Archive for May, 2011

Horror Express

On the occasion of Peter Cushing’s 98th birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

An Anglo-Spanish co-production, this perennial 1972 crowd-pleaser was shot in Spain, where it was released as Panico en el Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian).  Despite its English title, the film is as much SF as horror, concerning an alien life-form that moves from host to host, accumulating knowledge from each victim it kills as it seeks a way to return to its distant home.

Like Bad Man’s River (1971) and Pancho Villa (1972), it was directed by Eugenio (aka Gene) Martín and produced by Bernard Gordon.  The blacklisted Gordon had scripted Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau and The Man Who Turned to Stone (both 1957) as “Raymond T. Marcus,” and used Philip Yordan as his front on The Day of the Triffids (1962).

One of the film’s greatest assets is its screenplay by Arnaud D’Usseau and Julian Halevy (aka Zimet), who had collaborated on an equally unusual genre film about a gang of living dead bikers, Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1971).  Horror Express is also among the finest of the more than twenty films that teamed Britain’s two top horror stars, Christopher Lee and Cushing.

Still grieving from the death of his wife Helen after a long illness—a loss that shook him until the end of his days—Cushing required some persuasion from his old friend to carry on with the project.  Luckily, it gave the actors, often used as little more than window-dressing in spite of their prominent billing, two of their biggest and best roles out of all of their many collaborations.

It is 1906, and Professor Alexander Saxton (Lee) has found a fossilized missing link in China, a major discovery that he is bringing back to England in its crate.  While waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Express, which travels between Peking and Moscow, he encounters Dr. Wells (Cushing), a fellow scientist with whom he has a strained (and delightfully played) relationship.

After the mysterious death of a locksmith who tried to open the crate on the platform, the curious Wells bribes the baggage man to look inside.  But as the supposed fossil begins using its newly-acquired skill to pick the padlock, it fixes the baggage man with a glowing red stare, and moments later he lies dead, blood flowing from every facial orifice and his eyes turned to white.

The haunting main theme by John Cacavas is used as a clever linking device:  first heard being whistled by the baggage man, it is passed along with the other information absorbed by the alien.  Wells and his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart), perform an autopsy and see that the contours of the baggage man’s brain are smoothed out, as though his memories were all erased.

Played by Juan Olaguibel in effective makeup by Julián Ruiz, the creature roams the train claiming additional victims, such as a beautiful spy, Natasha (Helga Liné).  She is killed while trying to steal a package placed in the safe by Countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa), who is traveling with her husband, Count Petrovski (Jorge Rigaud), and a monk, Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza).

The Count keeps Pujardov around as much for entertainment as for his spiritual guidance, and humiliates the sycophant at every opportunity, yet the monk is unusually sensitive to the evil on board the train.  When the creature is cornered and shot by Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), the alien enters Mirov’s body; oddly, one of his hands grows similarly hairy and must be concealed.

Petrovski tells Mirov that the package contains a revolutionary type of steel, harder than a diamond, for which only he knows the formula.  Meanwhile, the scientists discover an important clue when they place fluid from the creature’s eye under a microscope, and learn that it contains the alien’s visual memory, including images of dinosaurs and of the Earth as seen from space.

When Miss Jones is found dead, it becomes clear that the menace is still on the loose, and that the passengers must remain in pairs for safety until the host is identified.  This gives Cushing the opportunity to deliver the film’s single best line, for when Mirov asks him and Saxton, “What if one of you is the monster?,” the shocked Wells replies, “Monster?  We’re British, you know.”

Just as the protagonists gradually piece together the nature of this alien foe, the audience is kept continually intrigued by the slow revelation of its origins and purpose.  After it has killed Yevtushenko (Angel del Pozo) to gain his engineering knowledge, the train is boarded by Capt. Kazan (Telly Savalas, who had played the title role in Pancho Villa) and his vicious Cossacks.

Saxton and Wells deduce that the alien can only kill in the dark, and that an earlier effort to identify the host by examining the eyes of the passengers was useless with the lights on.  As Kazan brutalizes everyone aboard in his attempts to investigate, suspicion falls on Mirov, and Saxton douses the lights long enough to reveal his glowing red eyes, confirming him as the host.

Mirov is mortally wounded, but the alien finds a willing new host in Pujardov, who has become obsessed with serving what he thinks is Satan, and quickly takes out all of the Cossacks single-handed.  He has just killed the Count for the formula when Saxton arrives to rescue Irina, and learns that the alien was left behind when several of its kind visited the Earth millennia ago.

It can also raise the dead, forcing Saxton and Irina to run a gauntlet of zombie Cossacks as they rush to rejoin Wells and the others at the rear of the train, which has been diverted toward a cliff by the authorities.  With moments to spare they uncouple the last car, which rolls to a stop at the edge of the precipice as Pujardov, unable to master the controls, plunges to a fiery death.

Filled with action, gruesome deaths, witty dialogue, and suspense, Horror Express easily overcomes a modest budget with imagination and skill.  The crew makes the most of its confined setting (which only increases the tension), with both handsome interiors and atmospheric shots of the convincing model train racing through the snowy wilderness, as well as its outstanding stars.

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Normally, when Hollywood adapts a comic book—particularly for the first film in a presumably hoped-for franchise—I prefer them to stay as close as possible to the original stories, especially when they’re from my beloved Marvel.  (At this point, I’ll add my standard disclaimer that my Marvel frame of reference extends only from the dawn of the Marvel era to the mid-’80s.)  But in this case, I’m obliged to admit that the makers of Thor were probably wise not to stick to the thunder god’s very first adventures, begun by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Journey into Mystery #83, which were frequently earthbound and involved a lot of angst about maintaining his mortal secret identity of (literally) lame Dr. Don Blake, which made him seem like a lot of super heroes.

It must also be said that the team handling this particular adaptation is pretty damn impressive on both sides of the camera, starting with sometime Shakespearean wunderkind Kenneth Branagh a seemingly suitable choice as director.  The five credited screenwriters include Mark Protosevich, whose work was rewritten (presumably for the worse) by Akiva Goldsman on I Am Legend, and J. Michael Straczynski, whose Babylon 5 ranks in my estimation with the great fictional creations of our era.  And the cast was headed by Anthony Hopkins, appropriately regal as Odin, the “All-Father” of the Norse gods, and Natalie Portman, fresh from her deserved Oscar for Black Swan, here upgraded from Blake’s nurse and love interest to a storm-chasing scientist.

It’s a frequent observation in the BOF household that Branagh, especially outside of the Bard’s work, does best when acting or directing but not both, as he so disastrously did in, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Say my name!”).  Thor proves that point as he adroitly balances the scenes set on Midgard—that’s Earth to you, buddy—with those set in Thor’s home of Asgard and in the land of the frost giants, and as he juggles the film’s alternating serious and light tones.  My most common complaint with comic-book movies, especially Richard Donner’s Superman, is that they’re too jokey, but Branagh is judicious in his use of comedy, much of which derives from the fish-out-of-water relationship between Thor and his fellow Asgardians and us humans.

Here again, a lot of credit goes to the cast, including Australian Chris Hemsworth, who wasn’t my idea of Thor at first but admittedly won me over, and Portman’s colleagues, the legitimately Scandinavian Stellan Skarsgård and Philadelphia native Kat Dennings, whom I loved in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.  Skarsgård’s had a fascinating career, ranging from such highs as the original Norwegian Insomnia (so well remade by Christopher Nolan) and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin to the low of having his arm bitten off by a shark in Renny Harlin’s laughable Deep Blue Sea.  I’ll bet if you bought him a few aquavits he would tell you some truly hair-raising stories about the spectacular Hollywood train wreck that resulted in Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning.

Although Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston were well cast as, respectively, Odin and Thor’s brother Loki, I had more reservations about the actors—all basically new to me—playing Thor’s gal pal Sif and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun, and the not-as-Falstaffian-as-I-expected Volstagg).  Ever-reliable heavy Colm Feore was effective as Laufey, the king of the frost giants, and while Rene Russo wasn’t given that much to do as Odin’s wife, Frigga, I don’t remember her having that big a role in the comics, either.  For some reason, Heimdall, who guards Bifrost, the rainbow bridge connecting Midgard and Asgard, is now black, with which I have no problem in principle, and as embodied by Idris Elba, formerly of The Office, his was a strong and impressive presence.

What sold me on Thor when I saw a commercial for it was a quick shot of the Destroyer, since another of my frequent beefs with these films is that the villains don’t look like their comic-book counterparts, yet the Destroyer (not to be confused with Drax, his namesake in Starlin’s Thanos saga) was unmistakable.  I use the term “villain” advisedly, for as I recall he was conceived as a morally neutral construct animated by a fraction of Odin’s lifeforce, but here he is sent by Loki to attack Thor.  In the film’s complex plot, which I will not recount in detail, Thor is banished to Midgard to learn humility, hence his stormy appearance in New Mexico, and while the Big O is in his periodic restorative Odinsleep, Loki takes over and proclaims himself the king of Asgard.

Odin also chucks down Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir (which, alas, is way too large as depicted by the filmmakers, who appear to have had some compensation issues), after putting a spell on it so that it can only be lifted by one who is worthy, enabling us to go the whole Excalibur route.  All this attracts the attention of the international espionage organization S.H.I.E.L.D., which swoops in and appropriates all of Jane’s research, another facet of the film with which I was uncomfortable, although Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is not portrayed as a standard Evil Fed.  In my day, Nick Fury and company were never anything but the good guys; of course, I’m a bit biased because my pal Greg Cox made me an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in his X-Men/Avengers Gamma Quest Trilogy.

One thing I did not mind, although apparently some people did, is the ongoing effort to link new Marvel movies with the upcoming Avengers film—in this case via a cameo by Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker as Hawkeye—and it should be noted that such crossovers were part of Marvel’s unique appeal years ago, even if they got out of hand in the dreaded Secret Wars era.  While the sweeping vistas of Asgard were the usual eye-glazing CGI construct, the special effects were, in the main, well done, and the production values worthy of the film’s distinguished pedigree.  On the whole, I found Thor an extremely satisfying addition to the fast-expanding cinematic Marvel Universe, and look forward not only to his appearance in The Avengers but also, I hope, a sequel.

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On the Beach

On the occasion of Fred Astaire’s 112th birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Adapted by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute, this 1959 classic was one of the first major studio productions that seriously addressed the possible outcome of a nuclear war.  Unlike such earlier post-apocalyptic efforts as Five (1951) and The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), it examined the concept’s global ramifications instead of concentrating on a few isolated survivors.

One of Hollywood’s most socially conscious filmmakers, Stanley Kramer tackled various sensitive subjects in his films as a producer and/or director.  These included paraplegics in The Men (1950), racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), evolution in Inherit the Wind (1960), and the Holocaust in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

Kramer produced and directed, with a cast headed by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Astaire (in a rare dramatic role), and Anthony Perkins.  “I only hoped that the emotional impact of what we were presenting would convince people that we’d damn well better do something to assure our survival,” he wrote in 1984, in an essay for Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies.

Dwight Towers (Peck) is the commander of a U.S. sub that arrives in Australia, where the only remaining survivors of a nuclear war await the cloud of lethal radiation heading inexorably toward them.  Young navy officer Peter Holmes (Perkins) and his wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), introduce Towers to Moira Davidson (Gardner), who is busily drinking away the rest of her life.

At the same weekend party, he meets scientist Julian Osborn (Astaire), who is later asked by the crewmen of the Sawfish how the end of the world came to be unleashed.  “The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace can be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide,” he responds.

Although haunted by memories of his dead wife and children, Towers eventually gives in to his growing affection for Moira, which has a salutary effect on her dissolute lifestyle.  The sub travels to San Diego to investigate a series of undecipherable radio signals, which are caused by a windblown shade tapping a soda bottle against a telegraph key, and then returns to Melbourne.

Each faces death in his own way:  auto enthusiast Julian buys a sports car and wins a race before asphyxiating himself with exhaust; Peter poisons himself, Mary, and their baby to avoid a lingering death from radiation sickness; and after they have enjoyed an idyllic fishing trip, Moira waves goodbye as Towers takes the sub out on one last voyage, knowing that it will never return.

Remade for cable in 2000 with Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown, On the Beach is a moving, thought-provoking cautionary tale, with the popular tune “Waltzing Matilda” as a melancholy musical motif.  Superior on all counts, the film is rich with evocative detail as it presents the varied responses of its fully rounded characters to the unthinkable reality they face.

On a personal note, when I shared this film a few months ago with three generations of Bradley women (my mother, wife, and daughter), I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, and that’s saying something…

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Dana Wynter (1931-2011)

All too recently, we lost Kevin McCarthy, the genial star of Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and now his leading lady, the strikingly beautiful Dana Wynter, is gone a few weeks shy of her 80th birthday.  Although Kevin and I did not discuss her in our interview, which covered the later phase of his career, I remember that he always spoke very highly of Ms. Wynter (whose first name, as I recall, he pronounced more like “Donna” than the “Day-na” one would expect).  She sounded like a person whose warmth and class equaled her loveliness, all qualities that came across in her Body Snatchers character of Becky Driscoll, which of course makes it all the more heartbreaking when Kevin’s Miles Bennell realizes she has been snatched.

Born Dagmar Winter in Berlin, Dana was not especially prolific in her forty-odd years in front of the camera, with most of her 82 IMDb credits consisting of guest shots on an impressive range of TV series.  Among them were Suspense, Playhouse 90, The Dick Powell Theatre, Wagon Train, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Gunsmoke, Get Smart, Hawaii Five-O, The Rockford Files, and The Love Boat.  Her few features included D-Day the Sixth of June (1956, the same year she shared a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer), Something of Value (1957), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), and Airport (1970), and Wynter played Queen Elizabeth II in the TV-movie The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982).

Although she earned a place in the genre pantheon for her portrayal of Becky Driscoll, Wynter made several other genre appearances, including roles in “The Captive,” an episode of the SF series The Invaders, and the failed Gene Roddenberry pilot The Questor Tapes (1974).  She also had her own mainstream series, the short-lived The Man Who Never Was, which was created by genre mainstay John Newland and ran for 18 episodes in the 1966-67 season; Wynter starred opposite Robert Lansing, with whom she had made two guest appearances on Twelve O’Clock High.  But if you want to remember this talented and lovely lady in her most iconic performance, there can be no better time to settle in for a memorial viewing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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Three deaths in quick succession, one inevitably overshadowing the others, so let’s look at those first, starting with actor William Campbell, who merits inclusion not least because he is quoted in Richard Matheson on Screen discussing Running Wild (1955) co-star Mamie van Doren, who later appeared in Matheson’s The Beat Generation (1959).  His mainstream credits include The Breaking Point (1950), Battle Circus (1953), Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Battle Cry (1955), Love Me Tender (1956), and The Naked and the Dead (1958).  But he is best known for his genre roles in multiple Star Trek series and two cult classics, Roger Corman’s Dementia 13 (1963) and the patchwork Track of the Vampire (aka Blood Bath, 1966).

Next, the body of actress and July 1959 Playboy Playmate Yvette Vickers was recently found in her home in a state of decomposition so advanced that she may have died as long as a year ago.  Remembered primarily for playing sexy, adulterous white-trash vixens in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), she rose above the mire with Hud (1963), and was later cast by Curtis Harrington (who described her in our interview as “a good friend”) in his genre films What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and The Dead Don’t Die (1975).  She had reportedly become severely paranoid; when we saw her at a genre-film convention several years back, she seemed quite sociable, if dramatically heavier than in her (luscious) centerfold.

Finally, although I’m not normally the type to celebrate the death of another human being, as one of the many who were working in Manhattan on 9/11 (albeit not near Ground Zero), I do revel in that of Osama bin Laden.  I recall so many things about that day:  hearing that the first plane had flown into the World Trade Center, and envisioning some sort of little Piper Cub; watching from the roof of our midtown building as the second tower burned; the surreal walk downtown to the Alphabet City apartment where my generous friends sheltered me while I was stranded in New York City that night.  I also remember walking back uptown the next day, seeing the poster for Schwarzenegger’s then-imminent flick Collateral Damage, and thinking, “Good luck with that.”

But most of all, I remember learning how terrified my daughter had been because, at the age of twelve, her grasp of Manhattan geography was insufficient to reassure her that I had been at a safe distance from the tragedy, and she apparently had a very tough time of it until things were explained to her.  I hope she is reading this now and knows how much her concern meant, and still means, to me, and how much it hurts me to think that I had even inadvertently caused her pain, and how much love and pride I feel for her every day.  And to all of those less fortunate ones whose fathers (and mothers and children and siblings and grandparents and neighbors and loved ones and friends) didn’t come home safely from that dark day, I say this:  you are avenged.

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