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Horror Express

The "Horror Express" (1973) starts with the discovery of the frozen corpse of an intriguing being that just might be the evolutionary Missing Link. All a-dither, anthropologist Alexander Saxton treats this "fossil" like the career-making scoop that it is. It's promptly crated and packed onto the Trans-Siberian Railway for transport to the good professor's homeland (without declaring it to the local authorities, paying taxes and fees, or attending to those pesky issues regarding rightful ownership)-but not before the mysterious force inside the crate starts preying on the unsuspecting folks that wander into its reach.

Titled Panico en el Transiberiano in its original, Spanish-language release, the film invites us to identify a new category of sci-fi films. Just as the established horror genre, Spooky Old House, traps its characters in a house or, in some variations, on an island, we can see common themes that might be best identified as the Spooky Old Transport (SOT). As with the Spooky Old House genre, an SOT story sticks its characters in an untenable situation to heighten the drama: either they fight a deadly threat aboard the train/boat/spaceship, or they die in a frozen wilderness/hostile sea/deep space. For example, consider "The Incredible Petrified World" (1957) and "Alien" (1979).

Contrast this narrative device to what we might call the Widespread Panic (WP) approach to creating drama. Rather than trap a few characters on an isolated set, the WP story presents the rock as pretty much the whole Earth and the hard place as something that threatens all humans. Take, for instance, the recently released "2012" (2009), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (2008) and, of course, "War of the Worlds" (2005 and/or 1953). Many zombie films also fall into the WP genre (2002's "28 Days Later" comes to mind), though many do not also qualify as true sci-fi. To do so, they need to attempt a quasi-scientific explanation for the condition of the ambulatory dead. Incidentally, zombified passengers do lurch along the aisles of the Horror Express, but they never do manage to get off the train, so the film's primary status as an SOT story is maintained.

The Science

Cynthia Furse

Dr. Cynthia FurseCynthia Furse, Vice President of Research at the University of Utah, discusses the ethics of research and the film “Horror Express.”

 

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