THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Horror Express” (1972)

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Yeah, yeah, I know: It’s not Saturday. I decided a while ago to stop running content on weekends since no one ever reads it, and around the same time I started running these kinds of movie reviews as simply “B-Movie Crapfest,” but that just didn’t really roll of the mental tongue in the same psychologically sonorous way the longer name does, thus I’ve decided not to be constrained by an overly-literal reading of the concept.

For those of you new to the game, this feature is dedicated to reviewing the kinds of movies that used to run on UHF channels all through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, up until the time that MST3K and the Fox Network more-or-less acting independently killed the Saturday Afternoon Creature Feature phenomenon. If you grew up in a town that had these things, there was a surprising range of qualities from these things, ranging from utterly incompetent “My friends and I got us a camera and I betcha’ we’uns could make us a movie” on up through extravagant and stunning foreign films like Baron Prasil, with no end of Japanese Rubber Suit Monsters and horror flicks in between. There was generally no quality control on these series, and frequently little censorship: As far as the UHF stations were concerned, it was this or run dead air for a couple hours, so the only criteria was that a film had to be cheap to air, and theoretically scary.

I kind of cut my eye teeth on these things, many of which I’ve never seen or heard about since, but I’m trying to preserve the feel of these things here. So when I’m saying “Saturday Afternoon B-Movie Crapfest,” I’m not literally talking about a day on the calendar, I’m talking about the “Saturday Afternoon B-Movie Crapfest” of the Soul. *

PLAY BY PLAY

It’s Siberia in 1906, and Christopher Lee found a frozen protohuman in a cave. He’s shipping it out in a train. It’s never named, but since it’s heading west, let’s call it “The Occident Express.” While attempting to load it, a criminal tries to rob the crate, and is found dead, his eyes creepily white. Lee is something of a wad, and refuses to answer any questions about the death, even after a mad monk (Trendy in the Edwardian age) warns that the box is evil, and Satan is afoot.

On the train, we’re introduced to the standard Agatha Christie entourage: The Polish baron and his hot trophy wife, Peter Cushing, a mysterious woman who stowed away on the train, a geeky engineer who won’t stop playing (Chess) with himself, and who falls all over said mysterious woman when she asks him for help. (Don’t need to be Freud to figure that one out), a science nun, a cop, and the train engineer. They head off on their way.

Cushing unwisely bribes the baggage handler to peek into Lee’s crate, and a monster comes out and kills the guy - again with the white eyes - and stuffs him in the crate. After this, we have your basic ten-little-Indians scenario much like you have in Alien or It: The Terror From Beyond Space. Cushing and Lee, meanwhile, attempt to figure out what’s going on. Autopsying the various victims, they discover their brains are smooth as a schmoo, and interpret this to mean they’ve been sucked dry of all knowledge. Their eyes are white because they’ve been boiled.

Guards on the train kill the monster, but before it kacks, it downloads its conciousness into the cop. The Monk figures this out quickly, and concludes that the thing possessing the cop is the devil. Unexpectedly - and very creepily - he changes sides, and he’s all ‘rah rah rah Satan sis boom bah’ from this point on. (It is genuinely icky, and the movie engages in some wildly blasphemous stuff at this point). Meanwhile, in a scene that basically defines both hokey science and hokey special effects, Lee and Cushing realize that the monster is from outer space. It’s a neat reveal, badly done.

Since the movie lacks a third act, the train stops at a station and picks up Telly Savalas and some Cossacks. These terrorize the people on the train for no good reason, and the cop is outed as the devil, or whatever. Higgaldy piggadly ensues, with Telly and the rest dead. Lee confronts the beastie who says that he’s an alien who got trapped on earth a kerjillion years ago, and has been hopping from body to body for hundreds of millions of years, retaining the memories of all his hosts. Lee won’t shoot him because he really wants that kind of knowledge, being a basically amoral scientist and all.

When it looks like he’s losing that argument, the alien resurrects all the dead on the train, and we go into Zombie movie territory. Lee and Cushing disconnect the baggage car, the engine and the rest of the train go over a cliff, and the monster and zombies are apparently now really dead.

The End.

*- For new people, that was intended as a joke.

OBSERVATIONS

I’d only seen this movie once, around 1980 while visiting relatives. It haunted me, though I couldn’t remember why. Obviously, in retrospect, it must’ve been the Monk who is super-creepy to begin, and openly satanic in the end. His motivations are not entirely clear, but I think we’re supposed to believe that he changed teams for the love of the baroness. Either that, or he was simply in the evil closet all along, and meeting the devil made him Out N’ Proud.

There’s some underwhelming performances here, but Lee is quite literally amoral. He flat out doesn’t care if people die or not, though he admits he probably should. Telly Savalas is pretty great as a Cossack badass who literally oozes with menace, and gets in a few great scenes, even though he’s little more than extended cameo in the film.

The setting is great, claustrophobic and moody, and I find myself wondering why, if this local is so widely used in detective stories, it hasn’t been used more often in horror. There was a nice contrast between the staid Brits, the Polish nobles, and the utterly brutish officials. My favorite scene in the movie is when the cop asks Lee for his key. Lee refuses, so the cop motions for his guards to step in and threaten him. Now, in a modern movie, they’d grab him, or pull a gun, or shake a gun, or maybe punch him and then do one of the above. In this movie, a guard with a rifle stands in front of him, holds the rifle over his shoulder, barrel pointing backwards, and the butt clearly aimed at Lee’s face. WOW! He’s gonna’ rifle-butt the guy, and probably break his jaw and knock out some teeth. How intimidating is that?

The reveal that the monster is an alien is interesting, and a nice twist.

The Monster’s own motivations are this: It was stranded here, and is trying to get home. As the cop, it learns the Polish duke is traveling to England to patent a new super-hard, temperature resistant metal. He learns from the engineer of Konstantin Tsiolokovsky ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky
) and basically intends to build a rocket to escape earth. It’s not a great plan, really.

Baroness: “I’ll have you sent to Siberia!”
Savala: “I’m already in Siberia!”

It’s never entirely clear why the train picks up the Cossacks or why it’s shifted on to a dead-end track at the end. Obviously there’s communications between the train and the outside world (Via telegraph), but there’s no scenes of anyone on the train sending messages. It might be that the Cossacks are intended to contain the situation on the train, or maybe not. Likewise, there’s no explanation as to why Moscow abruptly orders the station folk to switch track. The station folk speculate there might be a war, rather abruptly, and I was so confused by this that I actually hunted around for a bit to see if there was some major historic even that year this might have been an elliptical reference to, but, nope, just a deus ex telegraphica.

Still and all I enjoyed seeing it again.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVE?

No, no, absolutely not. There’s some nasty blasphemous satanic stuff in here. If you're Russian Orthodox, it's even worse. Stay away!

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