Horror Express AKA Panic on the Trans-Siberian Train AKA Pánico en el Transiberiano (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (17th February 2019).
The Film

Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1972)

Synopsis: Manchuria, 1906. Leading an expedition of the Royal Geological Society, Professor Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovers a fossilised bipedal creature in a cave. Saxton has the creature placed in a crate and prepares to transfer it by land via the Trans-Siberian Express. Whilst trying to board the train in Shanghai, Saxton encounters Dr Wells (Peter Cushing), a British scientist, and his American assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart), a bacteriologist.

At the station in Shanghai, a thief tries to open Saxton’s crate but is soon discovered dead, his eyes having turned completely white. A Rasputin-like monk, Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), asserts that the death of the thief is ‘the work of the devil’. Pujardov is traveling with Count Maryan Petrovska (George Rigaud) and his wife, Countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa).

On the train, Wells asks the baggage handler (Victor Israel) in the luggage compartment to drill a hole in Saxton’s crate and take a look inside it. Meanwhile, a woman, Natasha (Helga Line), approaches Wells and Saxton and asks to share their compartment, telling them that she has no ticket. In reality, Natasha is a thief whose intention is to steal the secret formula for a new alloy that the Count is transporting.

The creature in the crate has begun to stir, and following Wells’ orders to open the crate and take a look inside, the baggage handler accidentally releases the creature. The creature gazes at the baggage handler with glowing red eyes, and the baggage handler drops dead, haemorrhaging from his eye sockets and his eyeballs now purest white.

The baggage handler’s body is discovered and a policeman, Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena), who is on board the train investigates the death. He mocks Saxton’s suggestion that the fossil in the crate has somehow come alive and killed the baggage handler. However, when more bodies begin to turn up, also haemorrhaging from their eyes and their irises and pupils now bleached white, Mirov begins to suspect something unusual is afoot. However, during the course of his investigation Mirov comes into fatal contact with the creature, wounding it severely. With its fiery red eyes, the creature places Mirov into a trance and transfers its consciousness into his body. The remaining travellers are now placed in grave danger, something which is compounded when a team of Cossacks led by Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas) board the train.

Critique: One of the great pleasures of Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express is watching the interactions between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, united outside of their pairings in Hammer’s horror pictures; in their first encounter within the film’s narrative, Cushing’s Dr Wells greets Lee’s Professor Saxton with an ebullient, ‘Well, well, look who’s here!’ Though Horror Express isn’t a Hammer picture, it mimics the paradigms of Hammer’s horror films, placing Cushing and Lee alongside Telly Savalas – in a role that amounts to little more than an extended cameo but which nevertheless is utterly memorable – and numerous recognisable players from Euro-cult pictures, such as Helga Line and Angel del Pozo. The film takes some of the elements of contemporaneous Hammer horror films – including some spectacularly grisly impromptu brain surgery – and mixes this up with some of the fascinations of more outre European horror films of the period, adding a dash of Lovecraftian horror and exploiting the claustrophobia of the train setting to great effect. If Horror Express were to be pitched in a Hollyweird manner, it would almost certainly be described as ‘Hammer horror meets Lovecraft meets Murder on the Orient Express’.

With its monster that can assimilate the memories and identities of its victims and transfer itself into different ‘hosts’, Horror Express hits many of the same beats as John Carpenter’s later The Thing (1982) and may very well have been influenced by the novella on which Carpenter’s picture was based, John W Campbell Jr’s ‘Who Goes There?’ Like The Thing, the creature in Horror Express is revealed to be an alien intelligence that came to Earth two million years previously (at least according to Professor Saxton’s estimate) and is discovered in a fossil that is revealed to be a host (rather than the body of the creature itself). Like the Blair-Thing in The Thing, the creature in Horror Express seems desperate to escape from Earth, seeing in the Count’s formula for a new heat resistant alloy an opportunity to build a spaceship that will allow it to achieve this. Like Blair’s (Wilford Brimley) observation in The Thing that ‘It [the creature] needs to be alone and in close proximity with the life-form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the dark’, Saxton advises Mirov, ‘I suggest you tell all these people to stay together, in groups or in pairs, so that if something does happen, someone can raise the alarm. On no account must anybody be left alone’. This revelation leads to a moment at the film’s climax when the creature manages to knock out the lights on the train; reasoning that the creature can’t use its eyes to kill unless it is in the dark, Saxton and Wells use storm lamps to light their way in their confrontation with the creature. (‘He always kills in the dark’, Saxton tells Wells, ‘He can’t play his little tricks in strong light’.) Also as in The Thing, the creature in Horror Express could be likened to a virus/infection or perhaps an ideology, spreading and taking over its victims without altering their outward appearance. Interestingly, along this line of thought, the creature – an alien being which has used science to travel to Earth, perhaps landing on this planet through accident rather than design – refuses to take over Pujardov or to assimilate his memories and learning, presumably as much because Pujardov is a man of ‘irrational’ religion as because Pujardov is insane.

‘Whatever you have here is unholy and must be destroyed’, Pujardov states in reference to the thing in the crate, after the thief in the train station has been found dead. He demonstrates its unholy nature by attempting to draw a cross on the crate with chalk, but no marks are made. Saxton dismisses this as ‘Rubbish. A conjurer’s trick’, and given the fact that the creature is later revealed to be an alien intelligence rather than the unholy creature from hell that Pujardov claims it to be, Saxton would seem to be proved correct. The juxtaposition between religion and science is compounded when Saxton speaks with the Countess and talks about evolution. ‘I’ve heard of evolution. It’s immoral!’, the Countess asserts. ‘It’s a fact, madam’, Saxton responds coldly, ‘and there’s no morality in a fact’.

Through scientific investigation, Wells, Saxton and Jones reach a conclusion about the creature: that it came to Earth and transferred its consciousness into many successions of Earth creatures before becoming fossilised in the bipedal organism found by Saxton in the cave. Their first clue comes when Wells draws a connection between the bleached eyeballs of the victims and the eyeballs of a boiled fish he is served in the dining car. Wells decides to enlist Miss Jones’ help in examining the brains of the victims. Upon opening the victims’ skulls, Wells finds their brains completely smooth. (‘Learning and memory are engraved on a normal brain, leaving a wrinkled surface. This brain has been drained. The memory has been removed, like chalk erased from a blackboard’.) Reasoning that learning and experience is written into the folds within the human brain, Wells reaches the conclusion that contact with the creature has led to the creature absorbing the memories and experiences of its victims through their eyeballs. ‘Suppose that creature, the one you killed, was capable of taking ideas directly from other people’s brains and transferring them to its own’, Wells tells Mirov, unaware that Mirov is already host to the creature. ‘You mean it sucked other people’s brains?’, Mirov asks. ‘Absorbed’, Wells responds. ‘Through the eyes’.

Wells, Saxton and Jones inspect the eyeball of the dead creature, dissecting it and placing the tissue under a microscope. Through the microscope, they see the image of Mirov, his gun readied; Wells reasons that this was ‘the last thing the creature saw. The image has been retained in the fluid’. Looking at further tissue samples from the eyeball, they see a succession of images: a brontosaurus, a pterodactyl and the Earth, as seen from space. Saxton suggests that ‘The creature’s visual memory was not contained in the brain but in the eye itself’, and reasons that the creature must have travelled to Earth in a spacecraft of some sort. Reinforcing the film’s almost didactic opposition between science and faith, Pujardov and witnesses the discussion taking place; he asserts vehemently that in order to have seen the Earth from space, the creature must be Satan himself. Pujardov steals the eyeball and hides in the luggage car where he witnesses Mirov killing Miss Jones (in the same manner in which the creature has previously killed its victims – by causing her to haemorrhage from her eye sockets). Pujardov presents the creature’s eyeball to Mirov, who burns it. Pujardov meekly asks, ‘Are you going to kill me?’ ‘Fool’, Mirov mocks, mocking Pujardov’s recourse to religious rhetoric, ‘There’s nothing in your head of any use’.

The film begins with a staid narration by Saxton which presents the story as a factual account – like the found manuscript trope within early examples of the Gothic novel (eg, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, 1764). ‘The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned, Alexander Saxton, is a true and faithful account of events that befell the society’s expedition in Manchuria’, he intones. In Shanghai, the differences between Saxton and Wells are delineated swiftly when both men attempt to persuade an official to allow them to board the Trans-Siberian Express. Wells bribes the conductor for a place on the train, telling Saxton, ‘It’s called “squeeze” in China’. ‘And in Britain, we call it bribery and corruption’, Saxton responds sharply. By contrast, Saxton uses his connections with the authorities to strongarm a place on the train. Both Saxton and Wells are English – but both use different methods to achieve their aims, Wells adopting to local customs and Saxton using imperial might. The film makes much reference to the stereotypical Englishness of Saxton and Wells, using this for comic purposes. ‘Oh, yes. England’, the Countess observes when she discovers that Saxton and Wells are English, ‘Queen Victoria, crumpets, Shakespeare’.

Cushing and Lee’s dialogue is wonderfully dry and feels very much as if it were improvised by the actors. In one of the film’s most well-remembered exchanges, Mirov is alone with Saxton and seemingly about to pounce when Wells interrupts. Mirov observes that Saxton and Wells are functioning as a pair and observes, ‘Two of you together? That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?’ An appalled Wells responds sharply: ‘Monster?! But we’re British you know!’ At another point, when Wells decides to examine the brains of the victims, he asks for Miss Jones’ help: ‘Miss Jones, I shall need your assistance’, he tells her. Having noticed Wells’ subtle flirtations with Natasha, Miss Jones misinterprets his remark: ‘Well, at your age, I’m not surprised’, she responds. ‘With an autopsy!’, an appalled Wells asserts. Aside from these moments of humour and the Lovecraftian suggestion of a cosmic horror, towards its climax Horror Express also manages to draw on the popularity of zombie pictures post-George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1969): towards the end of the film, the cornered creature manages to resurrect the dead, leading to a grisly confrontation between the remaining travellers on the train and the corpses of the creature’s victims.





Video

Taking up slightly under 24Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, Arrow Video’s presentation of Horror Express is in 1080p and uses the AVC codec.

The film is uncut, with a running time of 87:46 mins. Presented in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1, Arrow’s presentation of Horror Express is billed as being based on a ‘brand new 2k restoration from original film elements’. The nature of these elements is unclear, but this high-def digital presentation of the film’s 35mm colour photography is nevertheless excellent, easily eclipsing the previous US Blu-ray release from Severin Films. (Some full-sized screengrabs comparing the two releases are included at the bottom of this review.) Onscreen text is in Spanish.

In comparison with Severin’s Blu-ray release, skin tones are much more natural on Arrow’s presentation, veering less towards hot reds, and detail is also significantly improved. The film’s photography features an interesting use of colour: most of the picture is dominated by earthy browns/greens/greys, but there are bursts of colour (golds and reds) associated with scenes which feature figures of power and authority (the Count and Countess; the Cossacks led by Captain Kazan). This is communicated excellently on this Blu-ray release. Low light scenes, of which there are plenty, fare very well, with excellently balanced contrast. Midtones are rich and defined and there is pleasingly subtle gradation into the toe. Blacks are rich and deep. Highlights are even and balanced. It’s a rich presentation with a strong sense to the image. The materials are for the most part in excellent shape though there’s a slight moment of judder/gate weave at 53 minutes into the picture and a few shots that seem to be patched in from a slightly lesser source. Finally, a very strong encode to disc ensures the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film.



Some large screengrabs comparing Arrow’s presentation with that of the Severin Blu-ray can be found at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented in English via a LPCM 1.0 track. This has depth and range, and dialogue is always audible. John Cacavas’ main theme for the film is used cleverly, both non-diegetically and diegetically – whistled by the baggage guard and played by the Countess on a piano. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An optional introduction by Chris Alexander (6:50). Originally included on Severin’s Blu-ray release of Horror Express, this introduction sees the editor of Fangoria reflecting on his enjoyment of the film.

- An audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. Newman and Jones provide a typically excellent commentary track. It’s densely-packed with information and the two commentators play off one another excellently. They talk about the manner in which Horror Express combines the tropes of a number of genres and talk about its production and distribution history. They praise the interplay between Cushing and Lee, and reflect on the contributions of some of the other cast members.

- ‘Ticket to Die’ (8:31). Steve Haberman, a filmmaker in his own right, begins by situating the changes in horror movies during the 1960s and early 1970s within their social context. (The frames of reference he provides are predominantly American, however, which has questionable relevance – direct, at least – for Horror Express.) Haberman discusses Eugenio Martin’s craft and the importance of the casting in carrying the picture, and he reflects on the reception of the film.

- ‘Night Train to Nowhere’ (15:08). Filmmaker Ted Newsom discusses Horror Express through the lens of his relationship with the film’s blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon, a friend of Newsom’s.

- ‘Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express’ (14:03)
. Ported over from Severin’s Blu-ray release, this interview with Eugenio Martin sees the director reflecting on the origins and evolution of Horror Express. He describes the picture as ‘a sort of cocktail’, mixing disparate elements – science-fiction, horror, adventure, comedy.

- ‘Notes from the Blacklist’ (30:30)
. Recorded in 2005 and previously seen on Severin’s Blu-ray release, this interview with Bernard Gordon, the producer of Horror Express, features Gordon reflecting on the HUAC and its impact on filmmaking.

- ‘Telly and Me’ (8:09)
. In another interview ported over from the Severin disc, John Cacavas discusses the music he composed for Horror Express. He begins by reflecting on his career and his friendship with Telly Savalas, with whom he worked on a number of projects.

- Trailer (2:57)
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Overall

A staple of late night television in the 1980s, Horror Express is Grand Guignol of the highest order, the train setting conveying a strong sense of claustrophobia. As noted in the extra features for this Blu-ray release, the film offers a melange of genres: part-Hammer-esque horror picture, part-Lovecraftian cosmic horror story, part-science fiction, part-whodunit, Horror Express offers a unique formula and is hugely entertaining because of it. Interestingly, the film hits many similar beats to John Carpenter’s later, Lovecraftian The Thing, and one might wonder whether or not John W Campbell Jr’s novella ‘Who Goes There?’, the literary source for The Thing, was an influence here too. The story is supported through some superb performances – the interplay between Cushing and Lee is beautiful here and on par with their best work together – and many of these are arguably upstaged by Telly Savalas’ brief but highly memorable role as Captain Kazan, the ‘one good Cossack’ who has the cojones to confront the creature directly.

Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release of Horror Express contains a superb new presentation of the film which easily surpasses previous home video releases of this title. The main feature is supported on the disc by some excellent contextual material, including a superb audio commentary by critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, a featurette about the film’s blacklisted producer, Bernard Gordon, by filmmaker Ted Newsome, and interviews with director Eugenio Martin and composer John Cacavas. For horror fans, this is arguably one of the releases of the year.

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