Monday, August 31, 2015

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)


One of the strangest things about classic works and pop culture mainstays, is realizing that at one new they were brand new and untested. Jaws and Star Wars were expected to be huge bombs, James Bond was originally adapted to be an American CIA agent named "Jimmy Bond" for an episode of an anthology TV show, and once upon a time Godzilla's name was not considered enough of a box office draw in the very land that gave birth to him.

In 1962, and the following International releases in 1963, King Kong vs. Godzilla proved to be a huge hit. Toho had clearly made the right decision in licensing the character of King Kong and using him to bring their homegrown monster back to the big screen after a 7 year absence. For the first time since 1955's rushed sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla was seen as a viable franchise property at a time when franchises were not the norm.

(For more evidence of how unusual franchises were at that time, remember that Godzilla Raids Again became "Gigantis, The Fire Monster" in the US because the studio assumed audiences would be more likely to go see a new film than a sequel)

Well, Toho may have seen the franchise potential in Godzilla, but they clearly weren't all that sure of his name value yet. When it came time to follow up King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla was once again the second-billed monster. Clearly 1961's Mothra had been enough of a success that Toho felt audiences would see Mothra as the draw and cast Godzilla as the sinister foil to her heroic role.


Man, I would love to know the story behind this wacky publicity still.
In the US, however, that sentiment was much the opposite. While this entry is easily one of the least altered Godzilla films to make it to US theaters, the title and poster art promised an entirely different film: Godzilla vs. The Thing. Gone was even the barest mention of Mothra in trailers and promotional materials--and even in the film, characters inexplicably refer Mothra by her proper name and as "The Thing," interchangeably. On posters, Godzilla was shown facing off against a big question mark or, in the case of the astoundingly dishonest poster above, wrestling with a tentacled monstrosity so horrible it has to be hidden behind a "Censored" panel.

I really, really wish there was more available press from the time of the film's release because I seriously must know how many people walked out of the film feeling ripped off.

I would like to believe that some of the sting was taken out by the fact that the film they did see was amazing.

We open with the most famous of Akira Ifukube's themes, and the theme that became as inseparable from Godzilla as tapping two piano keys became from killer sharks. For Japanese audiences, this would actually be the second time they heard this theme, but producer John Beck tragically deprived Western audiences of it when he was chopping King Kong vs. Godzilla to pieces. The theme is a prelude to a raging typhoon that obliterates a seaside industrial area we'll later discover is Kurada Beach. Say what you want about how obvious the miniatures are in this sequence, the scale of destruction rendered is impressive.

The next morning, huge pumps are hard at work flushing the water back out to sea. An unnamed politician (Kenzo Tabu) arrives to bloviate about how successful he cleanup has been and, in what I am convinced is not an accident, he has a Hitler mustache. The press shows up in drives and we focus on journalist Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada!) and his photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi!). Sakai is rather unimpressed that Junko hasn't instantly begun taking photos, but he's distracted from haranguing her by the politician singling him out. It seems Sakai has been critical of the politician's progress in cleaning up after the typhoon.

Sakai escapes having his ear chewed off by the politician because the man is too busy using the crowd for self-promotion to actually keep an eye on the man he was just angrily confronting. Sakai, meanwhile, finds Junko setting up for a shot and is annoyed when he finds out it's her first. (Sakai is kind of a jerk) However, when he sees what she's shooting he's stunned out of his lecture on how easy photography is--floating among some wreckage is an object the size of a hubcap, rainbow colored like oil on water. And then Sakai picks it up, ruining Junko's shot.

Meanwhile, back at the newspaper they work for, a call comes in to the chief editor, Murata (Jun Tazaki, here not playing a general). In the first instance of a running gag, the news Murata gets causes him to prevent Nakamura (Yu Fujiki) from finishing eating a egg--at a beach near the site of the typhoon, an enormous rainbow-colored egg has been sighted floating offshore.

The fishermen of the village are scared of the egg, but the head villager (Akira Tani) tells them that it's a great opportunity for the village and the priest (Ikio Sawamura, the old man in practically every Ishiro Honda film I've mentioned before) assures them that the Gods will protect them from any curse upon the egg. Well, that's good enough for the fishermen and they row out in their canoes and somehow bring the egg ashore.

Sakai and Junko are naturally quick to make the scene--though not quick enough that we don't get a spinning newspaper announcement of the egg's discovery first. The egg is surrounded by scientists taking samples, lead by Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi, who sadly passed away earlier this summer). Miura is not interested in answering questions, but despite her accidentally blinding him with a flashbulb even he can't resist Junko's cuteness and relents to answer one question at her urging. Sakai then blows this opportunity by asking if the egg will explode.

Sorry, Sakai, you're thinking of beached whales not beached eggs. (Don't search YouTube for footage of exploding whales unless you have a strong stomach)

Well, Miura doesn't get to take many samples because suddenly the head villager arrives with Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima, last seen here being eaten by an H-Man), a sleazy businessman with a Hitler mustache. Again, I don't think this was accidental. Kumayama's company, Happy Enterprises, has purchased the egg from the villagers and, in an amusing bit, we find out the price was determined by multiplying the wholesale price of one chicken egg by how many chicken eggs this monster egg is equal to. At any rate, over Sakai, Junko, and Miura's objections Kumayama has the scientists driven away--but promises to let them study the egg for the same fee he's going to charge everyone else to see it. And then he asks unko to take his picture and deliberately ruins the shot by blowing smoke at her.

Presumably the scene of him kicking a puppy was cut for time.

At a nearby hotel, Sakai, Junko, and Miura are all together, discussing the issue. All three agree that Happy Enterprises shouldn't be allowed to keep the egg. However, none of them know what to do about it. Miura scoffs that the government would need too many committee meetings to even decide it's worth discussing, while Sakai can only offer his role as a journalist to try and sway public opinion against Happy Enterprises.

As the three are exiting the hotel, presumably to go to dinner, they see Kumayama coming in and asking the front desk if a certain party has arrived. Sakai gets the feeling that maybe Kumayama isn't in charge after all, and this might be a chance to see who's pulling his strings. Sakai is right, for Kumayama is meeting Jiro Torahata (Kenji Sahara!) in Torahata's room. As he lounges in sunglasses at night and chews on a fancy cigar, Torahata discusses the wonderful profit potential of the monster egg--and the two pore over a blueprint of the giant incubator they'll build for the egg.

Now, you might think that the Japanese government might come down swiftly on any corporation incubating a kaiju egg on Japanese soil--especially since, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, they wouldn't let Tako's company bring King Kong to Japan. However, this is never addressed in the film and I'm fairly certain that is a part of the film's satire of Japanese corporate culture. Especially since, in the original Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong is blocked not because he is a public menace--he's blocked because Tako hasn't paid the import taxes on him!

At any rate, as Torahata congratulates himself on a wonderful plan and draws on his cigar, a tiny voice objects that is plan is wrong. I mean a literal tiny voice. Two tiny voices, actually. Torahata assumes the voies are corporate spies after the plans and shoves them into a locker full of cash--which Kumayama almost literally drools over. However, the two men soon discover the source of the voices is on a nearby shelf, where the twin fairies or Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito, or "The Peanuts", reprising their roles from Mothra) are standing in order to implore the two men to return the egg.

It doesn't go well.

Torahata and Kumayama immediately think that they should follow in the villainous Nelson's footsteps in Mothra (apparently unaware how badly that ended for Nelson) by capturing the fairies and displaying them with the egg. Unfortunately, the Shobijin have learned some tricks since their last visit to civilization and easily elude the two men. Sakai uses the sound of their struggle as an excuse to rush into the room. He's quickly ushered out, but now he knows Torahata is involved.

Sakai meets with Junko and Miura in the woods behind the hotel. As they discuss ideas for how to deal with the issue, they are addressed by two tiny voices imploring them to return the egg. Junko spies the Shobijin on a tree branch. Our heroic trio is, naturally, far more willing to listen to reason. Especially once the fairies reveal that the egg is Mothra's and, in flashback, explain that the egg was washed away when the tidal waves caused by the typhoon wore away the cliff face it was buried in. If the egg is not returned before it hatches, the larva inside might cause great damage in its search for food. The natives of the island have been praying for the egg's safe return for days, but the Shobijin caught a ride to Japan on Mothra.

What's that? Oh, yeah, Mothra is sitting right over there on a nearby hill. Her attempt to "wave" hello nearly blows the poor humans away with the force of her wings.

In the hopes that, together, they might be able to succeed where separately they had failed, our heroes bring the Shobijin to a meeting with Kumyama and Torahata. Hilariously, being told that the egg belongs to a giant moth that had leveled Tokyo and New Kirk City only three years earlier, just makes Torahata joke that they should come back with whatever lawyers Mothra can provide. Seeing that Junko has the Shobijin inside the box she's carrying only makes the two sleazeballs offer to buy the twin fairies. So much for that plan.

Regrouping at a restaurant, Sakai, Junko, and Miura take turns despairing of how hopeless it is. They've simply done all they can. And then they notice the Shobijin have vanished. The three quickly realize that the fairies must have gone back to Mothra. It's too late, though, as they hear the voices of the fairies thanking them for their efforts, but they're going back to Infant Island--and then Mothra nearly blows them away on take-off.

Mothra is taking a noticeably more diplomatic approach to retrieving her young than she did to retrieving the fairies in her last outing.

Since this is a film from 1964, Sakai and Murata discuss the best way to sway public opinion via their newspaper. However, while their articles do unsettle the villagers enough to force Kumayama to borrow money from Torahata to keep them happy, Happy Enterprises still goes ahead with activating the furnaces that power their incubator. So far the free press is powerless against the corporate juggernaut.

Well, soon that monster egg will be old news. Junko fetches Sakai because Miura left a message for them. After insisting the two go through a decontamination chamber, Miura informs them that the weird object they found in the typhoon wreckage at Kurada Beach is radioactive. They go back to test the area, now clear of water, for residual activity. Unfortunately, the politician from earlier tells them to get lost when he discovers they aren't there to praise his efforts. Except when Sakai goes to collect Junko, she points out to him that she has been unable to get a good shot of the industrial area because the land is moving.

Sure enough, the land is rising and falling like something is pushing up from underneath it. A srage fountain of mist erupts from the ground, which sends Miura's geiger counter into fits. And then, in the greatest moment in film history, Godzilla bursts up through the ground.


"... I am never drinking again."
Having been buried there by the typhoon, Godzilla is in a foul mood when he wakes him. He advances on Nagoya, destroying a refinery before wandering through the downtown area. In a sure sign of how groggy the big brute is, he gets his tail caught in the base of a tower and proceeds to wrestle with said tower after he knocks it over onto his back. He wanders over to Nagoya Castle and proceeds to stumble on the castle moat and fall into the castle, which he then destroys as if he totally meant to do that, folks.


"You take that back, my mother was not a skink!"
In the US version, we get an unusual sequence in that it was shot by Toho exclusively for use in the American release. The US Navy helpfully offers to aid Japan by engaging Godzilla with their shiny new Frontier Missiles. The fleet finds Godzilla just fine and bombards the beach he's on, but as you might expect all those fancy missiles do is momentarily knock Godzilla down a cliff--which, given how clumsy he's been so far, he might have done regardless of their involvement.

In the newspaper office, Sakai, Junko, Miura, and Murata try to decide what the hell anyone can do about Godzilla's return. Nakamura arrives, having been forced to leave the area where the egg is housed due to Godzilla being at large. Murata is annoyed that he didn't stay behind and risk being stomped by Godzilla, but then Nakamura suggests that maybe Mothra could be persuaded to help. I mean, she is a giant monster and her egg is currently in the country being torn apart by Godzilla, so it could be in danger, too. Sakai, Junko, and Miura reluctantly agree that it is worth a shot.

The trio are airlifted to Infant Island, but land in an inflatable dinghy. They survey the radioactive ruin that is much of Infant Island, strewn with skeletons--check out the oddity in the background that is referred to as "Skeleturtle" by the fandom: it looks like a skeleton, but bobs its head and blinks at random intervals.


"Maybe Skeleturtle will fight Godzilla?"
The natives find them and bring them to the island's temple. The island chief (Yoshio Kosugi, here wearing red paint and a white beard instead of black face as he did in King Kong vs. Godzilla, where he also played a native chief) makes sure the strangers drink the radiation-curing juice estabished in Mothra and then demands to know what they want. Understandably, an island used for nuclear tests is not exactly trusting of outsiders and hearing, "Hey, we want to borrow your God so she can fight Godzilla," goes over like a lead balloon. Hearing the voice of the Shobijin singing leads everyone to a beautiful garden oasis, where the twin fairies are waiting. They cheerfully explain that they know what the trio wants, thanks to their telepathy, but they will not help.

It then falls to the trio to take turns making impassioned pleas for why Mothra should help, oddly none of which is, "If she doesn't, Godzilla might decide to make her egg an omelet." Well, Mothra is persuaded and cries out, so the Shobijin lead the trio to the temple where Mothra is perched. Mothra has agreed to help, but given her age and waning strength there's not getting around it: Mothra will not survive this battle, win or lose.


"What if we gave her a really big sweater to eat?"
The next day, the trio returns to Japan near the giant incubator, whee Mothra has been promised to arrive. Unfortunately, Godzilla has made his advance towards the same area. In the nearby hotel, Kumayama confronts Torahata because it seems the money he "borrowed" was actually his own: his business partner has been cheating him. Kumayama beats Torahata bloody and breaks into the money locker. Torahata, seeing Godzilla advancing on the hotel,  pulls a gun out of his desk and shoots Kumayama in the head. Unfortunately, the time it takes to gather up his money means Torahata is still in the hotel when Godzilla casually strikes it with his tail.
And my inner commie is delighted to see the two corrupt capitalists kill each other before being stomped on by Godzilla.

Godzilla proceeds to smash the incubator to get at the egg, which is the point when Junko finally realizes that it would be a bad thing if Godzilla got to the egg. While Godzilla decides on "scrambled" or "sunny side up," Mothra arrives and wastes no time in savagely attacking Godzilla. What follows is one of the only times anyone has successfully come up with a satisfying answer to, "What's a giant moth going to do against Godzilla?"


"Ow! OW! Oh God, GET IT OFF ME!"
Mothra is faster than Godzilla, so she swoops in and stays constantly in his blind spot. She claws him with her feet, beats him with her wings, and ultimately knocks him into a ravine where she douses him in a yellow powder--a form of poison that is the last weapon in her arsenal. Unfortunately, while she puts in a good show, Godzilla eventually gets an opening and blasts her in the face with his flame breath. That's all it takes and Mothra flies away, her last thought of her young as she wraps her wing around the egg and dies.

Godzilla decides to move on to the next target, as the military runs away to set up a death trap for him involving artificial lightning (Since electricity suddenly became his kryptonite in the last film) The Shobijin, however, don't see the battle as over. "Godzilla must die," they chirp. See, Mothra may be dead, but her egg is very much alive--and with a little bit of prayer it can be hatched so that the twin larvae inside can seek revenge...


"You killed our Mothra. Prepare to die."
A lot of folks who know me well may tease me for being a contrarian, and they're usually right. I think The Godfather is great but The Godfather, Part II is overrated. I actually liked Terminator 3. However, some opinions of mine are absolutely in line with the majority:

Mothra vs. Godzilla is my absolute favorite Godzilla movie, and the Godzilla suit used is my favorite version of Godzilla.

Honestly, I'm amazed when I find someone who doesn't like the film--and they exist, because ours is a cruel universe--because I can find so little fault with it. For one thing, the human characters may not be the absolute greatest in the series, but they are wonderful and completely engaging. The score by Akira Ifukube is amazing, Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay is wonderfully engaging as both a kaiju film and a satire, and Ishiro Honda's direction is marvelous.

Of course, the monster action is where any Godzilla movie is often measured and this film excels there. While Godzilla doesn't actually cause all that much destruction compared to some of his earlier rampages, he does get to tear apart a few landmarks and melt the hapless military response. The monster battles are also unique, as you would expect. Mothra can't wrestle Godzilla like King Kong, nor can she really maul him like Anguirus. Instead, the adult Mothra battles him fiercely and the larvae--in a sequence I never get tired of--use guerilla tactics to wrap Godzilla in silk. It's exciting and dynamic, especially when we discover for the first time that Godzilla really hates it when you bite his tail.


"STOP LAUGHING AND GET THIS THING OFF ME!"
The special effects by Eiji Tsubraya, while certainly not flawless--for instance, the scenes of Godzilla superimposed onto location footage alternate between being blurry and being surrounded by obvious matte lines, and there's two "melting rocks" in the climax that just look dreadful--are still amazing. They're dynamic and exciting, which can sometimes be a better quaity for effects than "convincing" when used properly.

Seriously, that Godzilla is perfect. Sleek but powerful, with an unfriendly scowl--and I personally rather like the wobbling jowls. It was completely by accident that slamming into Nagoya Castle model knocked the lips of the mask free from their adhesive, but the result feels oddly organic. No wonder Tsuburaya and Honda kept those shots in the finished film.

It's also fascinating to realize that this film was, in a way, the end of an era. This would be the last time for 20 years that Godzilla would be the out-and-out villain of a film. After this point he would not stray far from the hero role introduced in the same year's successive entry, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster until the series was first rebooted in 1984. And boy, did they retire the villainous Godzilla while they were ahead--just look at how stale Godzilla's character would become when he was not allowed to be anything more than villain or anti-hero from 1984 to 2004.

Bottom line, if you've enjoyed any Godzilla films and haven't seen this one yet, you owe to yourself to do so. Of the 30 films in the series, this is the only one I'd stand behind as being better than the original Godzilla, which is saying a lot. It's a classic, not just of the Godzilla series but cinema in general.

And it's a wonderful example of why Godzilla will never die. Sorry, fairies.

"Oh, this is yours? I just thought this was the complimentary breakfast bar."


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Chariots of the Gods (1970)



It's pretty clear that it has always bothered white people to discover that other races they deemed "primitive" had thriving advanced civilizations thousands of years ago, while their own ancestors were busy shitting in their own water supply up until about the 19th century. How could this be?

Somewhere around the mid-20th century, a growing movement concluded that of course those brown people didn't make their own civilizations. They had help from "ancient astronauts"--advanced creatures from outer space that apparently decided it would be fun to teach humans how to stack rocks. And for some reason they just didn't like Europeans as much as the rest of the world, because they only taught them how to make Stonehenge.

It's sadly unsurprising that this idiotic hypothesis has held on as long as it has--after all, people still think the moon landing was faked despite the process of faking such a thing convincingly in 1969 would be more difficult than actually landing on the moon. Just turn on almost any "educational" channel and you'll see a guy who looks like a Babylon 5 extra presented as "expert testimony" while he claims space geckos built Angkor Wat.

Wait, maybe he actually does know what he's talking about...
I'm no expert on this phenomenon, but it seems like the biggest catalyst was the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. Unsurprisingly, the book led to today's film, a "documentary" that was actually nominated for an Oscar.

The film opens with generic credits over a star field, while a song that I swear wants to be "Telstar" with all the soul sucked out of it plays. We here learn that this is actually based on two of von Däniken's books, Chariots of the Gods and Return to the Stars. I'm sure neither is actually intended as fiction but still contains less truth than the average pulpy sci-fi story. There's also credits for special effects, so I'm anxiously awaiting some ridiculous re-enactment sequences.

Interrestingly, the producer and director both have "Dr." before their names, no doubt to lend credence to this whole charade.

The film opens with a dramatic zoom into an image of a galaxy, before cutting to footage of an observatory in California accompanied by music that convinces me I was right in my earlier accusation of ripping off "Telstar." Our narrator for the evening drones on about the special road built to transport the telescope's mirror, and expresses how many zeroes there are in the expression of mileage for light years, before he finally gets to his point--the ages old question of how many of the billions of observable stars in the universe may have life on the planets orbiting them.

And the narrator makes his thesis statement: there are 50 million stars in the Milky Way alone that could support life, so it's entirely possible that some time in our planet's past we had visitors from one of these worlds. "Possible" does not mean "likely," but I'm sure the narrator doesn't care. We get more "ooh, ahh" shots of galaxies before the narrator begins quoting from random scientists whose statements back up the central thesis. My favorite being a quote from Hermann Oberth claiming that, "Scientists are quick to adapt a negative attitude toward new ideas," and using an obsolete fear of the dangers of train travel as an example. Because somehow "aliens did it" is supposed to be as revolutionary an idea as trains were and we all know scientists are big sticklers for never doing anything new ever.

This bit ends with them apparently ends with them accosting a Russian scientist outside in the cold, where the translation assures us he is saying that aliens definitely visited Earth because of the evidence they left behind. He then gestures at the spires of a cathedral, thanks to the mismatch between the translation and his gestures. Jesus confirmed as space alien!

The narrator then talks of how man has always wanted to reach the stars, and that learning to fly was never enough. This is followed, for some reason, by footage of rockets blowing up during takeoff. It kind of undercuts the narrator's assertion following these failures that mankind will be on Mars within the 20th century, and Venus by the 21st.

Sadly, we all know this film's predictions for the future are as full of crap as its claims about the past.

The narrator then asks, if human astronauts ever land upon a distant star, "will they be treated as enemies or as gods?" What? Why are those the only two options?

The film then asserts that we have seen this happen virtually every time an advanced civilization met a primitive one, which is how it segues into talking about Cargo Cults in the South Pacific during World War II. This includes a recreation with "natives" building wicker planes and crude runways. The natives almost look authentic except they're all wearing really damn obvious wigs. The film explains the idea of cargo cults and then explains that it's possible all Earthly religions started the same way.

So I guess I wasn't far off with the Space Alien Jesus joke.

The film proceeds to get even more inadvertantly hilarious as it asserts that all over the world religions are based around visits from advanced astronauts. 'They don't call them that, of course," the narrator admits. Yeah, funny how that works.

The narrator talks of so-called descriptions of spaceships and rocket launches to be found in the ancient scrolls of Tibet, the epic of Gilgamesh, and then hilariously talks about the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah. After leading in with how Lot and his family were led to safety in the mountains, the narrator says, "We know now that mountains can protect against radioactivity [!]," before suggesting that the destruction of the two cities was describing an atomic explosion.

Well, assuming that the "angels" are actually "aliens" and that the Old Testament tells us the cities were destroyed at least partially because its citizens were trying to sexually assault the angels that visited Lot...then I guess the aliens decided the appropriate response to attempted anal probing was to take off and nuke the site from orbit. Only way to be sure.

We then see a fresco of Jesus on the cross, and the music--perhaps to make you so disoriented as to have no choice but to agree with the narrator--goes absolutely bonkers, loud and ill-matched to the footage as the narrator claims the two figures in the top corners of the fresco are clearly men in spaceships. If that's the case, they're engaged in a space battle or a drag race, which is a very rude time for them to choose to do that, what with the Savior slowly dying and all below them while his followers mourn him. The narrator directs us to look at the onlookers averting their eyes from the spaceships. The "onlookers" shown have angel wings, so either the narrator has lost the thread of his argument or these are aliens who are just appalled at the actions of Gleegark and Phil, Also, one is holding his nose so either rocket fumes stink or he's about to sneeze.

This is why nobody ever invites Gleegark and Phil to a crucifixion.
We next see a cave painting in Italy, which we are to interpret as showing two guys in "overalls" and helmets with antennae on them. Maybe it does, but it's so faded that it could be two Roman Emperors having a dance-off. The film quickly moves to Istanbul, where it claims some maps there from "the Orient" show things that could only be viewed from space at the time they were drawn, like a landmass the narrator assures us is Antarctica.

The film then lets the musicians freestyle a little before it gets to that favorite argument spot of ancient astronaut theorists: the Pyramids of Giza. (The narrator pronounces it "Gizz-uh" instead of "Geez-uh", so he's clearly lost all credibility) Now, as usual, the narrator argues that the pyramids would have taken 600 years to build with existing techniques. Even though, it's been figured out that the way the Egyptians transported the stones was by wetting the sand--in fact their hieroglyphics show them doing this but archaeologists assumed it was just a picture of a "ritual."

True hilarity results when the narrator tells us that, "if you multiply the height of the Pyramid of Cheops by one billion, it equals almost exactly the distance from the Earth to Sun; a mere coincidence?" Um, I'm gonna have to say a firm "yes" on that, Sparky.

"Tyrannosaurus Rex had two fingers. If you multiply that by 375, you have roughly the average number of legs on a milipede; a mere coincidence?!"
Leaving aside the fact that it's a totally arbitrary figure, the narrator tells us that the pyramid is 455 feet high. You multiply that by a billion and you get 455,000,000,000 feet or around 86,174,242 miles. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is 92,960,000 miles. So you're only off by around 6 million miles. That is not "almost exactly," but why are we assuming that ancient Egyptians and their alien buddies used the Imperial System of measurement in the first place?

Yeah, nice try, Sparky.

Of course, he then claims the pyramids sit exactly at the longitude dividing Europe and Africa, and if you divide the width of the base by the height of the pyramid, you get "exactly the figure Pi" centuries before a European mathematician discovered it. This is supposed to awe us, but--I'm sorry, "exactly the figure Pi'?! First of all, here's the first 100,000 digits of Pi--and keep in mind the reason Spock trapped the vengeful ghost of Jack the Ripper in the ship's computer by telling to calculate Pi out to the last digit is because we have no idea how it ends!

Even if the narrator means 3.14159, that's not that impressive because Pi or very similar concepts to it have been used for centuries--confirmed records of it in ancient China and, yes, Egypt, date back at least as far as 1850 B.C. So am I supposed to be surprised that a white guy discovered a concept in the 15th Century that even Archimedes had used and, coincidentally, is the height and width of a pyramid divided?

Also, you'll be amazed to discover that the height/width division does not equal 3.14 at all. It seems that all the facts presented in this documentary could only have passed the smell test in an age before Google. Mere coincidence?!

The film goes on to talk about actual history, including burial chambers that were painted by sunlight through the use of mirrors to reflect light deep into tunnels. But then it gets stupid again, by advising that the mummification process was thought to be a religious ritual until it was recently discovered to be Egyptians unsuccessfully attempting to recreate a physical preservation method used by their alien visitors.

And by discovered, the narrator means that someone pulled that "fact" out of their ass.

Seriously, if ancient Egyptians were supposedly imitating the process of preserving a body for later revivification--as the narrator is suggesting--then their alien visitors didn't bother to explain to them that you need your brain and internal organs in order to come back to life. One of the frst steps of mummification, remember, was pulling the brain out through the nose with a hook and then discarding it. Implying this was the Egyptians poor imitating advance alien visitors is pretty insulting, on several levels.

The film then talks of various structures that could not have been moved by ancient Egyptians because in the 20th Century it took modern man 3 years to move them when they had to be relocated for the construction of a dam. I guess it's impossible that the Egyptians could have just simply taken longer? Also, if you take a shot every time the narrator says, "No one knows how," in this sequence, you would probably be pretty buzzed before the film gets bored of Egypt and moves on to Greece.

However, rather than wondering how the Greeks built their buildings, the narrator observes that the buildings were built on top of an even more ancient terrace. So, naturally, this terrace was the landing pad for spacecraft. Because of course it was.

The film drifts over to Djanet in Algeria to some cave paintings that the narrator insists are aliens. The music drops the harpsichord it's been tinkling on since Greece so someone can slow jam the main line of "Telstar" on an electric guitar. This does not convince me that I am seeing aliens and spaceships, especially since one drawing is clearly a stylized snail. Even the narrator admits there are other explanations, as if that makes his argument stronger.

There are much talk of cave paintings that "clearly" show astronauts, which just makes me wonder why the filmmakers are so convinced that ancient astronauts would look so much like modern ones? Why are we assuming that they would have the exact same configurations of legs, arms, and heads that humans do? What if the aliens were giant tardigrades?

Hey, look, an astronaut!
Then the narrator gives up doing his job, which is speaking, when we next see an ancient ruin in Zimbabwe where he trails off in the middle of what is clearly a "Was it thing A, thing B, or thing C?" line in a such a way that leaves you waiting for the "or thing C" that won't be coming. Also, clearly aliens built that ruin because no human could stack bricks like that.

Next up, it's time for the Aztecs to get their intelligence insulted as the narrator ponders if they had extraterrestrial help in creating their damn calendar. Seriously, you may have picked up on it by now, but this film's thesis is literally "if I don't completely understand it, that means aliens did it." Pretty ironic given that they're suggesting Earthly religions are all cargo cults, but their evidence is just as baseless as "if I don't completely understand it, God did it."

Next, the narrator tells us the pyramids of Mexico were clearly influenced by the intervention of Quetzalcoatl, whom the narrator describes as a light-skinned bearded man (of course) from the stars who taught the Aztecs everything they knew about anything of value before returning to the stars after promising to return one day. Never mind that, in many myths--Quetzalcoatl being one of those Gods who really got around--he killed himself, usually for the betterment of humanity. The narrator mentions the fact that Quetzalcoatl is always portrayed as a feathered serpent but does not offer any bullshit explanation for this. Sadly, I doubt this means the film is suggesting an actual feathered serpent came down from the stars to aid humanity.

Maybe if David Icke had been involved.

The filmmakers are also basing their description of Quetzalcoatl as a space honky on the claims that the Aztecs believed Hernán Cortés was the return of Quetzalcoatl. You'll be totally shocked to know that historians now mostly believe that a self-important, greedy mass murderer might have been making shit up to make himself sound more awesome. Especially since the Aztecs didn't actually have any doctrine that claimed Quetzalcoatl would return. But that's inconvenient to the thesis here.

Next we see some statues that the narrator insists appear to be wearing strange helmets, have boxy control units on their chests, and are carrying tools or weapons unknown on Earth. The filmmakers clearly have no concept of artistic license or stylization, and would go mad if presented with abstract art.

"Could Duchamp have witnessed a rebellion at an alien robot factory? How did he create this image without a computer to digitize his colors onto the canvas? No one knows how."
We've insulted the Aztecs' intelligence enough, now time for the poor Mayans to get it. After assuring us that a building is a Mayan Observatory and looks nearly identical to a modern day one, the narrator points out a figure that he claims is pulling a lever and wearing a helmet with antennae. It does not look like that at all, but thanks for playing!

Next the narrator points out a deep well that Mayans supposedly threw sacrifices into, and claims that the perfectly round cylinder that the well forms proves it was not natural--and therefore the product of an enormous rocket firing. So our ancient visitors were incredibly careless with their massively destructive rockets? Hot-rodding assholes.

The mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilization is brought up, but oddly the film drops it almost immediately. The mysterious stone heads in the jungle, that are 80 miles from any known quarry, are also quickly glossed over. That's two actual, unexplained mysteries that the movie quickly skips over so it can try to sell you on the stunning find of "The Winged God of Palanque," a mural it is increasingly desperate to sell you on as a representation of a man in a rocket capsule. This includes claiming he is wearing a jacket that fits tight at the wrists, when anyone can clearly see the figure is not wearing anything above the waist and the "cuffs" are bracelets.

"Look, you can plainly see his arm says 'NASA' on the bicep!"
At this point, I just feel embarrassed for the narrator. However, it's now time to go use Easter Island as evidence. Per our narrator, the famous stone moai could not have been made by humans, there are legends of priests who could manipulate mana, the island is strangely magnetic--it's just boring by this point so the film even stops to play you more knock-off "Telstar" over footage of the moai.

Why was somebody credited with special effects, again? Because there haven't been any to speak of.

We now go to Cuzco so the narrator can insult the intelligence of the Incas by telling us that the bricks left behind by their ancient cities could not have been made with anything less than modern technology. Worse, he once again trots out the interstellar cracker hypothesis when he says that the Incas told Pizarro that the masons were light-skinned, bearded, red-headed men. Look, as a ginger, I am well aware that my people seem to be ill-suited to the planet Earth, but this is all proving my original point far better than I expected.

It's not enough for the filmmakers to declare that aliens helped ancient brown-skinned civilizations to be awesome. No, those aliens must not only be humanoid but white. Because surely only white people are allowed to be technologically resourceful.

After assuring us that Machu Picchu was also supposedly built by these astro-gingers, the film dawdles a bit in a temple on the shores of Lake Titicaca without actually bothering to do more than say, "Hey, isn't that carved figure odd-looking?"

Then it's time for a brief stop-over in Australia. Here the film talks about a rock painting of a Goddess who supposedly came from the stars to teach humanity her wisdom. Despite the fact that even the few paintings that we see of the Goddess don't match each other, the narrator wonders who the model for the painting was and why so many representations look like her across the world. Never mind that even the brief cutting between the various "aliens" we've seen so far doesn't disguise the fact that none of them look alike. If we're supposed to be convinced that the similarity of figures all over the world means aliens visited us, maybe they should actually look alike?

We then see a figurine called a Dogū from Honshu, Japan, while the crazed Russian who collects them is translated for us as he explains that the Dogū clearly show people in space suits with "Eskimo"-like slit goggles and mechanical claw hands. The Russian has an answer for those who object that the figure is just a God, by asking how the sculptors could have created all the details on the figurines "without seeing the model?"

Did he just ask how Japanese sculptors could have sculpted something without having something just like it to base it on? Does he think the ancient Japanese didn't have imaginations? I mean, two can play at that game. Clearly Godzilla was real because how could the Japanese have designed him without seeing the model, huh, smart guy?!

Next up, the narrator brings our attention to the ol' ancient battery in a clay pot and a polished lens that was cut with some precision instrument. Again, these are proof of aliens because Europeans didn't discover how to make these things until centuries later! Clearly, if it happened before white people did it, the only explanation is aliens!

Next, we see another crazed Russian who claims to know of two relics that are astounding in their implications. One is an ancient bison skull that the narrator claims was killed with a bullet. I have my doubts that "round hole in skull" equals "bullet" and that's all the visual evidence we are given of this claim, but okay. The other is supposedly a cave painting from Uzbekistan, but when we see it--or what is supposedly a copy of it--it is so obviously bogus as to make you laugh aloud even before a quick Google tells you it's several different kinds of phony. I'm just shocked that these people would lie to me, man.

Aliens take chess very, very seriously, man.
The film does a quick rundown of the various sites they've taken us to thus far, perhaps to distract us from obviously fake that cave painting is. Then it randomly shows us a supposed cave painting from Japan of the Futurama space ship that looks no more authentic than the Uzbeki-beki-stan-stan job. Then we see a gold sculpture of a "flying machine" that is supposedly aerodynamic--but it sure looks like a shark or skate to me.

Incredibly, the narrator assures us there is still more evidence. Oh God, why? The evidence he means are the Nazca Lines in Peru. While it is true that the patterns can only be seen from the sky and no one knows why, the narrator's assertion that it was clearly a landing field is pretty laughable. For one thing, if that was its intended purpose then whomever built it would have made it durable enough that Greenpeace's recent little climate change stunt wouldn't have resulted in them facing criminal charges for defacing it. Meanwhile, the narrator earlier claimed alien rockets could cut holes in rock, so...

After assuring us that "we may doubt the conclusions, but we cannot ignore the evidence," the film does a final montage to the knock-off "Telstar" theme. The narrator concludes the film as we watch a spinning galaxy effect, by trailing off with with the mind-numbing, "Were the Gods astronauts? Do you suppose, once upon a time...once upon a time...once upon a time...?"

Because nothing sells your super-serious documentary like fairy tale language.

I came into this film convinced it was full of shit, but you know, when I left it I was convinced it was really, really full of shit. I mean, from willful misrepresentation of evidence to outright lying, this film couldn't be more amazingly pathetic in its attempt to convince me.

Naturally, like most proponents of "ancient astronaut" theory, it doesn't bother to offer any explanations or even hypotheses for why. I mean, why did its proposed star mayonnaise people come to Earth, teach us how stack rocks and draw them, and then return to the stars--never to be seen again? If they came all that way, influenced cultures all over the world--apparently for long periods of time--why did they then just bugger off forever?

As a "theory" there's nothing to it beyond a little bit of "how did they do that awesome stuff before white people did it" mixed with "wouldn't it be cool if..." and a touch of "a wizard did it." I could just as easily argue that the ancient Egyptians had telekinetic powers but lost them due to breeding with mundane humans. There's as much evidence to support that claim as there is to support, "aliens did it," and it's no less ridiculous.

Still, even a dumb concept can at least be entertaining. This isn't. The film makes a lot of pretense of it being a part of an expedition and revealing stuff for the first time, but it doesn't feel that way at all. There's also no focus. It jumps back and forth between continents with no rhyme or reason. There's not even an attempt at, "If you look at this, it makes sense of that!" It manages to have a short attention span and drags on past the point of any interest.

The music is at least trying to be interesting, but not only does it seem weirdly derivative, its very attempt to be interesting means it feels more out of place than the soundtrack to a Jess Franco film.

I suppose if you find loony conspiracy theories fascinating or hilarious, you might get a kick out of this. For me this film felt more like having to watch something for homework than a lot of the truly awful films I've subjected myself to over the years. I can't even call it terrible, just boring.

It's not really the film's fault, but in a world where we have channels that can devote an entire broadcasting day to shows based on these silly conspiracy theories, there just isn't anything that stands out about it. Maybe someday we'll move past this obsession and this crap will all seem new again.

Was there a time when we weren't bombarded with this crap? Do you suppose, once upon a time...once upon a time..once upon a time...


Take a look at the other true bullshit that the Celluloid Zeroes dug up for you!

Checkpoint Telstar watched something good Without Warning.

Micro-Brewed Reviews hasn't been seen since he visited The Bermuda Triangle.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse looked into whether there's any truth to the Legend of Chupacabra.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Horror Express (1972)


June 2015 began with some of the worst possible news for any film fan: Sir Christopher Lee had passed at the age of 93. It seemed impossible that the man should ever actually die. After all, he didn't seem to age at all from about the mid-1990s until his death, and the man played Dracula eight times--surely he was just as hard to kill as the creature he portrayed?

Sadly, despite all the superhuman things Christopher Lee had done in his life--which I won't detail here because there are simply so many--he was just a man. Some day we were going to have to say goodbye to him, and content ourselves with the fact that he left behind 278 acting credits because he had spent a long life doing precisely what he loved.

Even if doing what he loved did occasionally mean that he felt it necessary to do things like introducing himself to Joe Dante by apologizing for having starred in The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf.

Well, naturally my fellow Celluloid Zeroes and I couldn't let the month pass without paying tribute to Sir Lee. I'd already done a review of Lee's favorite role, and just reviewing one of his random Dracula films didn't feel right. So I thought I would take a look a one of his slightly more obscure roles--and a role as a hero, which is not a part he usually played.

It's also one of my favorite Lee roles, as a heroic Victorian scientist who is still a bit of an arrogant prick just the same.

I don't always start off by adressing a film's credits, but these are especially ill-conceived so I feel I must. While the film's haunting theme music and train sound effects provide the audio part of this sequence, the visual component is a bright light moving randomly through darkness. Having a bright light flickering behind white letters means that several of the credits are utterly illegible.

I choose to believe any obscured credits belong to people who displeased the director.

The film the opens with a view of a frozen mountain that an on-screen title informs us is in the Szechuan Province of China in 1906. Our hero Professor Alexander Saxton (Sir Christopher Lee, of course!), then narrates, "The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned Alexander Saxton is a true and faithful account of the events that befell the society's expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept the responsibility for its ending in disaster. But I will leave, to the judgement of the honorable members, the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies." So obviously the expedition didn't go so well.

Saxton himself then appears before us in a cave, with Lee rocking a mustache this time around, as he follows a native guide through the cave's twists and turns. Suddenly, a haunting wistling is heard. Saxton shines his light on the guide, but it isn't coming from him. Just as suddenly Saxton sights his prize: a hominid frozen in ice, almost perfectly preserved with its one intact eye staring outward at the world that moved on without it.

"Close the door! You tryin' to refrigerate the whole neighborhood?"
Saxton has the hominid loaded into a crate and wrapped in a tarp and chains for travel before you know it, and next we see the crate it's waiting to be loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express in Peking (or Beijing, if you want to be all correct about it). To the film's credit, most of the extras do appear to actually be Chinese since even in 1972 I wouldn't put it past a Spanish-British co-production to just use yellowface.

Saxton, meanwhile is having rather a lot of difficulty in the ticket office, as it appears that the reservation aboard the train that he telegrammed for has not been set aside. The ticket officer brushes him off, and then Saxton makes the unpleasant discovery that a professional rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing!), is waiting to board as well. Wells introduces his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinhear), and it must be noted that Saxton is able to shift from barely contained annoyance at Wells to polite pleasantries with Jones without missing a beat.

Meanwhile, a thief who never learned subtlety manages to distract the guard away from Saxton's crate and goes to work at picking the lock. When the guard returns, he finds the crate unlocked and partially pried open--and the thief lying dead nearby, his wide eyes bone white and pupil-less.

Saxton's annoyance grows even more when Wells successfully bribes his way into tickets for himself and Jones. Saxton disapproves of bribery and opts for trying to intimidate the ticket agent by smashing everything off the fellow's desk. And then some British troops arrive, having apparently been sent to assist Saxton. This sells his intimdation routine much better and he gets his ticket.

At Saxton's crate, a Russian monk named Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), who looks more than a little like another Russian monk, is praying over the thief's course. A Russian policeman, Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña) arrives and scoffs at the idea of redemption for a notorious thief. Pujardov is confused by Mirov's account of the man in life, for the man he is praying over is surely blind. Mirov laughs the monk's observation off--until he sees the body. "I'll be damned," he mutters and Pujardov stiffens and responds in the best possible B-Horror movie way, "The Work of The Devil!"

When Pujardov tries to break open the crate, Saxton intervenes. Unsurprisingly, he is unconcerned about the death of someone trying to steal his precious fossil and rather brusque in giving Mirov the brushoff. Until Pujardov gets everyone's attention by announcing, "Where there is God, there is always room for the cross," before drawing a cross on the floor with chalk. "Where evil is, there is no room for the cross," he intones before trying to draw a cross on the crate...and no mark is left. "A conjurer's trick," Saxton spits disdainfully. But Mirov is not so sure.

Once the crate is loaded onto the train, its occupant makes suspicious groaning noises that Saxton opens it to investigate but then chooses to write off as its gradually melting contents shifting. Wells tries to get Saxton to reveal its contents but Saxton refuses to budge on that score. (There is some delightful Cushing and Lee banter here) So Wells takes the train's porter aside and slips him some money, requesting with typical Cushing charm that the porter break into the crate that night and report to him what's inside.

Meanwhile, Countess Irina Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa) arrives in the baggage area carrying a small dog. She has something valuable for the porter to place in the safe, but naturally her dog begins to get agitated at the presence of the frozen creature. The "here's our love interest" music begins as Irina gets Saxton's attention, asking what is in his crate that could be frightening her dog. Saxton visibly warms up as he assures her that there's nothing in the crate that would interest her dog. The two flirt over a mutual respect for England and Poland, even when she casually mentions her husband. But when she tries to investigate the crate, Saxton deliberately diverts her by offering to escort her back to her carriage.

Along the way to his own carriage, Saxton makes the acquaintance of a peculiar gentleman playing chess by himself. The chess player advises he is an engineer and has confirmed that Pujardov's chalk was genuine. Saxton writes it off as, "Hypnosis. Yoga," and moves on. Meanwhile, a mysterious redheaded woman, a stowaway, has found her way to Wells' compartment and begun pleading with him to help her. It's bad timing, then, the it turns out that Saxton's compartment is the same as Wells'--he's the top bunk. And I have to enjoy a little giggle at the mental image of 6'5" Christopher Lee attempting to fit into the bunk displayed here, since he can barely fit when he sits on the edge of it.

While Saxton ignores Wells' attempts to convince him to find another compartment without an attractive, desperate redhead in it--the porter sets to work undoing a few screws in the crate so he can glance inside. He's whistling that same tune from earlier as he does it, but when he goes to fetch more light--a hairy arm reaches out of the crate and attempts to break the chains. That doesn't work, so the arm grabs a nearby nail and bends it, before picking the lock on the chains--almost as though it had absorbed the knowledge of a thief who had been an expert at doing the same. When the porter comes back and desperately tries to stop the creature breaking free, he makes the mistake of looking into its glowing red eye.

"Yeah, I know, my blinker's been on since the Miocene!"
The porter bleeds profusely from his eyes and nose, and his eyes go pupil-less and white, before he falls dead. The whistling tune begins again as the hairy fiend frees itself from the crate. Meanwhile, Pujardov waits in the cabin of Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud). The small dog is frightened again, but neither Petrovski nor Irina are all that concerned, while Pujardobv is torn between being alarmed at the dog's fear and being disgusted by the fact that Petrovski and Irina are discussing which dress she should wear when Saxton inevitably calls on her. I'm pretty sure the Count and Countess have an open relationship, but the movie doesn't come right out and say it. Petrovski teases Pujardov for forgetting his place, enjoying tormenting the mad monk with joking threats of unemployment. When Irina stops playing the piano, a voice whistling the tune she had been playing echoes through the train--amusing her and terrifying Pujardov.

Mirov summons Saxton and Wells to the baggage area. The porter is missing and he thinks they know something about it, especially since the evidence suggests he was interrupted breaking into the crate. Saxton is outraged and when Mirov threatens bodily harm to him if he doesn't hand over the key, Saxton tosses it out the window of the speeding train. So the conductor opens the crate with an axe--and the porter's dead body is inside. Saxton immediately accepts that this must mean that, impossibly, the 2-million-year-old ape man he found must be alive and loose. Wells is incredulous, "You mean to tell me that a 2-million-year-old half-man half-ape, broke out of that crate, killed the baggage man, put him in there, and then locked it all up neat and tidy?" Mirov, however, opts for a middle ground between belief and skepticism--he orders Saxton locked up and sets his men to searching the train for a zombie man-ape, while pledging to keep it quiet to avoid panic.

Well, the zombie ape-man eludes Mirov's men easily enough, creeping through compartments. Eventually it ambushes one of them and kills him with its glowing red eye trick, before giving his partner the impression that it jumped off the train to escape. (We get entirely too good a look at the half-rotted ape suit in this sequence alone. It was definitely not a suit that was built for more than quick, barely-lit glimpses) Wells, meanwhile, is at dinner with the redhead but completely lost in thought. He barely notices when the chess-playing engineer joins them, and recognizes Wells' companion from a party held for the honor of one General Wang. She pulls the classic terrible spy trick of angrily telling him he's mistaken. Wells is momentarily distracted when a fish on a tray rolls by, and he observes its eye is white. "Well, naturally: it's boiled," the engineer helpfully replies.

Mirov then interrupts their dinner to enlist Wells' help with an autopsy of the porter, as well as letting slip about one of his men being dead and the creature having escaped. He does this in full earshot of the engineer and the spy, then tells the engineer to keep his nose out of it. Good job keeping everything hush hush, Inspector. Wells goes to Miss Jones' table and advises that he needs her assistance. "Yes, well at your age I'm not surprised," she replies, glancing at the spy and engineer. Wells' eyes go wide when he catches her meaning and he hisses, "With an autopsy!"

Bet you didn't expect a joke about Peter Cushing group sex in a Hammer knockoff! And oh, I hope I see that combination of search key words bring somebody to this blog, now.

While Wells and Jones set to work cutting open the porter's skull in the baggage car, Irina comes to visit Saxton in the compartment he's being held in. (She chose the blue dress instead of the red, for those who wondered) Saxton was already dining alone, so she keeps him company as he does. She teases him for being in a bad mood because he's lost his "box of bones." Saxton counters that that box of bones could have revolutionized science by providing incontrovertible proof of evolution. "I've heard of this evolution," Irina stammers, "it's--it's immoral!" Saxon responds with one of my favorite of all Lee's lines, "It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact."

Meanwhile, Wells and Jones discover that the porter's brain is completely smooth. When Mirov asks what that means, Wells explains that as memories are stored in the brain, they leave a mark behind--resulting in a wrinkled surface. The porter's brain has been drained of all knowledge and memories. Naturally, this is total bullshit, but it fits with the Victorian-Era theories of science. The three leave the autopsy to get cleaned up--and as soon as they're gone the door to the baggage car slides open and the ape creature climbs back inside, closing the door behind itself.

After Wells gets cleaned up, he advises the spy in his cabin that the washroom is all hers. Of course, she immediately sneaks into the baggage area. She's after the safe, and after she cracks it she grabs the package that Irina had the porter place in the safe. She doesn't get anywhere, however, because the monster sets upon her and gives her the brain drain. When Wells realizes she's been gone an awful long time, he goes to investigate and finds the washroom empty--and the ape monster grabs him by the wrist when he opens the door to the baggage car. Luckily, Mirov appears and shoots through the door, barely missing Wells. When the door swings open, the wounded creature locks eyes with Mirov. Mirov sways, blood dripping from his nose, but he manages to put a fatal bullet into the monster before he collapses. The monster, dead for real this time, falls beside its last victim.

(And I must note that throughout this sequence we never see a clearly lit shot of the full creature. Why they couldn't keep it in the shadows during its earlier appearance is beyond me)

Mirov comes to, in bed, later. He moves a little oddly as he examines his right hand. When he sees is left hand under the covers he reacts with shock and is sure to keep it hidden from view when Saxton enters. Saxton is rather pleased that he has his fossil back and glad to see that Mirov is doing well. He explains to Mirov that he and Wells examined the murdered spy and confirmed she died the same way as the porter. Their hypothesis is that the creature used its eye to drain knowledge from its victims through their eyes, adding their intelligence to its own with each feeding. Saxton is a little troubled because he doesn't know if a creature capable of doing that could truly die.

When the conductor arrives with the item the spy was trying to steal, which was found in the creature's possession, to Saxton's astonishment--and Mirov grabs it while stating it belongs to Count Petroviski. He claims he knows because he saw Petrovski put it in the safe, but Saxton is quietly suspicious. Mirov and the conductor go to return the item to Petrovski, where Petrovski happily reveals that it's a bar of a new alloy--steel harder than a diamond. Everyone wants the formula, but Petrovski boasts that it's safely kept in his head. (Whoops) Pujardov observes that Mirov keeps his left hand in his pocket the whole time, but when he speaks it is to insist that the creature is not dead.

When Mirov scoffs that he put four bullets into the creature, Pujardov teasingly replies, "Do you think evil can be killed with bullets?" Perhaps exercising some previously unknown telekinesis, Mirov seems to cause a candle to snuff out and a holy image to fall from the wall to screw with Pujardov. Meanwhile, Saxton, Wells, and Jones remove the eye from the dead ape creature and begin poking it with needles to draw out the eye fluid. When viewed under a microscope, the eye fluid reveals something bizarre--an image of Mirov gunning it down. Saxton is pleased to have proved his hypothesis that the creature stored its visual memory not in its brain, but in its eye.

Yes, that absolutely makes no sense, but run with it.

Extracting more of the eye fluid reveals images (clearly drawings) of a Brontosaurus, a Pterodactyl, and finally the Earth seen from space. When Irina comes to visit the trio she finds them in a grand mood because of the find and when Saxton shows her the image of Earth--she calls for Pujardov. He'd been attempting to secrectly follow her, you see, but not very successfully. Seeing the image and being told it came from the eye only convinces Pujardov even more that the creature is Satan. After all, didn't Satan look down upon the Earth from Heaven before he was cast down?

Even Saxton is at a loss for a good counterargument to that. Though you'd think he'd have already realized the visual memories can't all belong to a 2-million-year-old hominid if they contain dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the darkness following a trip through a tunnel allows Pujardov to steal the eye and disappear. The group splits up to find him and Jones heads to the baggage car. Well, that is where Pujardov is hiding. However, before she can find him, Mirov finds her. Mirov asks her why the eye that Pujardov stole is important. She reveals that the eye contains images of ancient Earth and Earth as seen from space. She also happily tells him who else has seen the images, before Mirov reveals that his left hand is now the hairy, clawed paw of the ape monster--and he claps that paw over her mouth before shutting off the only source of light in the car. Now Mirov's eyes glow red (a practical make-up effect, but they really should have sprung for animation) and Jones falls dead, her eyes white.

"Oh, God! The Visine does nothing!"
Pujardov reveals himself to Mirov, offering up the eye, and begs for mercy. Mirov takes the eye, tosses it into a stove and begins to leave. Pujardov asks if Mirov is going to kill him, too, but Mirov scoffs that there's nothing worthwhile in the monk's brain. Before he can exit the baggage car, the door opens and Saxton and Wells arrive. Mirov casually declares that there's been another murder and shows them Jones' corpse.

The passengers raise an uproar later as the news gets around, but Mirov threatens to shoot anyone who tries to leave the train. He also eyes Wells, Saxton, and Irina as Jones' voice naming them as having seen the eye fluid's images echoes in his mind. As Saxton asks Wells who could have killed Miss Jones, Mirov wanders past and asks if Saxton knows. Saxton replies in the negative, but informs Mirov that he's already told the conductor to stop the train at the next stop. So Mirov's first order of business is to go to the conductor's office, dim the lights, and get his eye-glow on.

As Mirov is opening a window to chuck the conductor's body out, Pujardov suddenly appears. He's practically got heart eyes as he begs to know who Mirov is and eagerly offers to serve him. Mirov just tries to shove him away, but still doesn't kill him. Out the window goes the conductor, and Mirov walks off. Pujardov stares after him like an obsessed schoolgirl.

Wells, Saxton, Irina, and Petrovski discuss the deaths and begin to wonder if it's some kind of disease. Saxton ponders what the symptoms would be and Irina brings up the eyes. So they examine every passenger's eyes with a magnifying glass, but the last patient is Mirov and nothing unusual turns up. The engineer suggests maybe they should test for radiation or X-Rays, but Saxton points out they have no way of testing for that. Saxton then suggests that Mirov order all passengers to stay in groups so that no one is ever left alone.

Naturally, Saxton immediately ignores his own edict to search for the conductor, but at least he establishes that the man is missing. Further up the track, a group of Cossack soldiers are waiting for news of the train. Their telegraph operator advises that the train will arrive at their station in fourteen minutes. "Fourteen minutes," says a deep voice from beneath a fur blanket--and then the movie's oddest character emerges from beneath the blanket, Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas!). As he orders his soldiers to be ready outside in full pack, Kazan goes on a bizarre rant to the telegraph operator. Nothing he says seems to follow anything else, culminating in, "Send a telegram: Tell them that Captain Kazan: he knows that a horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms...but still, the Devil, must be afraid of one honest Cossack, hmm?"

If you say so, Kojack.

Back on the train, Mirov goes to visit the engineer. The engineer's companion, an American passenger, has fallen asleep. Mirov asks if the engineer knows how to measure Earth's gravity and more importantly how to escape it. The engineer helpfully replies that it's not possible to do so yet, but he was taught by a man named Tsiolkovsky who did have some theories on how to do so. But, anyway, why is an Inspector so interested in rocket physics and why is he turning off the light with his strangely hairy hand...

Mirov then visits Saxton, who is alone again. Saxton reveals his hypothesis about the creature: millions of years ago, some intelligent life form came to Earth from another planet. In order to adapt to our atmosphere it entered the body of creatures living on Earth. Its latest host was the frozen animal that Saxton found. After its host was killed, it transferred to a new host--someone on the train. Wells arrives with a shotgun before Mirov can decide to make a move on Saxton, and Mirov asks what they intend to do if one of them is the monster. Wells replies in what is easily this film's most famous line, "Monster? We're British, you know!"

Wells, Saxton, and Irina soon find themselves in the dead engineer's compartment. The American woman tells them that the lights were on when she fell asleep and when she woke up again they were off--when she turned them back on, she found the body. Saxton realizes they tested everyone's eyes when the lights were on. Meanwhile, Pujardov leads his new master Mirov to his previous master, Petrovski. Petrovski is fiddling with a revolver when they arrive. Mirov asks what happens to the Count's new steel when it is exposed to high temperatures. Petrovski replies it gets stronger, but that depends on the temperature. Mirov is satisfied and makes his move towards unlocking the metal's formula--when those fourteen minutes finally run out and the train skids to a stop.

Cossacks board the train and round everyone up in the main car before the train starts back up again. Irina angrily shouts that she'll have Captain Kazan sent to Siberia, to which he dazedly replies, "I am in Siberia!" Still, after finding out who they are he has the Count and Countess escorted back to their car while he hollers, "Peasants! Peasants!" at the other passengers like he's in the middle of a Tumblr rant. He hollers that everyone is under arrest, including Mirov. "Who are the killers, who are the troublemakers? Who are the foreign influences, huh?!" he hollers as he accosts various passengers. Combine those lines with Telly Savalas being apparently uninterested in attempting a Russian accent and Kazan begins to sound like a Fox News host.

Saxton and Wells get a bit too uppity for Kazan's taste so they get a taste of some rifle butts. Meanwhile, his manhandling of Mirov while raving about "filth" sets off Pujardov. He threatens the Cossacks with a cross, which one of them declares to be "the evil eye." It doesn't work on Kazan, though. He takes the cross from Pujardov, borrows a cat-o-nine-tails from one of his underlings, and begins to whip the mad monk. Wells insists they stop it, but Saxton holds him back. Kazan asks why Pujardov was protecting Mirov, but Mirov dodges the question until Saxton makes his way back to the light switch...

...Mirov's eyes glow red in the brief darkness and he pulls out his hairy hand in alarm. He slashes one Cossack with his claws, but Kazan puts a dagger in his back and then two bullets to go with it. Mirov staggers out of the car. Kazan moves to follow him but Saxton stops him, warning how deadly those eyes of Mirov's are. Pujardov follows his wounded master, and offers his body as a replacement vessel, begging, "Come into me, Satan!"

"Notice me, Satan-Senpai!"
Well, Satan don't need to be asked twice. While Kazan gives orders to shoot anything that comes out of the doorway the two went through and has his men move the "peasants" out the other door, Mirov turns his glowy eyes to Pujardov and then dies. Pujardov goes all dreamy-eyed, collapses, and then rises with his own glowing eyes. And holy shit, the make-up effect is even worse on him than it was on Mirov.

"Senpai noticed me!"
Pujardov cuts the power to the lights. The Cossacks fire blindly at the door frame as Saxton and Wells herd the passengers back to the baggage car. The Cossacks meanwhile are finding that a dozen Cossacks are no match for one red-eyed monk. The white-eyed bodies pile up in the terrified confusion. As the passengers crowd into the baggage car, Saxton and Wells prep a bright lamp as a defense against the creature. It's too late for the Cossacks, of course. Kazan is the only one left alive at this point. He puts on a brave fight, struggling to stand, but finally he collapses just as dead and pupil-less as his men.

Finding a car full of dead Cossacks, Saxton sends Wells back to take care of the passengers. He takes the shotgun and the powerful light and goes on ahead. See, Petrovski and Irina are still in their car and that's just where Pujardov is appearing now. He swaggers into the car and muses aloud that in spite of everything, his old self liked the Count even as Petrovski humiliated him repeatedly. Pujardov turns out the lights and drains the formula right out of Petrovski's brain. Irina attacks him in anger, but she is no match for the creature he has become. Pujardov implies that his old self lusted after her--just as Saxton arrives with a bright light to stop him from using his brain drain on her.

Saxton traps Pujardov in a corner with the bright light and shotgun trained on him, demanding answers. Pujardov explains he is an energy being from another galaxy, who visited Earth with others of his own kind millions and millions of years ago, but was accidentally left behind. The creature then survived in various forms of life, going all the way up the evolutionary ladder as Earth grew. Pujardov appeals to Saxton as a scientist--surely he couldn't kill such a creature and can see that it should be allowed to go free. But Saxton is unconvinced.

Pujardov tries the "I can teach you how to cure all disease and advance your civilization" approach and nearly gets a face full of buckshot from Saxton, who has heard enough. However, Pujardov does succeed in making Saxton wait just long enough for him to start swaying--which is his way of bringing all his victims back to life as zombies. Zombie Petrovski shoots out the light before Irina can warn Saxton, but Saxton easily shoves off Pujardov as he and Irina flee...

...into a car full of zombie Cossacks. Luckily, these zombies can be out down with the same means as you'd kill a normal human and they're up against Christopher fucking Lee here, The zombies don't stand a chance, Saxton and Irina flee back to the baggage car as Pujardov drives the train, having killed its engineer, Wells and Saxton set about separating the baggage car from the train as whatever zombies Saxton didn't put down slowly advance on them.

Ahead on the tracks, the order has come through from Moscow to use the switching station to stop the train. This translates to diverting the tracks so that they head right off a cliff. I'm not sure why that was ever a contingency plan, but there you go. The telegraph operator assumes that they're being ordered to kill everyone on the train this way because there must be a war. That's a hell of an assumption, but then again it's not like anyone guesses "killer alien entity" on their first try.

Wells and Saxton unhook the baggage car just in time. The speeding train goes off the cliff as Pujardov screams, and the baggage car safely slows to a stop right at the edge as Saxton, Irina, and Wells watch the rest of the train exploding below them. Hopefully those guys at the station don't assume they have to murder the passengers now. But we won't find out, because as the more funkified version of the film's haunting theme kicks in, we pull away from the burning wreckage to view the Earth from space. The End.

"I feel like I should say something smart." "You don't have to say anything."
There are few treats for a genre fan quite like a film where Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appear together. Beyond being longtime friends off camera, the two always played wonderfully off of each other regardless of whether the movie they were in deserved it.

Horror Express is no exception, and I am willing to go out on a limb and declare that it does deserve the full gravitas of Cushing and Lee.

It might be stretching it a bit to call this film an unsung classic, but it sure is a delightful horror story. I always have a certain fondness for films that try to tell a story well beyond their means. This film definitely falls into that category, but to its credit the cheapness of the film only rarely shows itself. If not for the scene we get of it in bright light, the ape monster would be a truly creepy monster and the miniatures used for the train only become painfully obvious during its destruction. And frankly the film is smart enough to spread its money around--there's never an effect that is so painfully bad that it draws you out of the film because everything else is too good, nor one inexplicably great effect that throws the awfulness of the rest into sharp relief. Everything balances at just the right level of competence.

And that's impressive in and of itself when you consider that this is a film about a missing link coming back to life to go on a brain-draining rampage on a Victorian train, only to turn out to be an ancient evil entity that can hop from body to body because it's an an energy being from another galaxy. If that's not enough, you have a mad Russian monk and zombies. This film crams a lot into its plot, even if that does occasionally mean its plot has a complete dead-end like the Cossacks boarding the train to seemingly do nothing aside from upping the body count.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are both wonderful. Lee sometimes had a tendency to let his contempt for a project show through in his performance, but that doesn't happen here so clearly he felt the project deserved his respect--though it could be that he was playing off of Cushing, who always gave a film his all. Saxton is a thoroughly engaging anti-hero, as a scientist who is more concerned with his great find than the mysterious deaths surrounding it but who still knows that evil must be stopped--and Saxton is made so engaging by Lee's wonderful presence. Cushing meanwhile is clearly having a blast with Wells, who is clearly self-interested and corrupt in many ways but also is just as determined to do the right thing.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough, even though most of them are clearly dubbed. Thankfully, most of the dubbing actors seem to actually bother to act. Nobody really stands out as terrible, as much guff as a give him for not faking an accent even Telly Savalas does well as the inexplicable Captain Kazan,

The film also has a wonderful soundtrack. The haunting whistling that appears over and over stuck with me in full clarity, even though prior to this review it had probably been close to ten years since I'd watched it.

The film isn't perfect, of course. Sometimes its low budget betrays it, its pacing could sometimes be tighter, and there are some truly bizarre editing choices. In particular, most of the monster's attacks are full of subliminal images of the frozen creature, quick cuts of the train, and far too lengthy shots of the victims gradually dying that kind of undercut the actual horror of it. That would be fine if it was just the porter's death that we see rendered that way, but the grand majority are shown to us in far too much detail. Pujardov massacring the Cossacks is easily the best attack in the film because the deaths are forced to quick instead of drawn out.

Still, if you're a fan of Hammer-style horror films Horror Express is an absolute delight. It certainly spent a lot of time in my VCR after I happened across it in a bargain bin in high school. That isn't very surprising, of course. A wonderful monster concept, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing  having a blast, and a mad Russian monk. What's not to love?

All that and furry hats!
The Terrible Claw Reviews and my fellow Celluloid Zeroes have come together to honor the late Sir Christoper Lee with a roundtable in his honor.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Gorgon

Micro-Brewed reviews: The Devil Rides Out

Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Rasputin The Mad Monk