White Russian, Red Face

For my birthday I had a bunch of people round and we drank white Russians (vodka + kahlua + milk) and watched HORROR EXPRESS, a movie I’ve always been indecently fond of.

Screenwriters Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau (who later co-wrote the mighty PSYCHOMANIA) look to have been blacklistees, hired by producer Bernard Gordon, who definitely was barred from working in Hollywood. They cobble together an amusing QUATERMASS-type yarn set on the Trans-Siberian Express, chuffing across the tundra from Peking to Moscow, bearing Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, an amok neanderthal specimen, and a Rasputin wannabe (prolific giallo star Alberto de Mendoza).

I’d always heard that the movie was made to exploit the availability of a model train from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, a perfectly decent reason for making a film… guest David Wingrove felt some of the train footage looked familiar from DOC¬†ZHIVAGO… online I find references to the train model and set both being recycled from Gordon’s previous production, PANCHO VILLA, aka VENDETTA. That film starred Telly Savalas, who turns up here as a cossack. That alone is a reason to love the film.

Note the unusual way of holding a cigarillo — Savalas was one of the screen’s great smokers until he gave it all up for lollipops. The Savalas career includes a notable Spanish Period, with LISA AND THE DEVIL (the film where he discovered lollipops, on the recommendation of director Mario Bava, as a way to quit smoking) and the immortal A TOWN CALLED BASTARD, which co-star Dudley Sutton described to me as “the crookedest film I was ever in.” Dudley also had some story about Telly being “out of his face on LSD the whole time.”

That rogue caveman soon busts out of his crate — we started a drinking game to swill back a white russian every time he escaped his box — this was soon replaced by a game to drink whenever a supporting player turned up with white, featureless eyeballs. It turns out the hominid is infested by an alien intelligence, trapped in the ice millennia ago. This being can drain the minds of those it comes in contact with, absorbing their knowledge and leaving their brains as smooth and featureless as a baby’s bottom, or Jeffrey Hunter’s face.

It can also transfer from host to host, making it hard to catch and subdue. Rival scientists Cushing and Lee set out to trap it, but the Rasputin-alike pledges his allegiance, as a kind of beardy Renfield character, offering up his own brain for draining. The entity snootily declines, stating that the monk has no knowledge worth filching. Instead he eventually uses Raspy as his new host body, before the authorities shunt the train down a siding leading conveniently to the precipice of obliteration. John Cacavas’ haunting (well, it haunted twelve-year-old me) theme tune resounds from the miniature wreckage, a spaghetti western whistle associated with the monster, implying that the beast lives on, perhaps having transferred its vast intellect to the film’s optical soundtrack…

The movie also seems to imply that this alien, if it made it to Moscow, might have started the Revolution — communism is a virus from outer space! A strange phenomenon that filmmakers too left-wing for Hollywood should find themselves reconstructing Tsarist Russia in Franco’s Spain. If we can swallow that, why should the scene where an image of the Earth seen from space is found imprinted on the caveman’s retina give us any trouble?

Buy: Horror Express (Blu-ray / DVD Combo)

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6 Responses to “White Russian, Red Face”

  1. Horror Express was on Polish telly the other Monday- on the afternoon!

  2. Heh! Well, I don’t know who would find it particularly scary… OK, for the pre-schoolers it might be a bit challenging. But think of all the invaluable scientific knowledge they could pick up. “Memory is stored in the convolutions of the brain.”

  3. Great! You can certainly tell there’s interesting sensibilities behind this and Psychomania.

  4. One of my all-time favorite lines, ever, is when Cushing and Lee are checking all the passengers to see who is possessed by the alien, and its pointed out that one of them could be the host. The two exchange an affronted look and Cushing replies, genuinely shocked, “But we’re *British*.”

  5. Agreed! There are quite a few nice lines and ideas that lift the movie way above average.

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