1972 produced plenty of cult classics for horror fans; “Blacula”, “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” (from Bob Clark, who later directed “Black Christmas”, “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story”), “Dr Phibes Rises Again”, “Last House on the Left”, and “The Possession of Joel Delaney” (the only horror movie Shirley MacLaine ever made.) In particular, Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left” stands out because of it’s brutal story of revenge played out by a normal family-next-door. The family gives shelter to murderous thugs who raped and tortured their daughter, so that the parents can kill off the thugs, one by one. If you can stomach it, check out the original and the even better remake from (2009), starring Garret Dillahunt (Fear the Walking Dead). Both were very well received by critics and audiences.
I’d like to give special attention to 1972’s “Horror Express”, for many reasons. It’s near and dear to my heart. Again, yet another horror that Mom and I watched after midnight in my youth, on late-night TV, that was probably really hard to see (because many frightening moments happen in the dark) and it was a poor quality copy. That only added to the fear and enjoyment for us, because you had to imagine the horrors an audience barely could make sense of. In 2011, a special edition Blu-Ray/DVD got released and the digital picture quality is stunningly restored. Even the darkness becomes more menacing. Best watched after midnight.
Produced by Bernard Gordon and directed by Eugenio Martín, who had created ’72’s “Pancho Villa” starring Telly Salvalas (“Birdman of Alcatraz”, “Kojak”), “Horror Express” is also noteworthy as being the 19th film to feature Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in leading roles. They rose to fame in the Hammer classic monster movies of the 1960’s (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Gorgan – to name a few). Cushing went on to cement his fame in “Star Wars” (1977), and Lee appeared in the later “Star Wars” films & “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
The plot involves a famous archeologist (Lee) taking the Trans-Sibirian Express from China to Moscow, in order to transport a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive man. Cushing plays his rival, who also happens to be onboard. Naturally the missing link in the box defrosts and has more than a few surprises in store for the unfortunate passengers. The reason why, seems silly – a formless alien entity has hidden inside the prehistoric man and is now set free to jump from body to body. (It’s easy to see how the writers of 1979’s “Alien” may have been influenced by B-horror films like this.) What elevates this film to classic status is the hellishly good/creepy fantastic special effects of turning the possessed host’s eyes blazing red and victims’ eyes all white, while they bleed out. Actors really seem in pain as the horrors are unleashed upon them.
By the time the entity dominates the Eastern Orthodox mad monk onboard, played to the hilt by Alberto de Mendoza, you can be sure nightmares will haunt you forever more. The monk lays waste to an army of Cossacks who storm the train, led by Salvales, and then raises them from the dead – in a moment later borrowed to the same chilling effect by “Game of Thrones” and the Night King at Hardhome. It’s up to Mr Lee and Mr Cushing to save the survivors, including the gorgeous Countess (Silvia Tortosa), before the monk drives the train and this movie right off a cliff!
The production values from costumes, to sets, to make-up is top notch. The train sets (think The Orient Express goes to Hell) are beautiful, reused from the Pancho Villa film. The soundtrack composed by John Cacavas (who also scored Hawaii Five-O, The Bionic Woman and Kojak) is very memorable with its screeching train horn blaring through the melody. Like other Italian/Spanish films of the time, it was shot without sound and actors later dubbed the voices in, with Lee, Cushing and Salvalas providing their own voices. Interestingly, the police inspector was dubbed by English actor Roger Delgado, famous for originating the role of The Master (1971-1973) on Doctor Who. Cushing himself, had played the Doctor in two British films.
If you are fans of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing don’t miss this horror. Their off-screen friendship is always evident. The coup of hiring both Hammer legends almost fell flat, as Cushing arrived to set in Madrid grieving his wife’s death and announced that he would leave. His friend, Christopher Lee stepped up and reminded Cushing of their past work together, and put Cushing at ease. At the ’72 Sitges Film Festival in Spain, Eugenio Martín won the Critic’s Award for best script. While this thriller struggled to find an audience in Spain, it was warmly received in the U.S., Britain and Australia. As you already know, I love a horror movie that traps characters with a monster in an isolated location, and this one has a few surprises that make it rise above the common low-budget chriller. (3 out of 5 stars, but still damn eerie. Just try, you’ll never forget that bedeviled monk with the glowing red eyes. Ever!)
Next Time: “The Exorcist” & “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1973)