Horror Express (US - BD)
Gabe catches a trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Express with Cushing and Lee...
It’s 1906, and an English anthropologist named Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) is preparing to return home via the Trans-Siberian Express. With him is the remains of his latest discovery – a frozen solid primitive humanoid that maybe the missing link in the evolutionary chain. Saxton is disappointed to discover his rival Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) is also aboard the train, and asking too many questions. Before the train departs, a known thief is found dead near the crate containing Saxton’s frozen man-beast. The thief’s eyes are bleeding and opaque white. A mysterious monk (Alberto de Mendoza), who is the spiritual advisor to a Polish Count and Countess waiting to board the train, proclaims the contents of the crate to be evil. Saxton dismisses the accusations, but Wells’ curiosity is further piqued, and he bribes a porter to break the crate open. The porter is killed for his effort, as the thawed and very much alive creature escapes. Further terror ensues.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s Spanish horror cinema did a lot to impersonate the Hammer horror films coming out of the UK, specifically any film starring, written by, and/or directed by Paul Naschy (aka: Jacinto Molina). Naschy and many of his contemporaries took the gothic meets splatter approach to their films, and were often sure to not set these films in Spain itself. Horror Express certainly fits this mould, and captures the occasionally anarchic flavour of more traditionally Castilian horror flicks. The best of Spain’s ‘60s and ‘70s horror is at its best when it’s teetering on the edge of ham and cheese without keeling over into Ed Wood territory. Director Eugenio Martín isn’t among Spain’s more celebrated genre filmmakers, the only films on his imdb page I recognize are a few spaghetti/piaya westerns ( The Ugly Ones, Bad Man’s River), and gialli flicks ( Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool and Hypnosis), and I haven’t actually seen any of them. Based on this film alone I’m willing to mark Martín as a solid craftsman, with a good storytelling ability and visual sense. His blocking is simple but effective, as his work with gothic shadows is worthy of Terrence Fischer. The camera work and editing is patented early ‘70s, but in the best possible way, including a few ‘focus-outs’ (a common Jess Franco and Mario Bava ploy), and every manner of zoom from crash to slow and deliberate. The train models used for outside establishing shots are unconvincing, but I’m generally impressed by the director’s use of minimal production values.
The story is a clever, yet somewhat sloppy, mix of Murder on the Orient Express and The Thing From Another World, with a dash of the Rasputin myth. The plot wiggles somewhat awkwardly all over the place, but is quite amusing in the way it incorporates scientific and religious elements, and I can’t say it’s entirely predictable either. In this respect, Horror Express is actually most successful as a Agatha Christie inspired whodunit, which is no small feat for a barely B-picture such as this. The horror elements don’t work as well (the monster is a little less than terrifying), but Martín creates some enduring imagery that must have had an effect on other horror filmmakers. Specifically, I notice that the manner in which the creature kills/absorbs knowledge from its victims – by staring at them, which causes them to freeze and their eyes to bleed – is incredibly similar to the way Father Thomas kills some of his victims in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. The science fiction elements are pretty heartily ripped wholesale from John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There’, the basis for both Hawk’s and Carpenter’s Things, but setting it against the other familiar tropes is actually quite novel. I also appreciate the studious manner the ridiculous ‘science’ is developed, which puts parts of the film into Quatermass territory. Man, Carpenter must really love this flick.
A key factor often missed in the Spanish made Hammer imitations/homages, is the employment of Hammer’s favourite actors. Horror Express is unique for being the only Spanish film to have both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing among its cast. Lee worked on many German, French and Italian sets over the years (including many for Spanish born director Jesus Franco), but he didn’t make work on many genuinely Spanish productions, and I’m not aware of Cushing making any other Spanish films. It’s likely the two actors chose to be in the production simply because they liked working together. Martín topped off his mini character actor dream team with Telly Savalas. Savalas (who played Poncho Villa for Martín in Vendetta) also worked his way through a handful of European horror films, specifically Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil, which was released the same year as Horror Express, but wasn’t really known for his horror output. Like Lee, he did work with both Mario Bava and Jesus Franco, and played a Bond Villain. It’s unfortunate that Lee and Cushing play somewhat passive aggressive antagonists for so much of the film, because it robs the audience of the chance to watch them ham it up, but there’s still a sense of joy in their interactions. Savalas doesn’t even show up until almost exactly the one hour mark, but he commands the production the second he shows up, overwhelming even strong personalities like Lee and Cushing. He’s utterly brilliant. The dialogue isn’t quite as witty as Hammer and Amicus fans may expect, but the high-end cast still manages to score a few zingers. (‘What if one of you is the monster?’, ‘Monster? We’re British, you know.’)
Horror Express was a perpetual victim of lapsed copyright throughout the video era, and unlike Night of the Living Dead or Metropolis it’s never going to be mistaken for a classic or ‘important’ film, so no one has really bothered keeping up the negative over the years. Fans were left with muddy pan and scan DVD after muddy pan and scan DVD. I actually hadn’t seen the film until now because I gave up trying to watch one of these releases (I believe it was the Simtar release). Even the 1.66:1 widescreen Image Euro Shock release wasn’t anamorphic, so this release is certainly reason to celebrate. I’ve gotten to the point that I trust Severin to work from the best source material they can find, and to do their best to clean up the image as much as possible within a modest budget, so I’m going to assume the problems that plague this print were something close to unavoidable. But there are some pretty severe problems. Chief among these are print damage artefacts like smudges of dirt, tracking lines, burns, splicing marks, and even what appears to be grease pencil marks. These are really severe at the very, very beginning of the disc, but fans should not fear, as they get better once Lee makes his first appearance. Assuming you can acclimate yourself to the ongoing presence of print damage (which, again, gets better as the film goes on), the second problem to overcome is the aged, yellowed colour quality. Blues and richer reds survive this issue, but skin tones, white levels, and most of the backgrounds are all surely warmer than Martín and cinematographer Alejando Ulloa intended. On the better end of the spectrum, this is a surprisingly sharp image, and despite a few minor setbacks detail levels remain consistent throughout the film, which works very well for the early 20th century garb and decorative elements. There are a few minor over-sharpening effects, but no major edge haloes. Contrast levels seem accurate, and black levels are deep and thick, and besides the yellow up-take, white levels don’t feature major hot spots or blooming. I definitely noticed some problems with framing during the opening credits, but this didn’t extend to the rest of the film.
The audio on the budget release I tried to watch all those years ago was about EP VHS bad, but I assume Image did alright with their Euro Shock release, making this Blu-ray’s lossy Dolby Digital sound much less of an upgrade. The disc includes both the original English and Spanish language tracks. The English track, which is mono, is the preferred track for the simple sake that the lead actors are English speakers. Why would you ever want to listen to a dubbed Christopher Lee, even if Christopher Lee himself was doing it? This is also the louder of the two tracks, but it has a slightly greater tendency to distort on higher noise levels (screams, train whistles, dog whines). The Spanish track, which is listed as mono, but sounds like stereo at some points to me, is a bit softer, but generally cleaner. Besides dubbing the bulk of the actors into Spanish, this track’s real problem is a lack of ambience. The constant bustle of the train is entirely absent from some scenes, and incidental noises, like the sound of a glass being place on a table, are muffled and flat. John Cacavas’ score is reminiscent of his American television roots, and actually quite impressive for type, including a haunting whistle theme that represents the evil presence, and a cool Morricone-esque guitar theme for Savalas. The music sounds quite warm and relatively crisp on both tracks, though this is the one area the Spanish track’s stereo abilities are a plus. Though the lack of English subtitles is a bit of a bummer…
The extras begin with an introduction from Fangoria editor Chris Alexander (6:50, SD), who discusses his love for the film, along with a brief history of its home video release history, and recalls a touching story about Cushing’s personal state at the time. Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express (14:00, HD) is a pleasant interview with co-writer/director Eugenio Martín. Martín recalls the plot being built around the train set, which the producer had already purchased, the varying genre elements, his actors’ professionalism, and special effects. Note from the Blacklist (30:30, SD) sees producer Bernard Gordon discussing his career and his part in the McCarthy era Hollywood Blacklist (a movement I’ve been smelling in the air lately). Next up is a vintage audio interview/Q and A with Peter Cushing (82:00), which runs over the film itself as a pseudo commentary track. It’s a little jarring, since it has just about nothing to do with Horror Express, but is still a fine example of the actor’s professionalism and warmth. Telly and Me (8:00, HD) an interview with composer John Cacavas, who was personal friends with Savalas, and worked with him on Poncho Villa, Horror Express, Red Neck, Kojak and several non-movie albums. Things are completed with a trailer, and trailers for other Severin releases.
It loses steam during the last 10 or so minutes (despite attempts to up the ante), and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but overall Horror Express is a pleasant surprise, and proof I shouldn’t ignore films trapped in the purgatory of public domain. Folks like myself that may have avoided the film thanks to some brutally bad copyright free VHS and DVD releases should give this new Severin Blu-ray a shot. The video quality hasn’t been as well cleaned as most of us would prefer, but the detail levels are pretty good, similar to watching a decent 30mm projection, and the sound quality is about as good as can be expected (don’t bother with the Spanish track unless you speak the language). The extras feature a series of enjoyable interviews, including one that runs as an alternate track during the film.
* Note: The images on this page have been taken from the second disc DVD, and are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality, though they do give a good idea of the clean-up.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th November 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English and Spanish
Extras: Murder On The Trans-Siberian Express, Notes From The Blacklist, The Guardian Interview With Peter Cushing, Telly And Me, Introduction by Fangoria Editor Chris Alexander, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Eugenio Martín
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Silvia Tortosa
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 90 minutes
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