Time for the 67th installment of Scott’s Film Geek Journal and the third installment of “31 Days of Spooky Stuff.” Getting from here to there is difficult in today’s column. Two of our films deal with scares on a train while another takes to the sea to bring the boo’s.
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.
What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 67
(31 DAYS OF SPOOKY STUFF – DAY 3 – OCT. 3, 2013)
HORROR EXPRESS (1972) – One look at the cast for this film and you’d be forgiven for assuming it would follow the model of British horror that had been established in the past fifteen years. But HORROR EXPRESS turns out to be something much weirder than anything from Hammer or Amicus.
The film takes place on the Trans-Siberian Express. On board the train are an assorted cast of characters, including an anthropologist (Christopher Lee) who is transporting a frozen caveman he found in Manchuria. He believes this will be the scientific discovery of the century. What he doesn’t know is that the caveman thaws out, thanks to the efforts of Lee’s rival (played by Peter Cushing, natch), and is now killing people will laserbeam eyes. Trust me, the film just gets more bizarre from here.
HORROR EXPRESS is a quirky film that plays things straight. This has helped it gain a richly deserved cult following over the years. No matter how silly things get, there is a definite spooky vibe going on here and a continuing sense of unease.
You’ve got the great masters of British horror, Lee and Cushing, playing against each other as only they can. But then you have a number of other characters and red herrings gumming up the works. The characters are characters, not merely potential victims. It’s all terribly enjoyable. Perhaps the only thing keeping this from getting a “highly recommended” rating from me is a scenery chewing performance by Telly Savalas midway through the picture. Savalas is certainly having a good time, but it just doesn’t seem to fit here. People who don’t know their history may be confused by this late in the game plot twist.
But man, HORROR EXPRESS is a great name, isn’t it? Probably would make a great name for a website, like maybe one that is still around and that I edited for a few years in the 2000’s. Recommended.
DEATH SHIP (1980) – A cruise ship collides with a derelict vessel at sea, leaving only a handful of survivors. They are seemingly rescued when the same vessel reappears and they make their way on board. Turns out however that the ship was once used by the Nazis and is now haunted by their vengeful ghosts.
DEATH SHIP was one of a handful of films that tried to breathe new life into the waning disaster movie by adding supernatural elements. It was a fixture on television in the 1980s which might explain why so many people seem to have fond memories of the film.
But honestly, while there are a number of treasures from this era, DEATH SHIP does not hold up well at all. The characters are pretty abysmal, being the same broad stereotypes that you would find in any Irwin Allen production. There’s a selfish ladies man, a couple of annoying kids and even a bitter captain who was three days from retirement when this whole thing went down. Ivor Slaney’s overbearing music score kills any suspense that Alvin Rakoff’s TV movie-like direction could have ever hoped to achieve. It just doesn’t work. Awful.
TERROR TRAIN (1981) – For all the pranks young people pulled on each other throughout the 1970s and 80s, they should have kept in mind that there was always the possibility of the victim taking their revenge. This is exactly what happens in TERROR TRAIN. A bunch of fraternity jerks set up a strange fellow student for one of their pranks, which leads to him being carted out to the nuthouse. Years later, the students have grown up (well, most of them anyway) and are now ready to graduate. They have a costume party aboard a train, not knowing that a killer – perhaps the same one they wronged years before – has killed one of their classmates on the platform and is now lurking amongst them. Every time he kills someone else, he slips into their costume of choice, allowing him to remain safely anonymous (and apparently being a perfect fit for everyone on the train as well).
There are lots of logical leaps one has to make when watching TERROR TRAIN. All the same, it winds up being one of the better slashers of the Golden Age. Jamie Lee Curtis is on hand as the Final Girl and does another admirable job. The characters are such that there is a genuine tension as all the non-horror stuff intersects with the killer’s secret murder spree.
TERROR TRAIN was the first film directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who went on to direct dozens of films, some which were great (UNDER FIRE, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, HIROSHIMA) and others which were forgettable (AIR AMERICA, TURNER & HOOCH). He gathered an eclectic cast of newcomers and seasoned veterans and also lassoed David Copperfield for a supporting role. Copperfield later joked that he tried to have all the copies of TERROR TRAIN seized and destroyed rather than risk anyone seeing his performance. He’s a bit too hard on himself. Yes, it’s silly. But it’s also a lot of fun, much more so than several of the films that vied for slasher gold. Highly Recommended.
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 294
Miss any of the previous Journal entries? Check them out here!
And tune into my new web series, Moviocrity!