and burned like Rome itself, Bronston soon declared bankruptcy not long after finishing up the John Wayne vehicle, Circus World (1964). But Yordan quickly moved to fill up this vacuum, bringing in other producers to take advantage of Bronston’s facilities and cheap Spanish labor. He’d already produced a couple of sci-fi pictures with the adaptation of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1963), which Gordon failed to get a screenwriting credit for, and Crack in the World (1965). 

And then Yordan tried to fill Bronston’s vacated shoes with a string of giant Cinerama epics that were long on spectacle and short on everything else that people just weren’t all that interested in seeing anymore with the historically laughable Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Custer of the West (1967) and the proto-disaster movie Krakatoa: East of Java (1968).

While Gordon had written or contributed to all of those features, when the 1970s rolled around he decided to extricate himself from Yordan and struck out on his own, producing a couple of frijoles refritos westerns with director Eugenio Martín, Bad Man’s River (1971), whose credited writer was Yordan but odds are good it was actually written by someone else, and Pancho Villa (1972).

Now, a good chunk of the budget for that last feature went into the construction of a model train and the refurbishing of two train cars to match the period setting. And not wanting to waste them on just one film, Gordon and Martin started looking for a script that was also train-centric for their next feature. 

And what they found was Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet’s Panic on the Transiberian Express, which combined some political intrigue with elements of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which served as inspiration for many body-count movies to come, and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, where a frozen alien thaws out and attempts to assimilate its way to world conquest in plain sight, all set aboard a speeding train.

An alien, you say? Yeah, see, when Mirov turns the remains of the creature over to Saxton and Wells, while performing a necropsy on the carcass they make a startling discovery when examining the fluid extracted from it’s eye under a microscope, as they see several different dinosaurs as the magnification shifts. It seems this creature’s memories are stored in its eyes, and further magnification shows a view of Earth from outer space. From there, they deduce the creature is a non-corporeal extraterrestrial which first visited earth millions of years ago, got stuck here, and just used the anthropoid as a parasite would. And as a form of energy, they’re not even sure if the thing can die even when the host body is destroyed. And if it cannot die, then where did it go?

Well, we get our answer pretty quick as Horror Express (1972) shifts gears and focuses on Mirov. As the others conjectured, the alien presence is able to suck out and retain the intelligence of its victims but this process works both ways, allowing it to transfer from host body to host body throughout the eons until it got trapped in the frozen anthropoid. And now it has taken up residence in Mirov, who is questioning Count Petrovsky over the satchel Natasha was trying to steal when she died. And what it contained was a steel ingot created with a new formula of Petrovsky's own devising, which makes it stronger than ever. Of course, several world powers would like to get their hands on this formula so Petrovsky took the precaution of keeping the specifications safely tucked away inside his head until the highest bidder steps forward.

Meantime, Pujardov, sensing what he believes is a Satanic presence inhabiting Mirov, renounces his faith, pledges allegiance to this malignant entity, and offers himself up as a sacrifice to become one with the Dark Lord after witnessing Mirov murder Miss Jones. But the monk has nothing to offer the alien. No, what the alien sees is an opportunity to finally get off this rock and a need to see how far these primitives have advanced during his hibernation when it comes to metallurgy and defying gravity. For this, it seeks out and drains the brain of Yevtushenko, who had talked about the recent advancements in rocketry. It will also need to drain Petrovsky for his forging process but this plan is derailed a bit when the accumulation of bodies gets too big and the rest of the passengers start to panic and demand to be let off the train until the killer is caught.

All the while, Saxton and Wells have been trying to find a means to detect the new host, and are on the right track when they examine the eyes of the other passengers but they initially overlook one vital element to make the brain-draining process work: it must be done in darkness, which allows Mirov to escape detection.

The alien then takes out the conductor but not before he gets a telegraph off, informing the authorities of the dire situation on the train. And so, at the next stop, no one is allowed off but a squad of soldiers led by a belligerent Cossack by the name of Kazan come aboard, gather all the remaining passengers in the dining car -- with the notable exception of the Polish royalty, who are allowed to return to their private den, and starts interrogating them, determined to ferret out the killer. 

Moving to protect his new master, Pujardov draws the wrath of Kazan (Savalas), who whips him bloody. And using this as a distraction, after finally deducing the alien needs the cover of darkness, Saxton kills the lights in the car, which finally reveals Mirov is the alien as his eyes glow red.

In the confusion that follows, Mirov’s body is mortally wounded by Kazan. But the alien transfers into the welcoming Pujardov before the body expires, who makes quick work of Kazan and his men. Meantime, Saxton and Welles herd all the other passengers into the baggage car, which serves as the caboose on this train.

Leaving Wells to safeguard the others, Saxton heads forward with his trusty flashlight and shotgun to try and reach the Petrovskys. But it’s already too late for the Count, whose been sucked dry by the alien. But he does manage to save Irina and gets a full confession from the alien presence, who reveals he is essentially a patch of neurons who did indeed visit the Earth with several others of his kind at the dawn of creation but was accidentally left behind when the others went home and has been doing its best to survive, host to host, ever since -- for it seems the being cannot survive long without someone to occupy.

Now caught and exposed, it offers to share its vast wealth of collected knowledge that could incalculably advance science and medicine. But turns out this was all a distraction so the alien could reach out and demonstrate yet another facet of its power-set by reanimating the corpses off all the people it had killed. Which means Saxton will have to fight his way through a zombified Kazan and his men to reach the apparent safety of the baggage car. And while they make it, with nowhere else left to retreat, and the train now a runaway with the engineer dead and a deranged Pujardov at the wheel, and an armed horde of undead Cossacks lumbering toward them, Saxton and Wells quickly work to uncouple the car.

Meanwhile, when all attempts to contact Kazan fail, fearing the worst, the Russian authorities contact the next station ahead, instructing them to destroy the oncoming train by sending it down a dead-end spur. Speculating that war must’ve broken out, the station staff throw the switch, diverting the train off the main line as it roars by. Meantime, Saxton and Wells finally manage to detach the baggage car. In the engine, the alien sees the end of the line too late as the locomotive rams through the barrier and plunges off a steep cliff and is destroyed when it explodes on impact. Above, the caboose trundles precariously close to this burning abyss before finally coming to a halt, leaving us with Saxton, Wells, and Irina grimly gazing at the spectacle below as the unearthly visitor finally meets its end.

Filmed in Madrid in late 1971 on a budget of $300,000, Horror Express milked every peseta for all it was worth in translating this whopper of a tale to the screen. Martin was very efficient with his limited sets, shooting all the needed scenes in one car, while the other was redecorated for another section of the train. This went back and forth until the film was completed. Martin also had a hand in the script, which asks you to buy a lot of nonsense when it comes to the science part of the fiction as our protagonists piece together the alien’s pathology, which seems grounded in the era of which it was set. And yet, as Scott Ashlin put it in his review of Horror Express at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, “There’s an odd sort of logical consistency to the absurdities which this movie puts forward, so that they sound almost reasonable when expounded by arrogant Victorian science chappies like Saxton and Wells."

And I simply adore the punctuating humor littered throughout all the macabre stuff like when Mirov suggests that Wells or Saxton could be the host, and Wells scoffs it’s impossible because, dammit, “We’re British!” And later, when Irina confronts Kazan over his terrible manners, threatening to have him sent to Siberia, who counters, lady, “I am in Siberia!"

But the film’s real coup, and where the majority of the budget was probably spent, was securing noted horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for the leads. But this almost didn’t happen. See, when Cushing arrived in Madrid to begin work on the picture, Gordon picked him up at the airport. And on the ride back to the hotel, Cushing announced he would not be able to do the picture and the only reason he was there is that he didn’t want to relate this news over the phone. Now, the reason for this was Cushing was still devastated and caught up in the grieving process over the loss of his dear wife, Helen, who had died earlier that year. And approaching his first Christmas in nearly 30 years without her, he felt his mind just wasn’t in it and he would be a hindrance to the production.

Gordon understood his concerns but with his film falling apart before him he had no idea how to salvage this. And so, he looked to Lee for some help. Here, Lee and his family stepped in and spent the rest of the evening with Cushing, as they reminisced about their work and friendship over the years. And after an evening of laughs and cheerful memories, Cushing decided to stay on, giving audiences a rare occasions where Lee and Cushing weren’t rivals trying to kill each other but fighting on the same side to save the world. And they really had their hands full with the wily Julio Peña and the completely out of his gourd Alberto de Mendoza as the mad monk.

Telly Savalas, meanwhile, comes on like a freight train and adds a much needed boost when the third act rolls around as the film was starting to stagnate a bit and then officially goes off the rails in the best way possible. Savalas was also responsible for bringing in his friend, John Cacavas, who composed the remarkable and haunting score for Horror Express, which really helped to tonally glue the whole thing together. And like with a lot of Italian and Spanish productions, Horror Express was filmed mostly without sound, with voices dubbed in later with Lee, Cushing and Savalas all providing their own voices and explaining why everything seems just a tad out of sync.

When it was finished, despite the marquee clout, Horror Express had one helluva time finding a distributor until settling for Scotia International, which was known mostly as a provider of *ahem* “Adults Only” entertainment. From there, the film wasn’t marketed very well or exploited properly. And while it still proved moderately successful in England it just sort of came and went everywhere else without leaving much of an impression.

After, it kinda slipped into Public Domain Hell, which resulted in several different versions being released on VHS from dozens of different sources. And like a lot of people, this was my first exposure to the film, where the murk of cheap VHS dubs only added to the creepiness of the situation found in this strange little bugaboo of a movie. And yet, the skills of those in front of and behind the camera still shone through. 

And coming out right before JAWS (1975), with Hammer Films a shadow of its former self, Horror Express also kinda marked the end of an era in terms of genre, a last hurrah, and should be rightfully celebrated as such. And now, in this digital age, Horror Express has been rescued from Public Domain Purgatory and restored and remastered to its original glory. And in this state, it makes an already solid case for being one of the best horror films of the 1970s even stronger.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's eight reviews down with 18 more to go! Up Next: Del Tenney's Voodoo hoo-doo boo-boo!

Horror Express (1972) Granada Films :: Benmar Productions :: Scotia International / P: Bernard Gordon / AP: Gregorio Sacristán / D: Eugenio Martín / W: Arnaud d'Usseau, Julian Zimet / C: Alejandro Ulloa / E: Robert C. Dearberg / M: John Cacavas / S: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné, George Rigaud, Alice Reinheart, José Jaspe, Víctor Israel, Vicente Roca, Telly Savalas


tom j jones said...

It's amazing (and slightly worrying) just how many of the films you name-check I've seen, some more than a dozen times, probably. Many of them were mainstays of British TV in the 70s and early 80s.

I saw Horror Express on late-night TV a long time ago. I'd heard of it, because I'd heard of the story of it being made to exploit having the train set and model. I was amazed at how much they packed into the movie - the paying audience certainly got their money's worth.

I'm not a big horror fan (except for the B&W ones) but this is highly recommended for entertainment value!

W.B. Kelso said...

My first encounter was on a cheap VHS that touted Savalas over Cushing and Lee. A delightful little bugaboo of a movie and truly the end of an era. Thanks for reading!

tom j jones said...

Watching it again the other night, I had a few surprises - for some reason, I thought there were several more characters then there actually were. And although I remember Savalas only appearing in the last third, he's hardly in it at all - for some shots, its clearly an out-of-focus guy in a red jacket behind the other soldiers.

But it's such a great idea - both horror and SF-wise - and it really does move fast. And there are some wicked lines.

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