BluRay/DVD Reviews

HORROR EXPRESS

By • Dec 15th, 2011 •

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This is in a number of ways a unique experience in the period’s output of horror cinema. Cushing and Lee appear together in a distinctly non-Hammer, non-Amicus production, and they interact with each other, and with other cast members, in ways we haven’t previously seen. I attribute this mainly to Arnaud d’Usseau’s screenplay.

D’Usseau was a black-listed writer who, miraculously, found both work and a wife he loved (who he wouldn’t have met otherwise) in Europe after being forced to leave the US. Despite this being one of the nicer endings to a McCarthy period witch-hunt story, he nonetheless never forgave Kazan and the other friendly witnesses who named names and ruined so many careers.

Arnaud was also a good friend of mine in his later years. We would often talk about his European work, about Hollywood films, screenwriting and the blacklist, and truthfully, horror films were rarely a focus of his musings, although he certainly liked the films of Val Lewton. In fact much of the narrative in HORROR EXPRESS unfolds as if it were a multi-drama in the manner of GRAND HOTEL, or a classic Hitchcock-on-a-train-scenario, as if Arnaud preferred writing that kind of script, then surrounded it with a gruesome, claustrophobic, unearthly menace. Unusual as it therefore is, it’s an easily re-watchable treat, affording viewers and fans a glimpse of the two leading horror stars of the era in a vehicle that enables them to stray outside the confines of their normal Sangsteresque scripts.

This was one of Cushing’s first film outings after his wife’s death, whose passing was a crushing blow for him. She had died early on during the filming of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (January 14th, 1971) at Hammer, and Cushing was released from his role and replaced by Andrew Keir. Months later, he plunged back into acting, and kept at it, to distract himself from his anguish until he could join his wife in the afterlife. Still, he didn’t think he could rise to the occasion for HORROR EXPRESS, and it was Christopher Lee, apparently, who kept him from bailing out of the project.

The story barrels along with the speed of the Trans-Siberian Express, its sequences clumsily transitioned with shots of the train racing by from various angles and spatial perspectives. This roughness can be largely forgiven when one learns that there was only one train car afforded the director, and that car had to be re-art-decorated after all the scenes to be shot in each car/set were completed. If this bizarre handicap was really imposed on the director, then such a challenge makes the film a text-book illustration of art department and continuity resourcefulness.

A long (over an hour) 1973 interview with Peter Cushing in front of an assemblage of horror fans is rare and enlightening, though not terribly exciting. Cushing speaks falteringly, and the audience waits through a few long-winded and less than rousing responses. But it is the only such track I know of, and I was thrilled to hear his memories about such important events as appearing with Laurel & Hardy in A CHUMP AT OXFORD.

Equally important, a half-hour interview with Bernard Gordon, another black-listed screenwriter who ended up in Spain working with Screenwriter/Producer Philip Yordan and Producer Samuel Bronston on EL CID, 55 DAYS AT PEKING, and HORROR EXPRESS, bringing in other black-listed writers like Arnaud to help build the patchwork scripts that became those films. D’Usseau worked, for instance, on Ava Gardner’s dialogue for 55 DAYS. This is one of the better accounts I’ve seen of the black-list era.

And director Eugenio Martin remembers the making of the film, corroborating some of what we’ve heard all these years. The use of the model train, he recalls, was something the actors enjoyed. I can imagine Cushing getting pleasure from it – he collected model soldiers as a hobby.

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