Posts Tagged ‘Horror Express’

Well, it promises to be a gribbly few days here at NCJG as a new version of The Thing arrives in UK cinemas imminently. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the 1951 version of this story, and I do appreciate that the 1982 iteration has qualities of its own. This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at John Carpenter’s version, which I haven’t seen in over a decade, but before that I thought it would be interesting to look back at the heritage of this story.

Three adaptations (we can quibble about whether to talk in terms of prequels, remakes, and suchlike) mark The Thing out as a bit of a banker as far as stories go – but we also have to take into account the legion of homages and other variations the different films have received. One way or another, there are a lot of Things out there of different kinds, some rather more obscure than others.

So, deep-frozen aliens under the polar ice. Back we go – where did this story originally come from? Which was the first Thing? Passing over the new version and moving back through time, in 2004 we encounter the possibly unexpected form of Alien Vs Predator, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. An intruder from a different set of franchises entirely, you might say – but this film qualifies. The main difference from the Thing movies is the inclusion of a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times – but even this, as we shall see, only confirms that this film is part of the same lineage, albeit something of a distant cousin.

Proceeding back to 1993, we meet our first small-screen Thing-offspring, acknowledged as such by its creators: the first-season X Files episode Ice, in which defrosted parasitic organisms infect a human research station in Alaska, resulting in much paranoia and carnage. The Carpenter version seems to have been the main inspiration here, with infectious sled-dogs and icky body-horror much in evidence. The parasites are discreet and unassuming little Things, but none of the others in the family could really fault them for their attitude.

Innocent Looking Things (ice parasites from The X Files).

Passing over other marginal candidates such as the 1988 War of the Worlds episode The Raising of Lazarus, we arrive in 1982 to find John Carpenter’s famous version of the story waiting for us. This is probably the highest-profile member of the clan , probably on the strength of the eye-popping visual effects.

80s-style Blobby Thing (an iteration of Carpenter’s take on the monster).

This is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten films, which may explain why it has always had such a polarising effect on viewers. It has such a strong identity of its own that it’s arguably less available as a source of story ideas and images than some of the other versions.

We encounter a botanical addition to the Thing lineage in 1976, in the form of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom. Typically, this story wears its sources openly on its sleeve – scientists in Antarctica uncover an alien pod, which infects one of them and initiates a shocking transformation from human to alien.

Green Thing (a Krynoid).

This story – amongst the very best of the series – is interesting in that it seems to be both looking back to the 1951 version of the story, with its hostile, humanoid plant, and forward to the 1982 one with its grim tone and emphasis on body horror. I suspect that to focus too much on this would be a mistake, as the metamorphosis in the story seems largely derived from that in the original Quatermass Experiment – although John Carpenter himself is on record as a fan of Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale.

(It may be worth mentioning in passing a number of other references to The Thing in the history of Doctor Who – most obviously in the 1967 story The Ice Warriors, which is based around the concept of deep-frozen and hostile aliens being defrosted with inevitable results.)

In 1972 we meet one of the more obscure and distant members of the family, in the Spanish horror movie Panico en el Transiberiano. No-one, to my knowledge, has made the connection between this film and The Thing before, but to me the similarities are too significant to be ignored.

Really Obscure Thing (wearing its ape-man body).

The Thing in this movie initially appears to be nothing but an ape-man, frozen in ice for thousands of years, but as the narrative progresses the startling truth is revealed – the ape is merely the latest host of a body-hopping, brain-draining alien, stranded on Earth for millions of years. The mutability of the Thing is psychological rather than physical here, but it otherwise behaves in a very similar way to its cousins elsewhere. The narrative waters are muddied somewhat by the ill-judged addition of supernatural elements to the story, but otherwise this is a fun movie which deserves to be better known.

Moving on back to 1951 we meet the first of the true Things, in Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ superb The Thing from Another World. This is really the source of the Thing archetype and nearly all the elements are here: the remote polar location, the frozen alien defrosted by mistake, the desperate battle to survive.

Black and White Thing (James Arness from the 1951 movie).

All that’s really missing is the paranoia and threat to identity which are present in most of the other versions. James Arness’ malevolent plant is rather more of a lumbering, snarling monster than most of its descendants, but the film remains a classic for all sorts of reasons.

Surely, then, we are getting close to the source of the Thing? The 1951 movie is credited as an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the most significant change being the nature of the alien itself. Campbell’s Thing is no vegetable but the amorphous, assimilating horror familiar from Carpenter’s adaptation and beyond. So the origins of the Thing as we know it really lie here in Campbell’s story.

Dog thing (Campbell’s monster in mid-transformation).

Or do they? Published two years before Campbell, and written five years before that, was a story in which an expedition to Antarctica discovers frozen aliens, which are not as dead as they first appear. Later in the story the protagonists barely escape from an amorphous, protoplasmic horror.

Original Blobby Thing (a Shoggoth).

The story in question is, of course, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which, incidentally, also features a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times. The question of whether Campbell was deliberately drawing on Lovecraft or not is an open one, and one could of course go further back and look at Lovecraft’s own sources for this tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe amongst them), but in terms of the recognisable story we’ve been tracking, this seems to be the beginning.

And the final, poetic touch? Lovecraft’s aliens – the ones that are uncovered in the ice, wreak havoc amongst the humans, and thus set the template for everything to follow – are presciently named as Elder Things. You can’t argue with something like that.

Elder Thing.

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In the past I have occasionally alluded to the infelicities that occur when movie titles are translated from one language to another. In Japan, for instance, Basic Instinct is known as Smile of Ice – well, that’s actually not that bad, certainly compared to things like The Indestructible Iron Man fights the Electronic Gang (Chinese title for A View to a Kill), Tuesday the 13th (the Brazilian version of Friday the 13th) and Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It anymore (Germany’s revision of Tough Guys).

Compared to some of the above, Horror Express isn’t too bad a title, just a terribly bland one – especially when compared to the original, which is Panico en el Transiberiano. For yes, this 1973 film, directed by Gene Martin (aka Eugenio Martin), was made in Spain, for all that it stars three imported foreign stars. Topping the bill is the latest Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Sir Christopher Lee. Rather surprisingly this film didn’t appear in the selection of highlights that accompanied his investiture, BAFTA opting for things like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars instead. Poor show. If and when the great man finally passes on, the tribute season could easily last for about four years, and hopefully it’ll pop up then.

Anyway, the movie opens in a remote area of China, where Lee, in an extravagant furry hat and nearly as extravagant moustache, is playing a paleontologist. Our man discovers a perfectly-preserved ape-man frozen into a block of ice and, as you do, decides to ship it back to Blighty to show the Royal Society.

This being about 1904, he’s obliged to go by the Trans-Siberian railway, and the scene shifts to a railway station where confusion reigns. Not in terms of the plot – Lee bumps into a slightly-less-starchy colleague and rival, who just happens to be taking the same train. He is portrayed by the great Peter Cushing, which if nothing else means that this film will have some of that old Cushing-Lee magic sprinkled upon it. The confusion arises from the fact that nobody, including the writer and director, seems entirely sure where they are and what ethnicity anyone should be.

Some of this may be down to Chinese politics at the time, which may explain why various Europeans are in positions of authority, and I suppose the fact it’s a Russian railway explains the presence of so many Spanish-people-pretending-to-be-Russian. However, this doesn’t account for Chinese characters with Russian names. Most bizarre of all, shortly after a caption appears establishing that we’re in Peking, Cushing cheerily greets Lee with ‘Hello! What are you doing in Shanghai?’ Sigh.

Oh, well. It doesn’t really matter, as everyone cheerfully gets on the train with Lee, Cushing, and the rapidly-defrosting ape-man, unperturbed by the mysterious death of a thief who snuck a peek inside the creature’s packing crate. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would ever volunteer to spend extended time in the vicinity of characters played by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Redshirts in Star Trek tend to have a longer life expectancy than Cushing-Lee movie supporting casts.)

Now, you may be thinking that this will develop into another fairly routine ‘defrosted ape-man runs amok on train’ movie, as I did the first time I saw it. But you would be wrong, as the movie has a trick and a twist up its sleeve. The ape-man indeed defrosts and runs amok, killing a few more characters with a gaze-of-death gimmick. But, less than an hour into the film, it’s shot and killed. Now what?

It turns out the monster isn’t the ape-man, but an alien mind-parasite that’s been trapped inside it: the creature has the power to hop from body to body and drain the knowledge and memories of its victims. The alien’s been stranded on Earth for at least seventy million years and would quite like to go home now. There’s a bit of a subplot about it trying to acquire the knowledge and materials to build a spacecraft, but the film doesn’t really have the space to develop this properly.

An unknown Chinese extra manages to achieve some small measure of immortality…

So in some respects Horror Express distinctly exceeds expectations. Lee and Cushing do their usual flawless stuff – Cushing is, unusually, playing second banana to some extent – and there’s a memorable performance from Alberto de Mendoza as a crazy Russian mystic who’s also on the train (he’s basically Rasputin with a railcard).

However, it drops the ball in other departments. The writers can’t resist going beyond the pulp-SF premise of the movie and throwing in elements of supernatural horror: the ape-man’s crate inexplicably repels the sign of the cross, for instance. And there’s some very, very dodgy science involved – characters in 1904 talk very casually about ‘genetic defects’, and the ‘visual memory’ of the alien is stored in the eyeballs of its hosts. Hmmm. And everyone’s very good at jumping to utterly unlikely conclusions, which always turn out to be correct.

It shows ominous signs of total collapse in its final third, but proceedings are reinvigorated by the arrival of the third imported star, Telly Savalas, who appears as Kazan, a soldier sent to investigate the weird occurences a-transpiring. Savalas overacts utterly shamelessly but gets all the best lines: ‘I’ll have you sent to Siberia!’ shrieks a noblewoman when he appears and starts throwing his weight about. ‘I’m in Siberia!’ replies Kazan, bemused. Later on, Kazan and his men have the alien’s current host and the Rasputin-a-like cornered down one end of the train, and he orders that anyone coming from that direction be shot on sight. ‘But the monk may be innocent!’ cries Cushing. ‘Ah, we got lots of innocent monks,’ shrugs Savalas. It takes a big man and a big performance to upstage Cushing and Lee in the same scene, but Telly Savalas manages it here. Respect due.

Even so, by the climax everything’s gone a bit unravelled in the name of a spectacular denouement, with the Russian authorities deciding to crash the train and a plague of zombies putting in an eleventh-hour appearance. By the standards of low-budget horror films, though, it looks good and stays fun throughout, and it’s always just a little bit better than you expect it to be – even if by the conclusion (brace yourself) Horror Express is showing distinct signs of running out of steam.

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