Posts Tagged ‘Panico en el Transiberiano’

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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