Sunday, 1 April 2012


Webmaster and archivist extraordinaire Marcus Brooks, without whom these Cushtravaganzae would not be half as appealing, can take credit for this week’s central conceit but that title is all mine, baby! Following on from last, er, month’s entry (a small case of redundancy threw a wrench in the creative works) I’ve tackled another Amicus production for your rabid appreciation, as well as one of my favourite Cushing/ Lee efforts, the wonderful Horror Express. Both feature our gallant thesp in on-track adventure and as a double bill they work well, not just thematically but as a pair of good films worth watching with your eyes and all that. With that excessive grandiloquence out of the way, let us move onwards as the Movie Marathon cheats a lap and travels in style by rail...

Peter Cushing (Dr Schreck). Werewolf:- Neil McCallum (Jim Dawson), Ursula Howells (Mrs Bidoff), Katy Wild (Valda), Peter Madden (Caleb). Creeping Vine:- Alan Freeman (Bill Rogers), Ann Bell (Ann Rogers), Bernard Lee (Hopkins), Sarah Nichols (Carol Rogers), Jeremy Kemp (Drake). Voodoo:- Roy Castle (Biff Bailey), Kenny Lynch (Sammy). Disembodied Hand:- Christopher Lee (Franklyn Marsh), Michael Gough (Eric Landor). Vampire:- Donald Sutherland (Bob Carroll), Jennifer Jayne (Nicole Carroll), Max Adrian (Dr Blake)

Director – Freddie Francis, Screenplay – Milton Subotsky, Producers – Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg, Photography – Alan Hume, Music – Elizabeth Lutyens, Music Co-ordinator – Philip Martell, Jazz Music – Tubby Hayes, Songs – Kenny Lynch, Special Effects – Ted Samuels, Makeup – Roy Ashton, Art Direction – Bill Constable. Production Company – Amicus.

I swore aloud as I loaded my good buddy Kirby’s copy of Dr. Terror and spied the German title as it lit my screen (he has a habit of speaking other languages like a great big multicultural jerk) but luckily the disc has English audio and I stopped just short of sending him an angry text (something along the lines of “curse you Kirby, WE CAN’T ALL SPEAK GERMAN”). The credits don't hold any exciting secrets (and in fact I managed to miss one cast member altogether whose later appearance surprised me to no end) but given that Sir Pete plays the titular Terror I could at least look forward to an expanded role compared to the last two Amicus films I "reviewed".

Within the first five minutes I'd developed a sneaking suspicion about how the train on which five hapless sorts are traveling was going to figure into the overall plot. Let's just say that if you've seen a few of the other Amicus anthologies, you're unlikely to be shocked by the last minute revelation. What gets me is how they (ie Milton Subotsky) were so comfortable essentially writing the same film over and over given how pivotal the framing device is, in these movies.

Anyway, on pile the sharply dressed young men. Ooh, look,  one's Christopher Lee. And there's Donald Sutherland. And last among them comes beardy, quietly menacing, overbite-sporting Dr. Terror himself, our man Cush. As the good doctor, he is simply tremendous, nailing a very subtle German accent and intoning "an unfortunate misnomer, for I am the mildest of men". Your words say mildest, Terror, but your very nature screams trouble. He commences doling out tall tales about his companions' futures based on his deck of tarot cards (in a treatment no fortune teller has ever given me) to a mixture of rapt interest and vehement denouncement on Lee's part. Christopher Lee as a stuffy, uptight nerd. Now I've seen everything.

The first of the five stories features a werewolf and a house and some people and things. One lady comments, "the only thing I don’t like about living on this island is that the shops don’t deliver” and I can’t help but think that her perspective is going to change once she realises someone buried a werewolf in her basement (and as excellent as this film’s title is, “Someone Buried A Werewolf In My Basement” is miles better, right?) A ludicrously Scottish man roams about the house, discovers some remains in the basement, is stalked out of shot by a HAIRY HAND (nothing I love more in a horror film that a hairy hand attached to nothing) and finally distracted by a rat, long enough for the werewolf to escape from its coffin (its coffin???) and attack, I dunno, someone. We have a Hammer Scream, those delightful male shrieks of terror, despite this being made by a rival studio. Then the werewolf knocks a door and waits for permission to enter. This is the best werewolf scene in the history of movies. Then there's a twist and we're back on the train for round two.

That surprise I mentioned earlier? BERNARD LEE! M HIMSELF! You know, before M himself was M herself. Surely he is the only man who could deliver the line "a dog, strangled by a vine" with such gravitas. Oh yeah, this story's about a vine that kills people. Basically, if I was to sum it up, it's kinda like the entire plot of The Happening, but condensed into about 20 minutes in a much, much better film. But no less stupid. Plant-based horror just turns me right off. As much as the hand-operated scary branches amused me, I had totally forgotten about this section until reading my notes afterwards, and that's the truth.

Next, cheeky chappy Roy Castle nips off to the West Indies (OF DOOM) with a borderline offensive accent adoption to steal notes from voodoo-fond drummers to use in his jazz band before spooky goings-on turn him off musical plagiarism for life, but it's played for laughs and has no real ramification at all. Plus he runs past a film poster for, you guessed it, "Someone Buried A Werewo"..., sorry, Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors. Skip!

Round 4, and Christopher Lee is given a chance to shine as a particularly spiteful art critic (aren't they ALL?) who comes up against his old Dracula nemesis Michael Gough and runs him over for making him look like a fool with the use of a chimp. There's another Hammer Scream in there (from Gough, surely a dab hand), and a murderous hand that stalks Lee across the country before his ironic comeuppance at the end of the section.

Then Donald Sutherland and crap pajamas and a vampire and a doctor but not a vampire but a vampire AND a doctor.

In case you couldn't tell, I really wanted to get to the ending, which brings revelations about Dr. Terror and his terror train. Sure, you could see it coming from a hundred miles away (with a telescope) but it's so tastefully executed even with the use of a plastic skull (ever notice these horror skulls never have a full set of teeth?). When asked about his true identity, Cushing turns and chills to the marrow with a "have you not guessed?" It's the creepiest moment in any Cushing performance I've ever seen and the best single line to grab from any of films to showcase his talent in a single moment.

Christopher Lee (Sir Alexander Saxton), Peter Cushing (Dr Wells), Julio Pena (Inspector Mirov), Albert de Mendoza (Pujardov), Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan), Silvia Tortosa (Irina Petrovski), Alice Reinhart (Miss Jones), Jorge Rigaud (Count Petrovski), Helga Line (Natasha)

Director/Story – Gene Martin [Eugenio Martin], Screenplay – Arnaud D’Usseau & Julian Halervy, Producer – Bernard Gordon, Photography – Alejandro Ulloa, Music – John Cacavas, Special Effects – Pablo Perez, Makeup – Julian Ruiz, Art Direction – Ramiro Gomez Guardiana. Production Company – Grenada/Benmar Productions.  ( AKA Panic On The Trans-Siberian (Panico en el Transiberiano)

Horror Express has a lot going for it. Sir Pete, actual knight Sir Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas are surrounded by an impressive cast including the supremely creepy Alberto De Mendoza as whistling monk Pujardov. Oh, and let’s not forget the hulking man-thing that’s loose aboard the Orient Express treating the passengers as his very own all-you-can-eat brainfeast. My Cinema Club DVD isn’t the best transfer (in fact, it’s that bad that when I heard there was an HD transfer forthcoming I literally didn’t believe it. I actually, truly thought it was some kind of really rubbish joke designed to wind up a small portion of cult horror fans. Go fig) but it suits the low budget cheapness of the film. Some films are best watched in poor quality, argues the horror purist. I mean, any film that opens with a shaky shot of a train whistling by with the shadow of the cameraman in shot would hardly benefit from the clarity HD would bring to such messiness. Seriously, the opening scene where a bodaciously-mustachioed Lee discovers the aforementioned man-thing in a cave looks more like on-set footage from a documentary than an actual establishing scene in a motion picture. Hardly something to get upset over, so let’s move on to the meat of this mother.

It also becomes apparent as the credits roll that this is a Spanish production and you may begin to wonder just how our most English of Englishmen are going to fit into proceedings. As it turns out, the film was shot in silence as a cost-cutting measure and is, entirely, dubbed. It’d take a trained ear to notice, though, and there’s a touch of professionalism that could fool you if that total lack of reverb didn’t stick out like a sore, hairy thumb.

I’ll tell you one thing that really makes this movie is John Cacavas’ score, and despite the name he’s not a member of the Spanish team but a UK veteran who scored – horribly – the last two Cushing/ Lee Dracula pictures, but I’ve dealt with those before and I’ve gotta move on. His central theme pops up both on the score and on characters’ lips as the haunting whistled tune makes its way somewhat metaphysically across the train, spelling doom for all those who encounter it one way or another.

The missing link monster and the abundance of shots of only his hairy arm or face in shadow recall the earlier Cushing vehicle The Abominable Snowman which has too enjoyed the Movie Marathon treatment. I’m sure it’s nothing as obvious as homage but it’s neat picking up similarities anyway. Perhaps what this film is best remembered for is the line “Monster? We’re British, you know?”, another delicious stab of metaphysics given that as far as the reel world was concerned that’s exactly what the British had been known for for close to thirteen years upon its 1972 release.

Early impressions of Lee’s character paint him as a bit of a jerk, and he’s arguably responsible for every single death in the movie when it comes down to it. When Pujardov demonstrates that his monster-containing crate doesn’t allow the tracing of a chalk cross, he dismisses it as “a conjurer's trick” and later hypnosis. Honestly, you think he of all people would know better. Like he’s above hypnotising PYTs to get what he wants. He emerges as something resembling a hero towards the end but for the most part he’s just there for Cushing to play of off. As often, Sir Pete is in gentleman mode, and this is one of his most upbeat performances given the recent death of his wife Helen. Sadly, we’re not treated to a Cushing Ruckus or any real instance of violence but as ever it’s a joy to watch his graceful delivery of dialogue, particularly when requested to perform an autopsy during his dinner. At another point he makes a fairly understandable statement but caps it with the analogy “like chalk erased from a blackboard”, and while its necessity is questionable you can’t help but appreciate him taking the effort. He’s also accused (by way of implication) of sexism early in the film which I honestly don’t think he’s at all capable of, even as a fictional character.

And even though this isn’t the Alberto De Mendoza And Telly Savalas Appreciation Society UK (can we get working on that, Marcus? Call me, we’ll do lunch), these two deserve probably the most praise for their commanding performances. De Mendoza is instantly creepy and almost messianic in appearance (which given the movie’s final reel is chillingly prescient), swaying in general dishevelment and stealing his every scene. Savalas, who’s introduced late in the film spouting disjointed madness in what appears to be a giant wooden sex crib, is movie gold. Not a second wasted, he brings the action wherever he goes and films from Capricorn One to The Muppet Movie have benefited from a Savalas injection.

The monster merits a mention too. For the most part he’s rendered comical, thanks to those shots of his arm fondling about for things his single red eye can’t quite see, but the later revelation that he’s as old as creation and in that grandeur akin to Satan is heady stuff and adds a depth to his prosthetic shenanigans most filmmakers can only dream of. Still, the scene where his memories are viewed through his removed ocular fluid and reveal his palling about with dinosaurs could just as easily be read (by me) that he recently visited an art gallery. M’only sayin’.

The horror of the title is fairly full on, too, with grue to spare and a blacker than black stripe of humour thanks to the monster’s inquisitive opening of skulls, post-autopsy, with a satisfying coconut clap. His murdering technique of bleeding out memories through the eyes, accompanied by a striking and unsettling music cue, is very effective. Top marks. Heck, top of the class, monster.

A few telling shots of the train as a model give away the inevitable explosive ending, but despite certain confirmations that this is another disposable star-powered studio horror laced with wry humour and populated by ladies with nothing to do but look privileged and pretty, there’s a serious heaviness to the film’s implications about the nature of evil and it’s really worth any horror fan’s time. There’s lofty ambition amongst the shlock.

So, another pair down and another step closer to striking ‘consume the complete Peter Cushing catalogue or at least that much of it that I can easily lay my hands on’ off the awkwardly-phrased bucket list. These are two I’d easily recommend. Horror Express is a sleazy little classic and Dr. Terror’s the best of the Amicus films I’ve seen so far, which is to say the best of three slightly numbing experiences that successfully blend entertainment with vague disappointment. At least each is a solid platform for the talents of the one man for whom we’re all here....Peter Cushing.

Call back in a fortnight to catch me on another lap...!

Review: Paul Mcnamee
Images: Marcus Brooks

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