Year: 1972 Company: Benmar Productions / Granada Films Runtime: 87′
Director: Eugenio Martin Writers: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet Music: John Cacavas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Pena, Angel del Pozo, Telly Savalas, Helga Line, Alice Reinhart, Jose Jaspe, George Rigaud, Victor Israel, Faith Clift, Juan Olaguival
Disc company: Severin Films Video: 1080p / 480p 1.66:1 Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: None Disc: BD25 / DVD9 Release Date: 11/29/2011
Reviewed from a screener provided by Severin Films (thanks Nicole!).
Available for purchase through Amazon.com
The last of a three picture deal between American producer Philip Yordan (Crack in the World, 55 Days in Peking) and Spanish director Eugenio Martin (The Ugly Ones), and conceived largely as a means of making use of the expensive passenger train sets devised for the epic Poncho Villa, 1972′s Horror Express is a compact and economical slice of Euro-cult mayhem that benefits from the recycled illusion of production value and a magnificent headline cast. The inimitable duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing join forces once more as a pair of catty, big-headed men of science who must contend with a supernatural sci-fi menace on the Trans-Siberian Express.
The story, penned by the men behind the devilish British actioner Psychomania, follows professor Sir Alexander Saxton’s (Lee) discovery of a 2 million year old ape-man frozen in the chilly north of Manchuria. Determined to provide the remains as proof-positive of the theory of evolution, Saxton loads the crated beast onto the next train towards Europe – a train populated not only with hundreds of disposable personalities, but Saxton’s professional rival Doctor Wells (Cushing) as well. Soon after the train departs on its long snowbound journey the baggage man is found dead, his eyes a boiled to a ghastly white. Saxton’s empty crate provides ample evidence for the cause – his 2 million year old specimen was not so dead as had been presumed, and had awakened from its frosty slumbers and murdered the baggage man. With the creature at large a concerted, but quiet, effort to find and detain it is mounted, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the monster than meets the eye.
Once the beast is tracked down and killed things take a turn for the decidedly silly. An impromptu dining room investigation of its eye fluid reveals a host of unlikely images suspended there – images of our planet’s biological past, including a brontosaurus and pterodactyl, and a mysterious view of Earth from space. Further autopsies on the creature’s victims, whose brains appear to have been scrubbed clean of all knowledge, leads to an astounding conclusion: The ape-man discovered by Saxton was not the monster, but merely a shell for some malignant alien force capable not only of absorbing the intelligence of others but of possessing their bodies as well. With the truth of the matter revealed doctors Saxton and Wells are faced with a terrifying fact – not only is the extraterrestrial menace quite comfortably alive, but it’s hiding in the guise of one of the Trans-Siberian’s passengers!
Playing a bit like They Came From Beyond Space by way of Who Goes There by way of Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express is an uneven genre pastiche that never really capitalizes on its own capacity for thrills, chills, mystery and paranoia. Rather than focus on the mechanics of the genre, writers d’Usseau and Zimet instead lead viewers on a string of oddball diversions that include a bit of international espionage and the ravings of a mad monk in the mold of Rasputin (coincidentally, a part played by star Christopher Lee in an earlier Hammer production). None of it ever amounts to much, but it does pass the time between the various monster attacks and ludicrous plot developments. To be fair, d’Usseau, Zimet, and indeed the whole cast and crew, seem perfectly aware of the absurd nature of the project, and an underlying sense of good humor on the part of all involved goes a long way towards keeping Horror Express from feeling so tired, pointless, and repetitive as it easily might have.
Indeed, stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing look to have had a wonderful time with the alternately strange and hilarious material, particularly when it offers them an opportunity to needle one another. The two also bring a wealth of genuine thespian ability to the production, largely occupied with overdubbed Spanish performers otherwise, and each is possessed of that unique talent for making even the dumbest of lines sound reasonable – a skill that’s indispensable to a film that so frequently asks its audience to believe the darnedest things. The supporting cast is largely disposable with the exception of Alberto de Mendoza, who all but steals the show as an insane monk who drops his godly ways and starts following the alien “devil” at the drop of a hat. Telly Savalas (TV’s Kojak) received high billing in the films advertising and is listed third on this video edition, but only appears briefly as the memorably crazy Cossack Captain Kazan. Savalas’ dialogue is perhaps the most ungainly of the whole script, and while none of it makes much sense on its own terms the actor’s unhinged delivery gives it plenty of oomph.
Horror Express will never be confused for great filmmaking, and is possessed of the same cold and languid quality that makes much of the Spanish exploitation of the time so unappealing to me, but its excellent casting and proclivity for the humorously bizarre make all the difference. As a film about an eye-boiling brain-stealing alien intelligence loosed upon long-distance rail travelers it remains the best, and only, of its kind, and genre aficionados should find it well worth checking out.
Taking a cue from a good number of independent English video labels, Severin Films have chosen to present Horror Express as a combination Blu-ray and DVD package. While we’ll be covering the latter later in this section it is the former, with which the film makes its high definition debut, that rightfully commands the most attention. Severin present Horror Express on Blu-ray in full 1080p at its native theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, sourced from a positive 35mm Spanish print of some dubious lineage (provided you believe the packaging, it was unearthed in a Mongolian film depot…). The print is in decent shape if far from pristine, though I don’t know that anyone was honestly expecting better.
In addition to some printed white damage and splice marks, the print also presents with a healthy assortment of darker debris, scratching, and even the odd tear here or there. This may distract some viewers, but I’d argue that it’s just part and parcel for this sort of low budget exploiter. The source also has its weaknesses with regards to color reproduction and contrast, the latter of which can vary quite a lot depending on the original photography. The image has obviously aged a good deal in the nearly 40 years since Horror Express was originally produced, with the color shifting, at times quite heavily, to the red. I’m not sure what the original photographic intentions were on the part of the director and cinematographer, but it’s impossible for me to believe the flat, over-warm appearance Horror Express currently exudes is accurate. An ounce of restorative attention – some color grading here, some tweaking of the contrast levels there - could well have helped to mitigate the issues with the color and contrast, but these film-based limitations are still far from fatal flaws. Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story.
Limited though Horror Express‘ source materials may be Severin Films look to have managed a decent high definition transfer of them, particularly in terms of detail. It’s all the more a shame, then, that they’ve bungled things so badly with regards to its presentation on-disc. The numbers hint at the bad things to come – Horror Express limps onto Blu-ray at a total disc size of 21 GB, with a paltry 11.7 GB of that dedicated to the feature and its three accompanying audio tracks. The AVC encoded video averages out at a middling bitrate of just 17.2 Mbps, well less than half of the format’s potential, but even that low figure doesn’t account for such dreadful results. This is one of the poorest high definition encodes I’ve seen in a while, and it presents with a laundry list of defects that distracted from my viewing at every turn. Most notable in motion are aliasing artifacts that are every bit as frequent as they are ugly. The hounds tooth patterning on Christopher Lee’s suit provides the most obvious examples, with the encoder failing time and again to properly resolve it.
More frustrating on closer examination is the encode’s treatment of the transfer’s grain structure, and vicariously its fine detail. The long and short of it is that there just isn’t much grain or fine detail, as the majority of it has been obliterated by persistent blotchy digital artifacting. The final comparison set below demonstrates the problem most obviously, with the details of the wooden floor disappearing into blotchy artifacts and patches of digital noise, but it is evident to some degree in every shot in the film. There are even some chroma aberrations to be found, tucked away in the lines and patterning of people’s clothing. It’s a hell of a mess all told, and certainly not what I was expecting for a release so oft-delayed as this one – surely in all the months since Horror Express was officially announced someone could have been bothered to check the disc encode? It’s impossible not to feel as though Severin have dropped the ball here, and hard, leaving the video side of the Blu-ray’s feature presentation a very tough sell in spite of some modest improvements over the DVD.
The accompanying DVD is something of a technical improvement given the constraints of its format, but still far from ideal. The disc is sourced from the same hi-def transfer at the same aspect ratio (16:9 enhanced 1.66:1) and features the same inherent deficiencies with regards to color and contrast. Fortunately this disc is dual-layered, a step in the right direction, and while the image still looks substantially weaker than I’d have expected it to (things just aren’t as well resolved as they should be) at least it doesn’t show its artifacting to the same degree as the Blu-ray. Unfortunately both editions showcase many of the same ugly digital pox marks, as evidenced by Christopher Lee’s suit in the first and next-to-last comparison sets. I’d say it’s a draw as to which is the better way to view the film – the better encoded but visually flat DVD, or the better-resolved but awfully encoded Blu-ray – with neither being particularly appealing in the long run. Amusingly (or distressingly, depending on your frame of mind) both the DVD and Blu-ray share the same menu designs to the point of failure – whoever authored the Blu-ray either forgot or purposefully neglected to include even the most rudimentary pop-up menu during feature playback. That alone is barely worth mentioning, but it is indicative of the breadth of shortcomings that hamper what had the promise of being a fine release.
Blu-ray screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool. DVD screenshots were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, and are provided here in both their native resolution (compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool) as well as upscaled 1920×1080 (scaled in GIMP, saved as .png, and converted per the rest to .jpg) to offer the best range of comparison.
DVD 480p | DVD 1080p | Blu-ray 1080p
While the Blu-ray video was impaired to the point of distraction, at least it got the bump to HD. No such luck is to be had with the audio. Horror Express is accompanied in each of its video iterations by lossy Dolby Digital tracks, either 2.0 monophonic English or 2.0 stereophonic Spanish, each at 192 kbps. John Cacavas’ interesting musical score is served best by the better-preserved 2.0 Spanish track, but both sound flat and unremarkable otherwise. I’m not sure that a lossless encoding could have improved much upon that in the Blu-ray edition, but as things stand now I’ll never know. Adding to the disappointment is Severin’s failure to include any subtitles whatsoever, making the secondary Spanish audio track more a vestigial feature than a legitimate viewing option for the majority of the release’s potential audience.
With the feature presentation a disappointment on practically every front, I’m very happy to report that the supplemental package is quite exceptional. Things begin with Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express, a 14 minute interview with director Eugenio Martin. Though Martin’s accent is thick and his handling of English at times lacking, the information he provides is all quite good. Next up is a wonderful half-hour archival interview with late screenwriter Bernard Gordon (The Day of the Triffids), who served as producer on Horror Express, in which he discusses the Hollywood blacklist, his involvement with producer Philip Yordan and his work on the Samual Bronston epics of the ’60s. There’s nothing whatever about Horror Express here, but I couldn’t be bothered by that – it’s a fantastic interview. Telly and Me grants composer John Cacavas a few minutes to talk about his friendship with actor and singer Telly Savalis and their work toghether on this film and elsewhere. The undisputed king of the supplements is an interview and question and answer session with the inimitable Peter Cushing, circa 1973, which runs for a whopping 80 minutes (!) and serves as a sort of commentary track for the feature presentation. I’ll not spoil any of the goods here, but Cushing fans will be over the moon – the disc may be worth picking up for this alone. An introduction to Horror Express by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander (6 minutes), a theatrical trailer, and three trailers for other Severin titles (Psychomania, The House That Dripped Blood and Nightmare Castle) round out the disc.
Horror Express is a fun little footnote in the annals of Euro-horror, and one that I remember seeing many, many times on discount video racks as a kid. I had exceedingly high hopes for this release from Severin Films, hopes that were effectively dashed as soon as the Blu-ray disc began to play. The issues with the feature presentation are so distracting as to make a recommendation on its merits difficult, but the supplemental package certainly makes this release tempting. Given the low asking price it currently commands (just $13.99) fans will likely want to indulge for that reason alone.
Film: Good silly fun Video: Fair + Audio: Fair Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: You’d do better to ask what isn’t wrong here. The wealth of supplements is the saving grace.
Packaging: Standard two-hub Blu-ray case.
Available for purchase through Amazon.com