*. A curiosity. But irresistible.
*. In the spirit of those film pitches that reduce every movie to a combination of two other movies, it’s The Thing meets Murder on the Orient Express. And who could resist that?
*. More specifically it’s a return to John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”, which was the basis for a couple of better-known (and better) movies: The Thing from Another World and The Thing. Basically an alien creature with the power to inhabit human hosts is dug up in the mountains of Manchuria but escapes from its box and starts killing and body-hopping its way through a train filled with European eccentrics. Whodunit, and is still doing it, is the mystery to be solved.
*. Now I have to begin by saying that this is not a well made movie at all. Despite having some capable stars and making the small budget go a long way, director Eugenio (“Gene”) Martin clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he rushes through any attempt at building suspense, while the frightening scenes when the monster attacks are repetitive bursts of rapid editing, presumably meant to conceal the poor effects. The sound (all added in post-production) is awful. And they didn’t even spell Christopher Lee’s name right in the opening credits!
*. And yet so much of the resulting craziness is endearing. Take the matter of geography. The creature is apparently dug up in Manchuria but a title card tells us we’re in Szechuan. The train leaves Peking for Siberia, but goes by way of Shanghai. Did anyone look at a map of China?
*. I already mentioned the cast of eccentrics. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are united again, this time nicely working together as a pair of British archaeologists. They might be Holmes and Watson, or Charters and Caldicott. There’s also a sexy international spy, a Polish count and countess (she’s also very sexy), a mad Russian monk patterned after Rasputin, and Telly Savalas as a hammy Cossack detective in a red, fur-trimmed overcoat.
*. Best of all is the way these characters deliver some of the funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear in a Eurotrash horror film. And that is really saying something. I can’t resist a sampler.
*. The mad monk: “There is the stink of hell on this train. Even the dog knows it.” And: “You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives! The evil one is among us!”
*. An angry passenger to Savalas: “I’ll have you sent to Siberia.” Savalas: “I am in Siberia.”
*. A detective on the train: “I am only a policeman, I don’t have much education.”
*. The detective again, confronting Lee and Cushing: “What if one of you is the monster?” Cushing: “Monster? We’re British, you know.”
*. There’s a lot more like this. Indeed the whole texture of the script is woven of comic material. It gets to the point that the appearances of the monster become an annoying distraction, taking us away from all the dry and ridiculous banter.
*. The alien is another bit of craziness. For the most part I could buy into the back story, but the business with the brains of its victims being wiped and their memories absorbed into the creature’s eyeball, to be later viewed through a microscope as images appearing in its blood, is incredibly bizarre.
*. The alien’s behaviour doesn’t make much sense either. Why does it keep its hominid hand when it takes over the detective? What does it have against the sign of the cross? Why does it have to ask the engineer if gravity can be overcome? Surely it would know. And if it’s a being of pure energy capable of taking any form down to protozoa, why is it making things so difficult for itself? It could just turn itself into the countess’s poodle and get carried around by her until it got to wherever it was going.
*. This is actually a well known movie, but it hasn’t been much written about. That’s a shame. I think it’s a title that every fan of the horror movies of this period should love. Science fiction and the supernatural usually make for strange bedfellows, but here they fit with the rococo plot. Lee and Cushing of course put us in mind of their Hammer work, and even the train full of zombies at the end may make us think of Tombs of the Blind Dead (by coincidence filmed around the same time, also in Spain). It all adds up to something irresistible, so you may as well give in and enjoy the ride.