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, 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!"|
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!"|
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 off 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!"|
|"Senpai noticed me!"|
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."|
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!|
Checkpoint Telstar: The Gorgon
Micro-Brewed reviews: The Devil Rides Out
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