Horror Express

Year 1972

Christopher Lee as   Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton  
Peter Cushing as Dr. Wells
Telly Savalas as Captain Kazan
Alberto de Mendoza   as Father Pujardov
Silvia Tortosa as Countess Irina Petrovski
Julio Peña as Inspector Mirov
Alice Reinheart as Miss Jones
Jorge Rigaud as Count Marion Petrovski
Faith Clift   as American Passenger
Director - Eugenio (Gene) Martín
Screenwriters - Arnaud d'Usseau
  - Julian Zimet

Horror Express is one of those movies that does so many little things right and then fails on the big things. It's such a shame. This could have been so much better! That's not to say that it's bad, because it's not. It's just that it is an opportunity missed and this type of opportunity may never come around again.

Elitist Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) has come across the find of the millenium - a two million year old fossil that's part human and part ape. He's transporting it from China, where he found it, to London via Moscow aboard a train. The fossil is dormant and comes back to life absorbing things as it does so.

There's enough originality in this that I don't want to ruin it by going into too many details. So I won't say what the creature does to whom. But I'll tell you that most of movie is plausible within the tenets of the movie and it's mostly faithful to it's own brand of illogic.

Let's start with what's good about the movie. It's a period piece, 1906 to be exact. Unlike some movies where anacrhonisms abound, in Horror Express there's attention to detail. The dress of characters, although perhaps not 100% accurate, definitely provides a sense of 1906.

And there are characters. Not just the ones listed above, but dozens of extras milling about at the train station, acting as part of cadres of soldiers, and of course passengers on the train. Each is dressed according to their role, ethnicity, and occupation. Rarely are costumes used so effectively. Even Dr. Zhivago doesn't use costumes as part of the plot like Horror Express does.

Take a look at the cover of DVD. Lee in his high jacket with long necktie, Cushing with his different cut three-piece suit and bowtie, and Savalas with his Cossak jacket. And each character, even if it's a Chinese extra at the train station, has their own style of dress.

Even the incidental characters, the one who die, have back stories. One's a thief, another's a spy, one's railroad worker who's in charge of the cargo... It may seem trivial but the view is told enough about each of them so that they can be understood. Maybe not empathized with, but they're a little more than just gore fodder.

The main characters are, for this type of movie anyway, well drawn. You've got Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) who's so arrogant that when paupers are killed by the creature, he quips, "A baggage man, and a thief... You're right madame. I don't care... as much as I should."

Dr. Wells (Cushing) is his jealous adversary, but only professionally. Dr. Wells is his own man and more outgoing than Saxton. They're never friends, but he and Saxton work well together despite professional rivalry.

Captain Kazan (Savalas) has about ten minutes movie time but he steals his scenes with gusto. The introduction to Kazan takes place in a train station. He's with a woman in the background. It reminded me of Death Hunt. Savalas is hamming it up throughout. At one point Saxton is talking too much for Kazan's liking. As Kazan turns away from Saxton and passes by a soldier holding a rifle on Saxton, Kazan grabs the butt of the rifle and jams it forward and into Saxton's gut. No fuss, no bother. Kazan is in charge of every situation he's in and Savalas pulls it off beautifully.

The music is also noteworthy. People give a lot of credit to Anton Karas for his haunting zither music in The Third Man. John Cacavas' music in Horror Express is as noteworthy. Seriously. Characters whistle it and sometimes it's the score of the movie. It's always effective at creating and maintaining the mood.

There are enough gems in the dialog that I need to provide some.

Saxton: The occupant hasn't eaten in two million years.
Wells: That's one way to economize on food bills.
Mirov asks Wells's for his help as a doctor.
Mirov: He's dead.
Wells: Well, I can't do anything for him then.

Miss Jones sees Dr. Wells with a young woman
Wells: Miss Jones, I shall need your assistance.
Jones: Well at your age, I'm not surprised.
Father Pujardov: In my concern for the spiritual welfare of the countess, I forgot myself. I will pray for humility.
Count Petrovski: Pray hard, Pujardov. Or you'll find yourself praying for a job, too.
Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster?
Wells (appalled): Monster? We're British, you know.

Countess Irina: My husband, the Count Petrovski, says that in the fifteenth century your King Henry betrayed us to the Russians.
Saxton: I hope that you and your husband, madam, will accept my profoundest apologies.
Wells: But what if the monk is innocent?
Kazan: Ah. We got lots of innocent monks.

The movie even manages to broach the evolution versus religion matter. Countess Irena's (Tortosa) opinion is that evolution is immoral. Saxton believes that evolution is a fact. Pujardov's (de Mendoza) is having a confusion of faith. There is a soul, but who should be served. God or the devil? Such is his confusion that he interprets the actions of the monster as being satanic. The monster, on the other hand, feels that Pujardov is empty and let's him live because Pujardov is such a dolt in his views of the world that he's not worth the trouble of killing.

There's not much in your face gore, but there are some genuinely suspensful and scarey moments in the film. The shots of the monster are wonderfully creepy and work to unnerve you in a way that cartoons, ahem, CGI, can't.

This movie has some good scares, atmosphere, style, clever dialog, and good acting across the board. So what's wrong with the movie?

The most glaring problem is the editing. Some scenes are just cut in a weird way. Someone is approaching the crate that houses the creature, suspense is building, there's a quick shot of the outside of the train, suspense is lost. This sort of jumbled editing is distracting and lowers the quality of the movie.

How about the train? It's obviously a miniature but it shows that there are usually five, sometimes six, cars on the train. You've got the cargo car, the Count's car, two sleeper cars, the train engineer's car, the dining car, and the grand unveiling car. That makes seven cars. I think that there might even be three sleeper cars to handle the dozens of passengers and that doesn't include any cars for soldiers, porters, etc. So, how many cars are there?

And the order of cars keeps changing. If the cargo car at the front or the back of train? Depends upon what part of the movie you're watching. The same with the Count's car. Sometimes it's next to the cargo car and sometimes it's the caboose. There also appears to be a space warp that lets people exit from one door and re-enter from the opposite door even though it meant having to use a non-existent outside walkway to do so.

Which way is the train heading, anyway? From the outside, it moves across the screen from right to left. Inside of the train, it would sometimes moves from left to right to keep up with the changes in relative positions of the cars.

Geography is also a problem. The overlays say, "Peking" but the dialog is about "Shanghai". Hundreds of miles difference. The whatsit is found in "Manchuria" but sometimes it's "Szechuan". Again, hundreds of miles difference.

And that music by Cacavas that I liked. At one point it's supposedly played on a piano but it's not. What makes it worse is that some whisting at the time is supposed to be the same tune that's being played on the piano and characters even comment on this. Bad editing choice for the dubbing.

Then there's the whole image retained in the aqueous humor of an eyeball gimmick. A drop of eyeball jelly under a microscope shows what the eyeball owner saw, sometimes at the moment of death and sometimes earlier than that. That the humor is like a holograph that can be viewed using ordinary light is too tough a stretch for me to overlook.

And what's up with the left arm of the monster always being deformed? Is this some sort of Satanic reference? You know, another word for the left arm is the sinister arm?

The film is dark and the TTG version is a poor transfer. There's a Blu-Ray version out that that I'll probably get because this movie is just good enough that I'll want to see it again...at Halloween.

There's no nudity but I think there's some blasphemy. Chick flick potential is about average for these types of films thanks to Miss Jones, Countess Petrovski, and a female spy named Natasha (Helga Liné). Although reminiscent of Hammer Films, the sets and music of Horror Express are of a better quality. I liked it.

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