Friday, December 2, 2011

Blu-ray Review: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

Blu-ray +DVD Combo
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 90 minutes
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.Mono Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.66:1)
Director: Eugenio Martin
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly Savalas, Angel De Pozo, Julio Pena, Albert De Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Helga Line
Tagline: Your Non Stop Ride to Hell Boards at 8 P.M.

HORROR EXPRESS aka PANIC ON THE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS stars the dynamic team-up of horror royalty Christopher Lee (THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) and Peter Cushing (ASYLUM) in a rare instance of on-screen kinship as opposed to their usual Dracula vs. Van Helsing dichotomy. The film also features a memorable appearance from a scenery chewing Telly Savalas (LISA AND THE DEVIL) and Albert de Mendoza (A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN) as a Rasputin-like Monk. This classic 70's thriller-chiller features a prehistoric creature that turns it's victims into eye-bleeding zombies on the Trans-Siberian Express.
Alexander Saxton (Lee) is a British anthropologist who discovers what he believes to be the evolutionary "missing link" frozen deep in an ice cave in Manchuria. He crates this discovery and boards the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow and then onward to England. At the train station in Shanghai Saxton runs into his British colleague Dr. Wells (Cushing) and his assistant Mrs. Jones (Alice Reinhart, RAT FINK). Shortly before the crate can be loaded onto the train a would-be thief is found dead after attempting to pick the lock of the crate. The thieves eyes have turned unnaturally white with blood streaking from the eyes, nose and mouth. This catches the watchful eye of Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena), the Polish Count Petrovski (George LIVES!) and his stunning wife Countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa, WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS) plus their spiritual advisor Pujardov (Albert De Mendoza, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN), the latter of whom begins to suspect that something evil lays within the crate, which Saxton, a man of science, scoffs at outright.

With the cause of death unknown the crate is loaded into the train and the passengers board the Russia bound steam engine. After the unexplained death Dr. Wells becomes increasingly curious as to what mystery lays within the wooden crate and offers baggage man Maletero (Victor Israel, THE DEVIL'S KISS) a small bribe to take a peak inside the crate at his next earliest convenience. Meanwhile Wells and Saxton accommodate themselves into their sleeper cars where Wells makes the acquaintance of an attractive petty thief by the name of Natasha (Helga Line, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMBS) and we are then introduced to an engineer and amateur science nerd named Yevtushenko (Angel De Pozo, THE PASSENGER).

Meanwhile Maletero is attempting to open up Saxton's crate when he is attacked by the thawed primitive creature inside who it turns out is only too alive. When Maletero stares directly into the beasts eerie, red-glowing eyes he is stricken with the same fate as the would-be thief; whitened eyes and hemorrhaging from orifices. An autopsy is performed on the man by Wells and Saxton whom deduce that the creature is of alien nature and is inexplicably able to absorb it's victim's knowledge, so much so that it actually sucks the wrinkles right out of their brains leaving the vacant orb smooth as a baby's bottom.

 After a few more deaths the creature is shot and killed by Inspector Mirov, it would seem the culprit was a threat no more but when the killing of the trains more educated passengers continue Wells and Saxton further hypothesize that the alien threat is formless and able to inhabit the body of it's victims. The two men of science are left to sleuth whom among the passengers is the red-eyed, brain-sucking beast. Late in the film Telly Savalas makes an appearance as the larger than life Cossack officer Captain Kazan, he having been summoned to board the train with an attachment of officers by the Russian authorities after news of the murders is wired from the train. Savalas winds up momentarily stealing the show with his scenery chomping performance, it's fun stuff. One of my favorite aspects of the film involves the monk Pujardov's seduction by the evil entity which he mistakes for Satan, already seemingly near mad at the start of the film with religious fervor he is completely seduced by it's power, it's great stuff and an intense performance from De Mendoza.

The film certainly takes inspiration from John Campbell's story WHO GOES THERE (the inspiration for both Howard Hawks THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and John Carpenter's THE THING) the film masterfully isolates a core group of characters on a train speeding through a desolate landscape. As the mystery deepens the paranoia is ramped up to the breaking point, it's thick with atmosphere and this early 70's chiller is a grisly and macabre slice of sci-fi horror with a pretty steep bodycount for the day with no less than 15 by my count. At only and hour and a half the film's well-plotted structure keeps the momentum moving forward with thrilling twists and turns, there's no point at which the story becomes stagnant, it's a finely paced film.

Blu-ray: Having seen this film several times on terribly fuzzy VHS and DVD editions Severin's brand-new restored hi-definition transfer from the original camera negative is nothing short of a revelation, perhaps more true than any of the many times I've said it - this was like seeing the film for the first time. The print is not pristine by any means, there are plenty of blemishes throughout, but comparatively it's the best we're possibly ever going to see. There's a new depth and clarity to the image and the fine detail of the tweed and hounds tooth jackets are nicely resolved by the 1080p presentation. That said, there's scratches, dirt, speck and nicks. The film is dominated by muted browns and grays but some of the red, blues and greens are nicely represented, particularly the red-eyed creature and blue Cossack uniforms. The grain can be unsightly at times which is not helped by some digital artifacting and noise either but despite these shortcomings I must say visually this is a delight. After years of languishing in the public domain this is sure to be a revelation. Definitely check out the screenshot comparison below for a clear example of just how amazing the restoration is.

For reasons unknown Severin Films have chosen not to include an uncompressed audio track and we are instead given the choice of Spanish and English language Dolby Digital Mono with no subtitles, the exclusion of subtitles may be dismaying to those choosing to partake in the Spanish track. The fidelity may not be ideal but is relatively clean and strong when compared to my Mill Creek DVD edition, the fuzzed out guitar score and haunting main theme from John Cacavas (MORTUARY) sounds fantastic.

Severin Films have done a wonderful job complimenting the feature film with a wealth of bonus features. Beginning with an Introduction by Fangoria Editor Chris Alexander (6:50) in which the enthusiastic editor fondly recalls discovering the film on VHS, it's dubious public domain stature and delves into what makes the film such a classic.

Murder On The Trans-Siberian Express: New Interview With Director Eugenio Martin (13:50) in which the director recalls many facets of the film including the scripting, casting, using the train sets from PANCHO VILLA (also starring Telly Savalas) and working with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Savalas.

Notes From The Blacklist: Producer Bernard Gordon Discusses The McCarthy Era (30:30) is a 2005 interview with the film's producer whom recalls the tribulations of being a blacklisted writer during the McCarthy era. There's no mention of HORROR EXPRESS but it's an interesting watch.

Telly And Me: New Interview With Composer John Cacavas (8:04) features the composer of the score discussing his friendship with actor Telly Savalas through the years and working on HORROR EXPRESS, PANCHO VILLA and the TV series Kojak (which starred Savalas).

Also included is a 1973 Audio Interview With Peter Cushing (88 mins) conducted not too long after HORROR EXPRESS. It's a captivating interview with Cushing recalling his entire career up till that point, including his legendary work with Hammer and Amicus Films.The interview is an audio option that can be played while viewing the film.

Rounding out the features are a Theatrical Trailer (2:53), a trio of Severin Trailers: PSYCHOMANIA (2:45) 16:9, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (0:47) 16:9, NIGHTMARE CASTLE (3:20) 16:9 and a separate disc containing the DVD edition of the film with mirrored supplemental features. This marks Severin's first dual format release, I'm a fan of the Blu-ray +DVD combos and I hope it proves to be a trend for 'em.

Verdict: HORROR EXPRESS is a chiller classic and the new transfer brings renewed life to this musty public domain gem like never before. Not just a great transfer but a fantastic fright film, a gruesome sci-fi thriller that can now be viewed in a manner befitting of such a classic, say goodbye to your dark, scuzzy public domain prints and enjoy, your in for a treat. 4 outta 5

DVD SCREENSHOT COMPARISON: Here are some revealing DVD screenshot comparisons rather unfairly pitting the 4:3 transfer of HORROR EXPRESS from my Mill Creek Entertainment's CHILLING MOVIES 50 PACK against Severin Film's newly restored print presented in it's original aspect ratio of 16:9 enhanced widescreen (1.66:1) - it's an eye-opener...

TOP: Mill Creek 4:3
BOTTOM: Severin Films 16:9