Posts Tagged With: Peter Cushing

My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), 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 yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain 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.

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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 place. 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. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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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 aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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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 concealing psychotic deviance that 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.

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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 (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually 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.

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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 Fulci’s 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).

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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.)

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His 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 off 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!

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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 propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping 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 came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s final third.

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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…

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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 Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. 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 an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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Anyone Who Had A Heart… TALES FROM THE CRYPT reviewed

“Ooh, Mister Grimsdyke!”

Blu-ray. Region B. Final Cut. 15.

Although Amicus got their series of portmanteau horror epics off to a barnstorming start with Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), its immediate successors – Torture Garden (1967) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971) – were patchy affairs. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg subsequently cemented their place in the Horror Hall Of Fame though with the holy trinity of Asylum, Tales From The Crypt (both 1972) and Vault Of Horror (1973.) TFTC is a perennial personal favourite here at The House Of Freudstein, so just imagine the scene of jubilation on Christmas morning when it transpired that, among the copious goodies Santa had deposited from his bulging sack, was the new Final Cut BD of this seminal effort (sorry, I just interviewed Julian Clary’s gag writer and I think something has, er, rubbed off.)

For this one the Amicus boys recalled Francis as director but, having exhausted the prolific pen of Robert Bloch in their previous efforts, turned to the blood drenched pages of EC’s notorious, suppressed comics for inspiration, adapted its five vignettes from stories by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig that had featured in EC’s Tales From The Crypt and its sister publication The Vault Of Horror. The cod moralising of these comics was perfectly suited to the evolving ethos of Amicus…whereas Dr Terror had dished out terror, horror and ultimately death in indiscriminate style (Christopher Lee’s vindictive art critic deserved all he got, arguably Roy Castle’s voodoo profaning trumpeter too, but it’s difficult to see what Neil McCallum, Alan “Fluff” Freeman and Donald Sutherland had done to merit their respective fates, apart from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time), there had been an accelerating trend in subsequent cycle entries towards poetic justice, allowing viewers to revel in the grisly demise of a screen character, with the comfort of clear consciences because the bastard had it coming!

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Despite the warnings of tour guide (Amicus regular Geoffrey Bayldon) against “losing their way”, the usual motley crew of misfits wander off while checking out some underground catacombs, seemingly bored by his tales of religious intolerance and persecution. The stories they share, when confronted by a sinister robed figure (the casting of Sir Ralph Richardson as The Crypt Keeper stands as a coup that would only be topped when Bob Guccione signed up his mate John Gielgud for Tinto Brass’s big budget wankfest biopic of Caligula, 1979) reveal them as rather more petty exemplars of man’s eternal inhumanity to man, though admittedly each gets paid out in boffo style. Joan Collins celebrates Christmas Eve by bashing out her boring husband’s brains with a poker (maybe he didn’t get her the horror Blu-ray she asked for), warning her daughter not to come downstairs because Santa’s on his way… and he obligingly arrives in the shape of an escaped homicidal maniac, whom the kid (Chloe Franks, Christopher Lee’s witchy daughter in The House That Dripped Blood) gleefully lets in at the patio door; Ian Hendry bails on his wife and kid to do a runner with sexy mistress Angie Grant, only to end up in one of those endlessly looping “phew, it was all a dream / oh shit, no it wasn’t” nightmares of RTAs and walking death; a pair of property value-obsessed proto-yuppies drive kindly old bin man Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) to suicide on Valentine’s day, which improves the tone of the neighbourhood but leads to a vengeful visit from his shambling corpse on February 14th the following year; Barbara Murray wishes for a financial upturn on a magic jade stature (“It’s just like that old story, The Monkey’s Paw” observes another character, helpfully) and inadvertently condemns her husband, ruthless industrialist Richard Greene, to an eternity of agony (cineastes might care to play “Spot the Cocteau quote” during this story); finally, in the longest episode, retired military man Nigel Patrick becomes the governor of an institution for blind men and systematically raids its budget so that he can lead the high life while they freeze and starve. Patrick Magee, riveting as ever, leads an improbable but satisfying insurrection involving a razor-lined rat run (difficult to imagine the old blind boys constructing this without inflicting some nasty injuries on themselves and each other), the Major’s Alsation, starved into a feral state and… lights out! The moral of this story? Never say: “Can’t you see I’m having my lunch?” to a blind dude… Predictably, The Crypt Keeper reveals that all of them have actually perpetrated the respective desperate deeds described above, before consigning them to a fiery abyss and admonishing us not to end up like them. Sure thing, Sir John.

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At this point in the Amicus portmanteau cycle, things were getting distinctly gory, in fact the more visceral details of Greene’s never ending death throes (twitching intestines, severed hand wandering around his coffin…) were cut from versions broadcast on TV until very recently. It’s notable that the accelerating emphasis in these films on dishing out just desserts (the Cushing segment is even entitled “Poetic Justice”, fer Chrissakes) arrives, in this EC adaptation, at an increasing identification of the bad guys with rapacious capitalism, making you wonder if the banning of the original comics in the States during the mid-50s had more to do with this critique of The American Way than with any alleged tendency to inspire juvenile delinquency or whatever. Developing this theme further, the following year’s Vault Of Horror would trap its story tellers in the basement of a shi shi city office block, after its titles have played out over footage of the palace of Westminster. There’s no crypt keeper (or vault… bloke) in that one, but it’s even easier in 2016 than it was in the early ’70s to work out who the real bad guys are.

Final Cut have effected a top transfer of this mini classic, allowing the viewer (this one, certainly) to relish the curves of Barbara Murray’s magnificent bosom in all their HD glory… just don’t rely on her to come up with any good wishes next time you’re rubbing your monkey paw, OK? And while we’re pondering the Jason family’s little predicament, why exactly were Richard Greene’s veins full of enbalming fluid the instant before he died of a heart attack? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan’s threatened TFTC TV reboot will clear that one up? Or maybe not…

Bonus materials comprise a stills gallery and Tales From The Amicus Crypt, a watchable 36 minute appreciation from talking heads such as Jonathan Rigby, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Chibnall and Kevin Lyons. I haven’t seen Kevin for years… nor, indeed my copy of Martin Barker’s Video Nasties book.

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BD SleeveScream Carl, Scream! copy

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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