If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and just try stopping me!), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t have the benefit of VCRs (never mind digital recording) and, given that the gaps between transmission of individual films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.
Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s gaff. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC (Cinema Club seems to have been acquired at some point as an arm of BBC enterprises.) Trust Severin to do it right, with the best looking release in ages…
Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aks Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971’s El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)
By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social mores that conceal psychotic deviance which would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.
There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (actually all the impressive locations in this picture are Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board
the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.
Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in his 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981.)
Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)
This mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year.) The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check out of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!
By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propose of nothing in particular and horse whippng Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it’s quite a shock now to realise that his character doesn’t make his entry until well into its final third.
Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film – “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…
Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for the same year’s Pancho Villa, in which Martin had directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. There’s a wide-ranging 1973 audio interview with Cushing that can be played as an accompaniment to the film. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s a characteristically enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.
Mind the gap!