Monday, August 4, 2008
#42: Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973)
They don't make movies like this anymore. They should. The late 1960s and early 1970s were stuffed with Eurotrash gems like Horror Express. Ridiculous B-movie international co-productions filled with major character actors and featuring budgets large enough to make things work but not large enough to smother everything with professionalism.
Horror Express, a Spanish/British co-production that existed solely as a reason for a wealthy movie producer to re-use an expensive full-size model train set he built for a previous film, stars the great British character actors (and good friends in real life) Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The two men made many films together until Cushing's retirement in the 1980s. Usually, Lee played a deranged psychopath, lascivious man of the world, suave villain, or comic foil, while Cushing portrayed the uptight British gentleman. They switch roles here, with Lee as an uptight, humorless anthropologist and Cushing as a goodtimes-loving doctor with a very dry British wit.
The film opens in Szechuan, China in 1906. Lee finds an apeman frozen in a cave that just may be the Missing Link. He decides to box it up and take it back with him. He meets fellow Brit Cushing at the train station in Shanghai, if you trust the dialogue, and Peking, if you trust a title card on the screen. At the train station, a pickpocket who tries to open Lee's crate mysteriously winds up dead, his eyeballs completely white. A Rasputin lookalike and priest traveling with a Russian count and countess declares the crate Satanic. Lee thinks the holy man is a doofus. In most horror movies, the scientists are always wrong. Horror Express plays both sides up the middle. Lee should have left the apeman alone and not meddled with the darker side of science, but Rasputin Jr. is later revealed to be an opportunistic charlatan. So far, science and the supernatural are even. The film also takes a decidedly pro-evolution stance. I particularly enjoyed Christopher Lee's retort to the Countess when she declares evolution immoral. "It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact." He says this with withering disdain.
Once our Trans-Siberian express train gets rolling, things progress as you might expect, and then get really weird. I'm going to give away some spoilers, so if you want to watch this movie with an unmolested brain, jump ship here (I'm mixing my transportation metaphors). The apeman thaws, gets out of the crate, and starts messing people up. I'm sure you expected that to happen. Otherwise the movie would have been called The Express Train that Carried its Cargo Safely to its Destination. Unlike most apemen, however, this beast's eyes turn red, and he kills people just by looking at them. When Cushing performs his autopsies, he discovers that the victims' brains are as smooth as the music of Michael McDonald, that is, completely free of gyri and sulci. The cortex is wrinkle-free. Turns out, the apeman is absorbing the contents of his victims' brains through their eyeballs. With each victim, he gains a fresh brainful of knowledge. Cushing and Lee soon reach the conclusion that the apeman is just a host body for the actual creature doing the brain-sucking. They speculate that the creature can jump from host to host when the host body wears out. They are correct in their speculations. Plot developments then become extremely strange. The Rasputin lookalike starts whining about Satan a lot and glowering ominously. The Russian count has invented a steel that can never be destroyed, and another female passenger is an international spy who intends to steal the secrets of the steel. Steal/steel? Get it? Soon, the Missing Link has been gunned down, and Cushing and Lee are able to snag one of his eyeballs before the host jumps into another body. They take a tissue sample from the eye and look at it under a microscope. The tissue shows actual moving images of the last person the Link de-brained. They take more samples and see images from pre-history, including dinosaurs. Then, the final tissue sample reveals an image of Earth from outer space. So our killer is a parasitic alien who is possibly Satanic and was last seen in the body of the Missing Link. Got it?
When you think it can't get any weirder, Telly freakin' Savalas shows up as the leader of a group of Cossack rebels who attempt to hijack the train! Savalas hams it up big-time. He answers a question from one of the train's passengers by removing a shot glass of liquor from his coat, gargling with the booze, and then tossing the glass away violently. Then, he speaks. Like most Cossacks, he has a heavy New York accent. "Who? Whooooo are da trouble-makahs?" he says.
Then, the victims of the parasitic alien thing come back to life as zombies. You can't make this stuff up!
Savalas fact: Telly Savalas lived most of his adult life in the Sheraton in downtown Los Angeles. Seriously. They named the hotel bar Telly's. He claimed he enjoyed living in a hotel because he was often out of town making movies, and when he was back in town, he wanted a hotel maid to clean up his mess while he drank in a hotel bar. He admitted that his children eventually grew tired of living in a hotel.