It’s a spooky, snowy train ride across thousands of miles of Siberian rails — trapped on board with a victim-possessing creature from outer space, with eyes that kill! Actually, ‘Pánico en el transiberiano’ is a fine show for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, a Spanish-made chiller with a smart script and some effective shocks.
1972 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date February 12, 2019 / Available from Arrow Video
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné.
Cinematography: Alejandro Ulloa
Original Music: John Cacavas
Written by Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet
Produced by Bernard Gordon
Directed by Eugenio Martín
Dedicated horror fans look to the past to uncover forgotten chillers, or just to complete their lists of rare items unseen. For instance, although no release date has been given, we’re told that Kino Lorber will be giving us Victor Halperin’s 1933 film Supernatural, starring Carole Lombard. Although it hasn’t the best reputation, it’s one I’ve never seen, and its original poster is a beauty.
One happy discovery for many fans is 1972’s Horror Express (Pánico en el transiberiano), which circulated on double bills in the middle 1970s; I remember catching it at the old Fairfax Theater, with Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive. Fans looking to see everything by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee found it a bright spot amid less rewarding attractions: Nothing but the Night, From Beyond the Grave. A hybrid Eurohorror, Pánico was produced by an ex-pat American and directed by an ambitious Spaniard. They cast their picture very smartly — Telly Savalas takes a showy role as a domineering Cossack soldier.
More than a few American actors and writers ended up in European production, sometimes to avoid the blacklist but more often because they found themselves to be more marketable in Rome or Madrid. Actor Mel Welles built a minor career as a director. When actor/writer Mickey Knox tried producing, he discovered a new world of shaky financing and unenforceable showbiz contracts. Years earlier, producer Sidney Pink relocated to Denmark to make a pair of fantasy films more cheaply than he could in Hollywood. Later in the decade he enjoyed a string of successes in Spain.
The blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon worked in Spain as well, writing for producers Samuel Bronston and Philip Yordan. A decade later he produced a trio of films with Eugenio Martín, a competent director who had filmed second unit for Luis Buñuel on Tristana. Horror Express is the best remembered of the three. Gordon hired a fellow blacklistee, Julian Halevy, to help pen the script. Halevy’s real name was Julian Zimet, but the blacklist prevented him from using it when he wrote Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn, Henry Hathaway’s Circus World and Andrew Marton’s Crack in the World, films produced in Mexico, Spain and England. François Truffaut said that The Naked Dawn was the formative basis for his own Jules and Jim, but the kudos went to director Edgar Ulmer. Blacklistees faced cruel treatment in a frightened Hollywood, but once in Europe, some of them looked out for each other.
Horror Express is a lively and agreeable horror/sci-fi hybrid that also an interesting period picture. In China’s Szechuan Province in 1906, the stuffy Professor Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) finds a fossilized ‘missing link,’ and packs it in a carefully locked crate for shipment West on the Transsiberian Express. A second Englishman taking the long, cold train ride is Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), a genial fellow with an eye for the ladies. Other passengers of note are a Rasputin-like mad monk named Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), a Russian countess (Silvia Tortosa), a police inspector (Julio Peña) and an industrial spy, Natasha (Helga Liné). The general Pánico kicks in right at the outset when Saxton’s fossil proves to be very much alive and gets loose on the train. Passengers turn up dead, with their eyes burned white and bleeding. The monster is cornered and shot, but transfers its life-force to a new host, and the killings continue. A Cossack Captain named Kazan (Telly Savalas) comes aboard to put paid to the creature, only to see his troops transformed into a platoon of the Living Dead. Saxton and Wells maintain a proper British rationality, but find themselves at a loss for ideas to defeat the menace: just looking at one of the possessed demon-men is deadly.
Whether by accident or design, Bernard Gordon had a background in fantastic films. Back in the 1950s he labored for relative nickels and dimes grinding out scripts for Sam Katzman quickies like Zombies of Mora Tau and Hellcats of the Navy. Horror Express is eclectic to say the least. The monster fossil seems inspired by elements of Quatermass and the Pit and Attack of the Crab Monsters. The glowing-eyes and the horde of blind dead attackers are consistent with Spanish horror cinema of the time — tacky but effective. The clever notion to stage the drama on a claustrophobic train chugging through a snowbound landscape was dictated by production practicality — the producer had constructed an excellent train set for their previous movie. One very spooky detail is that the monster’s deadly eyes are only effective in the dark. Saxton and Wells make use of an oil lamp to neutralize their inhuman opponent.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were reportedly happy to receive job offers that allowed them to play something other than monsters or fanatic scientists — Saxton and Wells are reasonable heroes, fussy gentlemen who even have a sense of humor. We’re told that Chris Lee persuaded Cushing to take the job to raise his spirits after the recent loss of his beloved wife. Peter Cushing’s pleasantly superficial Wells entertains a beautiful passenger in his room, makes petty jokes and even bribes a baggage man to peek into Saxton’s secret shipping container. Although there isn’t as much comedy relief as some reviewers seem to think, Saxton and Wells remind us superficially of Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford, the droll duo from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes that worry about cricket matches back in England even as their lives are threatened. When a soldier suggests that Wells or Saxby could be hosting a body-hopping menace, Cushing’s Wells is deeply offended:
“Why, we’re British!”
Telly Savalas was given equal billing on American posters, but his Cossack Captain is an abbreviated guest star turn. Blundering onto the train with a dozen armed men, Captain Kazan assigns catching monsters a lower priority than enforcing his personal control and turning a profit. The moment a passenger accuses the priest Pujardov, Kazan is willing to have him shot:
“Aww, we’ve got plenty of priests.”
Did Gordon and Zimet model Kazan after a hypocritical Hollywood producer, or perhaps the exploitative Philip Yordan? Alternately, could the name be an allusion to another prominent blacklist figure? As it turns out, the passengers have much more to fear than just the monster. To resolve the crisis in an expedient manner, both Kazan and the Imperial Russian authorities are prepared to kill everybody on the train.
Horror Express benefits from its claustrophobic setting on board a moving train. The interior train sets are quite good. Most of the costumes are acceptable, although some of the Russians look altogether too Spanish. The original hairy horror-fossil from China is only adequate, although he does have a wicked clawed hand, and his one remaining glowing eye is unexpectedly creepy. Director Martín uses editing to create the monster’s ‘death gaze’ – he throws the image of a victim out of focus, cuts, and then refocuses on an altered makeup. The makeup effects are crude but jarring, especially views of various possessed monsters with glowing eyes. Some of the demonic possession cutaways appear to be second-unit work, using sculpted heads fitted with glowing orbs in place of eyes.
The show has great fun presenting its scientific notions, which are mostly silly-science. When Dr. Wells’ post-mortem opens up a victim’s skull, we’re told that the ‘smooth, featureless, blank’ brain inside indicates that all of the victim’s memory has been extracted. Later on, Wells extracts fluid from the dead creature’s grisly eye and examines it under a microscope. As in a View-Master presentation, Saxon immediately sees absurd latent images of dinosaurs and the Earth from space, that ‘prove’ that the original alien monster is an extraterrestrial that has been here for millions of years. It’s fun to see Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and several other actors playing this hoary scene as if it were top quality Michael Crichton pseudo-science.
Actually, the crazy script’s fantastic details are rather consistent. As the creature absorbs human brains, its reserve of knowledge and special talents grows exponentially, just like Corman & Griffith’s atomic crab monsters. After a thief is killed, the beast knows how to pick locks with a bent nail. Presumably interested in returning to space, the disguised alien discovers that a civil engineer was a student of the Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsilkovsky, and adds him to his brain-harvest queue. Priest Pajardov is a thinly disguised Rasputin clone. Convinced that the powerful alien is The Devil, Pajardov switches allegiances and offers himself as a vessel for possession. The rather chilling final shot sees the Pajardov-alien driving a barreling locomotive through the Siberian night, his coal-red eyes staring through the frosty glass like a deranged Casey Jones.
Almost all of the exterior train views are miniatures, as well as a Siberian outpost. We’re told that all of the exterior train shots (except the station at the beginning) are miniatures, which I believe is entirely possible. The night scenes of the train certainly are models. Some daytime shots look good enough to be full-sized, but I think they’re very large miniatures — only the smokestack smoke betrays a hint of scale.
It’s all in the way the miniature trains are filmed. Low-angle shots with a real sky in the background look the best, while others taken from a bird’s-eye view make the large train model look like a toy. Still, they look far better than Antonio Margheriti’s miniature train work in the very expensive Duck You Sucker, which ranges from adequate to flatly unconvincing. Margheriti’s effects work in general has always been imaginative and colorful, but not often very realistic. The train effects he reportedly created for Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978) are somewhat better.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Horror Express follows up on a 2011 BD from Severin Films that came with an impressive selection of extras. CineSavant was able to compare the two releases. The older disc looks and sounds very good, but the new transfer is visibly better: a little sharper, and with perceptibly higher color definition. On the older disc the night exterior scenes of the train are overly dark by comparison. Either the new source is cleaner or Arrow has done some digital cleanup. The audio for both discs is very good, with John Cacavas’ catchy music themes coming across well. I wouldn’t say that the transfer is so much better that an upgrade is essential, but I noticed the improvement right away.
Several of the extras are repeats from the 2011 disc. The capable David Gregory and his team assembled several well-chosen items, the capper being a lengthy 2005 interview with Bernard Gordon. The interview with the veteran writer-producer was made for a DVD of 55 Days at Peking that was then canceled; Gordon passed away in 2007. His first-person remarks about the blacklist experience are a valuable key resource. Gordon says he lost his wartime job as a story editor right after the war, when his employer Paramount purged ‘the leftists’ from its story department. He then took to writing screenplays, and had earned credits on three movies when he was denounced by none other than producer William Alland, a fellow leftist clearing his name by tossing associates to the wolves. For the rest of the 1950s, all of his screen work was hidden behind the name ‘Raymond T. Marcus.’
(Note: Why is the primary IMBD entry for Bernard Gordon’s The Day of the Triffids suddenly listed under the unheard-of title “Invasion of the Triffids?” Is someone reissuing it under a new name?)
Gregory’s interviewers also taped a sit-down with composer John Cavacas, who says that he parlayed an encounter with Telly Savalas into a career in film and television music. Director Eugenio Martín is also in for an informative piece. Señor Martín’s English is okay, but we can’t help but think that could have said much more if he’d spoken in his native Spanish. Also from 2011, an introduction by Chris Alexander positions the film for readers of Fangoria magazine. Not carried over from the first disc is an audio interview with Peter Cushing, recorded in 1973.
The new disc compensates with a lively and thoughtful analysis commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. It’s clearly one of Newman’s favorite horror offerings, from a year when Hammer films were not exactly breaking new ground. Everyone seems charmed by the fact that Horror Express has a sense of humor — not only is Telly Savalas funny-menacing, Cushing and Lee appear to greatly enjoy putting a slight comic edge on several of their encounters.
Arrow’s other new extras are opinion pieces from two capable and well-known genre commentators. Steve Haberman begins his talk with a long beside-the-point generalization about the effect of violent ’60s politics on the horror genre. Ted Newsom recalls his association with Bernard Gordon and begins with a primer on blacklisting. He says outright that Gordon was indeed a former Communist.
The disc carries only the film’s English-language version, which is obviously preferred because the three most familiar stars use their own voices. But you might want to hang on to the older Severin disc, as it also includes an original Spanish track. Unless my ears are being fooled, Christopher Lee voices himself in word-perfect, mellifluous Castillian Spanish.
Confused yet? The new disc does contain English subs, which the older release did not. The cover artwork for the Severin disc, however, does have much more beautiful cover art than the new disc’s collage of faces.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: New audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; Introduction by Chris Alexander; Ticket to Die analysis by Steve Haberman, Night Train to Nowhere a talk about Bernard Gordon by Ted Newsom; Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express, an interview with director Eugenio Martín; Notes from the Blacklist with producer Bernard Gordon, Telly and Me, an interview with composer John Cacavas; trailer. First pressing has an illustrated booklet with an essay by Adam Scovell.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 8, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Joe Dante on Horror Express: