Monday, 6 March 2017

Aliens on a Train

So apparently there is a Horror Channel on Freeview - channel 70, if you're interested. I'd not encountered it before, and assumed it was one of those 'timeshare' channels, but it turns out they broadcast for almost all of the day. On Saturday night I came across it while channel flipping, just in time to see the start of a movie called 'Horror Express', and once I saw that it starred not only Christopher Lee but also Peter Cushing, I knew that I was on board for the long haul on this one.

Given the presence of Lee and Cushing, I initially assumed that it was a Hammer Films production - it's from 1972 and has that same brightly saturated Technicolor look to it, especially the vivid red substance they used for blood (I believe jokily known as 'Kensington Gore'). But in fact it turns out to be an Anglo-Spanish co-production, filmed in Madrid on a very tight budget with a Spanish director and largely Spanish cast - much cheaper at the time than filming in the UK. Yes, it's in effect a Spaghetti (or Paella) Horror movie.

The film starts with the discovery of a strange humanoid creature frozen in the ice in the Himalaya by a team of western explorers - more on this later - then quickly shifts to 1906 'Peking', where the usual mixed bag of characters are joining the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Among them is Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee), who has a mysterious crate he will not allow inspection of. A thief tries to break into the crate as it sits on the platform, and then is found dead, his eyes completely whited over. Dun-dun-duuuuun! Saxton's fellow travellers include British scientist Dr Wells (Cushing) and his bluestocking assistant Miss Jones; Count Marian Petrovsky and the beautiful Countess Irina - Petrovsky has invented some new kind of steel "harder than diamond"; a Rasputin-like Orthodox priest, Father Pujardov (who pronounces that the crate is 'evil'); and Natasha, a beautiful thief with her eyes on the Countess' jewellery. And so the stage is set for some Orient Express-style shenanigans on a train, but with a horror slant. Once the train is on the move, Cushing is curious about the box, and bribes a porter to break into it, and said man is also found dead with white eyes. The creature inside, bizarrely, picks the lock and gets out (there is a good reason for this - bear with me), and an inspector - who is on the train following thief Natasha - takes charge of the investigation.

And here is where the film segues from horror into science fiction, albeit hokey, bullshit, horror movie SF. An autopsy on the porter reveals his brain is completely smooth. Somehow the creature is draining people's brains (hence it gaining the ability to pick locks from the thief at the start). Also - it leaves somethng imprinted at the back of the eye - the last thing the person saw - this was a popular medieval trope, here there's a sort-of reason for it. When the creature is apparently shot dead by the police inspector, vistas of prehistoric Earth and even the Earth seen from space are seen etched on its retinas - as my companion sagely noted, the latter was something that would very much be in the public eye in the early 70s due to the Apollo moonshots. The old priest of course is convinced that this is Lucifer, not an alien, but that still doesn't quite explain why he throws his lot in with the creature. Meanwhile, after seeming to be dead, the creature swaps bodies - possessing the police inspector, and more running around ensues. The Count, Miss Jones and the beautiful thief all meet their various ends. And more - we come to start to understand the creature. It seems to be just trying to get home - in the guise of the Inspector it quizzes Lee about rocketry, it steals the secret of the hardened steel by absorbing the Count's mind, eventually it even tries to persuade Lee to help it, in return for advanced knowledge it can give him.

And then suddenly, Telly Savalas randomly appears as a comedy Cossack leader, boarding the train with his men, possibly because someone has telegraphed ahead, but the point is not made terribly clear. He drinks, he wenches, he chews the scenery and generally steals his scenes, and then within about five minutes he is swiftly killed by the creature and turned into a zombie (as are all of the other dead people - they really have thrown the kitchen sink at this plot). There's an ending involving decoupling the car with the survivors in and sending the train plummeting over a convenient gorge, but frankly after Telly dies, it's all anti-climax.

So how to sum up this unexpected discovery? It's not that bad - hokey at times but entertainingly watchable in a late night horror movie kind of way - exactly right for the slot the Horror Channel put it in. The beautiful countess and femme fatale are beautiful, Cushing and Lee play it completely straight as always and are their usual impeccable selves, and aside from some bad dubbing over the Spanish extras and the random Telly Savalas cameo, it could basically be any Hammer film of the 60s and 70s. Savalas was here at the height of his bankability; just post- his major film roles like 'Kelly's Heroes' and 'The Dirty Dozen', but just pre-Kojak, so quite a big name to have secured, albeit for a bit part. Both Savalas and the locomotive and train car set were, it seems, borrowed from 'Pancho Villa', which was just about to start shooting at the same studio.

But what really interested me was the whole 'alien dug out of the ice, goes on a rampage but is actually trying to get home' element. This plotline first appeared in 1931 in the pioneering novella by SF-horror maestro H.P. Lovecraft: 'At The Mountains of Madness'. This then led pulp writer John W. Campbell to write his own 'alien spacecraft trapped in the ice' story 'Who Goes There?' in 1938, which became filmed in 1951 at the height of American UFO panic as 'The Thing From Another World', and which itself was then remade in 1982 as 'The Thing', directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell. Ridley Scott's 2012 Prometheus is also arguably based on the same ur-plotline (it was cited by Spanish director Guillermo del Toro as the reason he abandoned his own simultaneous attempt to film At The Mountains of Madness). That there should have been another movie inspired, albeit obliquely, by the same plot, is a delightful find. The fact that the horror has a scientific element to it in Horror Express makes the film more interesting than just a simple revenant on a train, and that science element is reminiscent of a couple of other Hammer films like the 1967 oddity Night of the Big Heat (also starring Lee and  Cushing). All told, it's an interesting curio, and worth watching if it ever comes by again.

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