Monday, December 5, 2011

Blu-ray/DVD Review: 'Horror Express'

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Telly Savalas in a Spanish horror film from the writers of “Psychomania”? Thank you, Severin Films, you always know just what I want. This time I’m talking about the new Blu-ray release of Eugenio Martin’s 1972 genre jaunt, “Horror Express”. There’s a droning, discordant score; major, highly questionable plot points that are simply glossed over and pushed aside with a wave of the hand; and, most importantly, a brain-sucking monster loose on a trans-Siberian train. What’s not to like about that? “Horror Express” is classic, grainy, low-budget horror. It is weird and gory, the plot goes in unexpected directions and there are eyeballs and blood and brains and scalpels, and is just as much fun as all of that sounds.

At the outset we’re told that what follows is a “true and faithful account” of a real 1906 archeological dig in China. Right away you know this is going to be super rad, because they only make totally awesome historical incidents into horror films, right? And they can’t claim to tell a true story without it actually being true, or am I mistaken on that? I’m digging into the details as we speak, and I’ll let you know what I find out.

Lee and Cushing play rival anthropologists, Professor Alexander Saxton and Dr. Wells respectively, who happen to be on the same isolated train route. Alexander Saxton is an epic name, by the way, props to screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet for coming up with that one, they should be proud. Saxton has just made a discovery that will throw the scientific community into an uproar, and, once and for all, confirm the theory of evolution. He boards the aforementioned train with his specimen, expecting an uneventful trip back to England and a future of snooty scientific glory.

Too bad for Saxton and company that this isn’t any run of the mill fossil. Oh hell no, this is a two million year old brain eating machine. When the specimen thaws out, it comes to life and shit gets real. When the monster, which looks like a guy in a cheap gorilla suit with glowing red eyes, encounters people it sucks out all of their knowledge as it kills. This skill comes in handy for the creature as the first person it encounters happens to be a lock pick, and with his newly acquired talents, the monster is able to free himself. Lucky break. For him anyway, not so much his victims.

Saxton and Wells must team up to figure out what exactly is going on. Is this a prehistoric monster? An alien? A zombie? What? With a crew of fellow passengers, they battle this beast and save the day, but to do so they have to contend with a sexy lady thief, an incompetent provincial cop, a rich count and countess who travel with their own personal priest just to mock him for sport, and, of course, the priest. Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) is a crazy Russian priest in the “mad monk” mold. He’s spooky, ominous, has a ratty beard, and says amazing things like, “there’s the stink of hell on this train, even the dog knows it,” and “Satan is evil.” I’m willing to bet you suspected that last one.

Savalas doesn’t show up until near the end. He plays Captain Kazan, a drunk, womanizing Cossack officer, who is, for all intents and purposes, Kojak, and has to come in and clean up this mess on the train once and for all. He doesn’t even try to be anything else. Hey, he probably thought, the people love me as Kojak, I’m going to give them Kojak. I kept expecting him to stop and say, “Who loves you, baby?” Of course this means Kazan is a total badass; an overacting, superflying, monster stopping machine, one who isn’t above coolly whipping a priest when the spirit moves.

Full of quaint, old-timey racism—there are lots of conniving Chinamen—and 70’s style sexism—Wells’ assistant is smart “for a woman”—“Horror Express” is ridiculous and cheesy. The characters jump to wild conclusions with no proof or even clues, and everyone simply accepts the outlandish claims, because why the hell not? There are clunky metaphors, and the whole thing is a mishmash of zombie, monster, and religious horror with elements of science fictions. All of this adds up to a schlocky, tacky, raucously entertaining time that I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end. “Horror Express” is a blast.

Severin Films has a solid track record of releasing seriously good seriously good collections of bonus material with their DVDs and Blu-rays, and “Horror Express” combo pack is no exception.

An introduction with “Fangoria” editor Chris Alexander kicks things off. More than a this-is-what-this-movie-is style of preface, Alexander’s preamble is a mix of personal reflection for the film, where his deep affection for “Horror Express” is obvious, combined with behind the scenes information that contextualizes the picture. For example, Peter Cushing very nearly dropped out of filming because his wife, the love of his life, had just passed away, but his good friend Lee, and an overwhelming sense of professionalism, compelled him forward. Looking at the scenes between Lee and Cushing through this lens, you can see the sense of camaraderie and friendship come through. Sure they’re adversarial characters going toe to toe, but on some level, they are also close friends trying to survive a terrible time together.

A new 13-minute interview with director Eugenio Martin covers a lot of ground in a relatively short time. He takes on everything from how the film came to be—the financier had a train left over from an earlier project, so they had to come up with ideas that used a train—to the opportunity for a young Spanish director to work with icons like Cushing and Lee, and what other works influenced his script.

A 2005 interview with producer Bernard Gordon is interesting for those of you looking for outsider history from Hollywood. He recounts his time as a young screenwriter on the verge of success—he wrote meaty roles for the likes of Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson—and how the talent guilds began to unionize. Listening to his personal anecdotes and stories about the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, and the ensuing blacklist, gives a perspective on those events that you don’t always come across.

In 1973, just after “Horror Express” was released, Peter Cushing did an interview, and here the audio track is superimposed over the film. While not exclusively about the “Horror Express”, the topic does come up often, and as a result of the juxtaposition, it serves as a de facto commentary track at times.

Rounding out the extras is an interview with composer John Cacavas. Just a few minutes long, Cacavas recounts his friendship with Telly Savalas: how they met, how Kojak helped him get into the film business, and even how the two collaborated to make Savalas’ musical aspirations a reality. Seriously, if you haven’t heard a Telly Savalas record, put down your computer and go find one. They’re amazing. They put Shatner’s records to shame. I don’t know if they top “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” by Nimoy, but it’s a tight race.

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