Horror Express (1972) Horror Express / Pánico en el Transiberiano (1972/1973) ***

     Let’s say it’s 1973, and you’re craving a film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” An official version exists in the form of The Thing, but that movie omits all the stuff that makes the story unique, leaving only an unusually tense monster rampage in an unusually hostile environment. True, you could get your fix of aliens impersonating humans from any of the dozens of pictures in the It Came from Outer Space-Invasion of the Body Snatchers tradition, but that would mean giving up on the setting— that frozen, wind-blasted hellscape in which there’s no realistic hope of summoning any effective aid from outside. There is one way to have it all, however, for although the Anglo-Spanish co-production Horror Express makes no mention of Campbell or his story anywhere in the credits, it was nevertheless the closest thing to a faithful “Who Goes There?” movie until John Carpenter made his version of The Thing a decade later.

     The year is 1906, and the Royal Geological Society has men in China digging up fossils. Exactly where in China is a matter of internal dispute, incidentally. The captions carried over from the Spanish-language prints say Szechuan, but the English-language voiceover from expedition leader Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) says Manchuria instead. Those places are about as far apart as it’s possible for two Chinese provinces to be. Wherever they were digging, though, the scientists made a hell of a find— the frozen, but otherwise almost perfectly preserved carcass of an unknown hominid which Saxton tentatively dates to some two million years ago.

     Saxton rushes to Beijing, where he books passage for himself and his paleontological bounty aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He’s extremely cagy about what’s in the giant crate— and with good reason, as it happens. Also booked on Saxton’s train are Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), a professional rival, and his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart). It wouldn’t do to have those two learn about Saxton’s find before he has a chance to publish on it. But the secrecy causes headaches for Saxton, too. First, both the stationmaster (Vicente Roca, from Night of the Skull and The Bloody Judge, functioning as a sort of Spanish Michael Ripper) and Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña, of Voodoo Black Exorcist and The Feast of Satan), the railway’s top cop, plainly suspect Saxton of smuggling, and the former is disinclined at first even to grant him his ticket. And while all that’s being sorted out, a notorious master lock-picker called Grashinsky (Hiroshi Kitatawa) tries to break into the specimen’s crate as it sits out on the baggage platform. Grashinsky’s attempted theft yields the damnedest results. When the baggage handlers find him shortly thereafter, he’s stone dead, but the only apparent injuries on him are to the corneas of his eyes, which look like they’ve been dipped in boiling water. As you might guess, that draws even more unwanted attention to the professor’s luggage, the most unwanted of all coming from a Rasputin wannabe by the name of Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and The People Who Own the Dark). Pujardov causes a huge scene on the platform by proclaiming that the Devil is at work in Saxton’s crate, and then “proves” it by demonstrating that the box will not permit the sign of the cross to be drawn on it. I imagine Saxton has never been so glad to get a railway journey underway in his life.

     Not that things settle down any once the train is rolling, mind you. Wells, Jones, and Mirov remain curious as ever, for one thing. For another, Father Pujardov is aboard, too, as part of the entourage of Count Maryan Petrovsky (George Rigaud, from Eyeball and Where Time Began) and his wife, Irina (Silvia Tortosa, of The Brother from Space and When the Screaming Stops). Their association with the demented holyman notwithstanding, Petrovsky is a scientist of sorts himself. His latest invention is a face-hardening process for steel that renders the metal as impenetrable as diamond. All the Great Powers would like to get their hands on that before Petrovsky has a chance to cut an exclusive deal for its industrial exploitation, and at least one of them has a spy (Helga Liné, of Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon and Horror Rises from the Tomb) on the train, trying to steal either the count’s formula or the sample of his new steel that he’s bringing westward with him. Then there’s Yevtushenko the engineer (Ángel del Pozo, from War Goddess and Assignment Terror), an inquisitive polymath whose wide-ranging curiosity and expertise are just the thing to annoy science-types who have stuff to hide. Ultimately, though, it’s a crooked baggage handler (Victor Israel, from Night of the Howling Beast and Hallucination Generation) who sets off the worst of the trouble. Like Grashinsky, he tries to break into Saxton’s crate, only he has the time, the tools, and the privacy to succeed. All he gets for the effort is the discovery that the formerly frozen anthropoid is not merely thawed now, but also alive and possessed of certain extraordinary abilities. When the creature seizes its unwitting liberator, it gazes into his eyes, causing the corneas to boil and their owner to die of some manner of stroke or seizure. Then the hominid picks the last lock on the box with a deftness that should be far beyond its capacity, stuffs its victim inside in its place, and closes the crate up with all the tidiness of someone well versed in how not to get caught stealing.

     The bag man is missed, of course, and Mirov’s search for him eventually turns up the body. Now Saxton has a lot of explaining to do— so much that he’s even willing to fall back on Dr. Wells for support. Wells and Jones perform an autopsy on the baggage handler, and discover that his cerebral cortex has somehow been wiped completely smooth. Putting their heads together with Saxton’s, the scientists speculate that the creature from the crate must be able to drain the human brain of all its memories— presumably by making eye contact, since the excess energy released by the transfer evidently cooks the victim’s corneas. If they’re right, that means the monster now has access to all the knowledge once possessed by both Grashinsky and the bag man, which goes some way toward explaining how it’s able to hide in the relatively confined and thickly populated environment of a transcontinental passenger train. Further killings follow, with Mirov always a step or two behind, until finally the inspector gets lucky enough to catch his prey in the act. Mirov guns the hominid down, and hands the remains over to Saxton, Wells, and Jones for further study.

     There’s just one problem with that pat solution. The creature’s mental-transfer abilities work both ways, so that it can shift its own consciousness to another body in addition to absorbing the contents of someone else’s mind. Indeed, as Wells and Jones dissect the carcass, they come to believe that the anthropoid itself was merely the vessel for something even more ancient and terrible, an extraterrestrial intelligence that fell to Earth at the dawn of creation and became trapped here. This incorporeal being would have commandeered one body after another through the eons, which means there’s no good reason to expect that it died with the ape-man. And indeed the brain-sucking, eye-boiling murders quickly begin again, with a pattern that seems more purposeful with each new victim. To all appearances, the thing from space is trying to amass the know-how necessary to create a means of leaving this planet. That might sound good on the face of things, since it suggests that the problem will eventually solve itself, but try telling that to any of the surprisingly numerous passengers on the train with a bit of training in mechanics, propulsion, metallurgy, or engineering, all of whose brains will be tempting targets in the meantime. Meanwhile, it’s obviously bad news that Father Pujardov has reevaluated his place in the spiritual scheme of things, and is now openly worshipping the elusive entity, even though he continues (not unreasonably, given his frame of reference) to identify it with Satan. I guess professional freelance mystics have to take their numinous inspiration wherever they can find it. And I’m betting it’s worse news still that Inspector Mirov has managed to be even more ineffectual in his pursuit of the monster ever since it revealed its capacity to body-hop. Rather makes one suspect it hopped into him. The passengers’ only real hope therefore comes from an odd quarter indeed. The conductor (House of the Damned’s Jose Jaspe) takes matters into his own hands shortly before he falls victim to the alien, and telegraphs an SOS to the next military outpost along the train’s route. The commander there— an eccentric Cossack captain by the name of Kazan (Telly Savalas, from House of Exorcism and Capricorn One)— is perhaps no one’s preferred rescuer (like most Cossack leaders, he draws only the loosest distinction between military service and banditry), but you know what they say about beggars and choosers.

     In order to get much out of Horror Express, it is necessary to turn a blind eye to some of the silliest B-movie pseudoscience of all time. The conflation of synapse pathways with the surface crenellations of the cerebral cortex is the most obvious scientific howler, but even it is really nothing beside the notion that the alien entity’s memories remain stored as recverable images within the vitreous humor of its hosts’ eyes. However, there’s an odd sort of logical consistency to the absurdities which this movie puts forward, so that they sound almost reasonable when expounded by arrogant Victorian science chappies like Saxton and Wells. Horror Express is thus a bit like The Asphyx, The Tingler, or some of the more outré H.G. Wells stories, insofar as it takes a flagrantly ludicrous premise, and proceeds from it in complete earnest. Mind you, it helps that we’re talking about Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing here. Those guys between them had some 30 man-years of experience in making nonsense, bullshit, and gobbledegook sound utterly convincing. Besides, it’s undeniably unsettling when Wells cuts open that first skull, and finds the brain inside smooth as a baby’s butt.

     All I knew going into Horror Express was that it involved a prehistoric monster running loose on a train. I therefore anticipated something like a cross between Murder on the Orient Express and “The Crate,” and that is indeed one of the things I got. But I was totally unprepared for that setup to blossom into a Victorian take on “Who Goes There?”, let alone one that incorporates a dark and brooding subtext about the lead-up to World War I. The Anglo-German arms race is hinted at by Petrovsky’s steel, and by all the intrigues surrounding it. Frictions between the various nationalities of passengers reflect the tensions among their respective governments. Russia’s dysfunctional social and political systems cast their shadows everywhere, from Mirov’s incompetence to the railway personnel’s appetite for theft and bribery, reaching their most sinister manifestations in Captain Kazan’s casual brutality and the superstitious madness of Father Pujardov. But the most damning comment on the looming international catastrophe may be read in the behavior of the alien entity itself. With each life the creature takes, it understands humanity a little bit better. And with each new dawn of understanding, it wants a little more badly to get the hell off of this rock, and to go back wherever it came from. Now at no point is there ever anything as overt and obvious as Klaatu’s parting speech on the Capitol Mall from The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the change in the alien’s demeanor after it absorbs the spy’s brain especially is telling. Earth wasn’t such a bad place to be stranded so long as it was just trilobites or dinosaurs, but this species is out of its damn mind! The all-out carnage of the final reel takes on a bleak poignancy when you realize that by that point, the only the thing the monster wants any longer is to escape from this doomed madhouse of a planet.

 

 

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