Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Horror Express (1972)

Floccinaucinihilipilification is, to my knowledge, the longest word in the English language.  Now, I know the kids like to throw it around and drop it into every sentence the same as “like,” but some of us may be completely unaware of it (the mind boggles).  It is defined as “the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.”  It’s kind of interesting in two senses to me as of this writing.  Number one, the story of today’s film, Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (aka Panico En El Transiberiano), deals with two anthropologists.  Their job is digging through dirt most people would find worthless and finding things they feel may or may not be of value from a scientific/historical perspective.  Imagine if you will an anthropologist who mistakes the greatest find in the history of mankind or even life on this planet for a Tanzanian pot holder or something.  It’s a value judgment (an educated one, but still…), and at least in some part, hubris plays a role in its estimation.  Number two, the act of being a film reviewer also has to involve floccinaucinihilipilification at some time or another.  Some reviewers make a practice of this, turning every critique into a hyperbolic screed, and that’s fine when they feel a film genuinely warrants such dismissal.  But I somehow get the notion that when almost every picture that’s brought up is treated with merciless derision, either the writer shouldn’t be writing about film, or they’re writing because they want to show everyone how clever they are.  Either way, it’s a reason to quit film review.  But misery loves company, I suppose.

In 1906, while on an expedition in Manchuria, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovers a “missing link” frozen solid in a cave.  Carting it back with him on the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton runs across rival scientist Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) and makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Russian Countess Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa).  As the train hurtles across the barren landscapes of Siberia, it’s soon discovered that Saxton’s specimen may have a bit more life in it than previously thought.  As well as having a few surprises up its hirsute sleeve.

This is yet another of those movies that I initially encountered in a nasty, grotty print late on a Saturday night on some local cable channel (I’m thinking WWOR out of Secaucus, New Jersey, but that’s really neither here nor there).  The experience of seeing something like Psychomania or Horror Express at an early age and of that quality of presentation was eye-opening to say the least (or maybe just eye-straining, hence why I’ve had spectacles since the fourth grade).  The marvel of these films isn’t the quality of their respective productions, though both have more than enough to be very effective (and Martin’s use of miniatures as well as the interior sets is impressive).  It’s also not in their originality, since neither one has an original bone in its body.  The latter film, in fact, borrows much from John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? (most likely unknowingly), and it did it ten years before John Carpenter went back to the same source material for his remake of The Thing From Another World.  Obviously, Martin doesn’t wring quite the amount of tension and paranoia from the premise as Carpenter does, but I think the two make nice companion pieces.  

And yet I can honestly say that, at the time, there was nothing else like these movies coming across my path.  It’s not the elements; it’s the mixture of them and their treatment.  Horror Express runs the gamut from Cosmic Horror to Creature Feature to Siege film to Zombie film to Disaster film, but it gives you just enough of each genre/subgenre in just enough of a dose that you swallow it down whole, and the instant that your mind starts to question anything, gets bored, etcetera, it’s on to another facet and back again.  Playing partly into one idea from the film, the effect comes from a gestalt of the pieces, rather than focusing strictly on any one of them.  Furthermore, the fact that almost no one else I knew seemed to have seen this film and no books or magazines I read had any sort of information about it was mind-blowing to me.  Today, everyone and their brother expound the virtues of this film, and it’s easy to see why.  But back then?  If you mentioned this film’s title, you’d likely get little more than a momentary narrowing of the eyes and a slight shrug from most people.

A major portion of the film is concerned with eyes and looking.  Everyone wants to see what’s in Saxton’s crate.  The monster’s eyes glow red when its powers are in effect.  The monster steals the memories and skills of its victims through their eyes, leaving them devoid of the capacity for sight (even if they were still alive to see; which they are not) and turning them into automatons, bereft of identity.  The monster’s own memories are stored in its eyes.  In these ways the film reveals its own truth, that knowledge and individuality come from observation or at least from the power to observe.  Yet, the eyes can be deceived, and this is the flip side of the notion.  Saxton thinks that Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) is a simple conjurer employing tricks, despite seeing that the same piece of chalk which writes on the stones of the train station won’t write on the anthropologist’s crate.  Even after a fellow scientist avers that there is nothing unique about the chalk, Saxton refuses to accept that anything other than a deception is at work.  Wells and Saxton are taken in by a passenger who turns out to be up to nefarious purposes.   The beast itself has the ability to move from person to person, always disguised as a means of survival.  In other words, even what can be plainly witnessed with the naked eye cannot be trusted absolutely.

The film also contains concepts about social classes, to some degree or another (summed up for me by the classic Cushing retort, “Monster?!  We’re British, you know!”).  Though Saxton and Wells are both anthropologists, Saxton is haughty and upper class in mien.  Wells, by contrast, is not above bribing a station agent to get a couple of compartments on the departing train or to sneak a peek at what’s in the crate.  He’s friendlier to the common man.  Naturally, Saxton dislikes Wells, and he only seems to put up with those he considers lower in class because they serve some purpose for him.  The Inspector aboard the train (Julio Peña) is strictly working class, but he holds power over others due to his authority.  He’s a cog.  The Countess and her husband (George Rigaud) are clearly in the most rarefied of air, and they therefore do not need to bother themselves fraternizing with the Plebes or burdening themselves with matters of the soul (to Pujardov, the Count says, “our immortal souls are your concern”).  The priest is little more than a mongrel in the eyes of all, and it is this humiliation which will color his decisions later in the film (though he’s the most dichotomous character here I would argue).  Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas) is the ultimate display of Tsarist power, second in stature only to the Count (whom he still treats with sarcastic obeisance), but he is intent of purpose (“the Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack”).  He also has no compunction about using brute force in order to meet his ends.  He has his men hit Saxton and Wells with their rifles.  He whips Pujardov.  Yet his methods, though cruel, are nevertheless effective.  Clearly, Kazan would never Floccinaucinihilipilificate his own work techniques.

MVT:  I love the story of this film.  It moves along at a nice clip.  It hits just enough sweet spots and turns just enough of its well-worn clichés to make for satisfying viewing.

Make Or Break:  The Make is Savalas’s ranting, scenery-chewing display of histrionics after he boards the express.  It’s a delightful little cherry on top of a sundae loaded with awesomeness.  

Score:  8/10 

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