One of my greatest cinematic obsessions outside of the horror genre is the James Bond franchise, so it is with great anticipation that I'm looking forward to this Friday's release of the latest entry in the series, SPECTRE. As the title heralds, the film is set to feature the return of a certain villainous organization that hasn't officially been around since 1971. The leader of SPECTRE is a fellow named Blofeld and he has been played by several different actors, but as I brainstormed over how to celebrate "New Bond Week" in some kind of horror-related way, I focused on two specific Blofelds: horror icon Donald Pleasence, who played the character when his face was first revealed in 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, and Telly Savalas, who replaced Pleasence in the role for 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Looking over their filmographies, I believe I found the perfect pair of movies to pit against each other for a Face-Off.
In 1972, Pleasence and Savalas both starred in horror movies that dealt in some way with trains and featured Christopher Lee (who was a cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and played THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN); Pleasence in RAW MEAT (a.k.a. DEATH LINE) and Savalas in HORROR EXPRESS. Let's see whose movie comes out on top in this battle of Blofelds.
The disappearance of a high-ranking civil servant at a London tube station leads a Scotland Yard inspector to the discovery of a tribe of cannibals that have been living in the tunnels beneath the city ever since a group of train line diggers were trapped in a cave-in and left for dead in 1892.
In 1906, an anthropologist believes he has found the missing link, frozen in a cave in China. When the creature thaws while being transported to Russia via train, however, it turns out to be a living specimen of pure evil and proceeds to terrorize the train's passengers.
Donald Pleasence carries this entire film on his shoulders with a lively, captivating, highly entertaining performance as the man on the case, Inspector Calhoun. He is seriously dedicated to keeping his manor in order, but that doesn't put a damper on his sense of humor. Delivering funny lines left and right, barking out tea orders to his secretary, and getting hammered on his way to solving the mystery, Calhoun is a great character.
Telly Savalas doesn't show up until an hour into this film, which is very dark and serious for the most part, and he brings some welcome levity with him. Savalas chews the scenery and is a delight to watch as a military man who barges onto the train to search for the killer, look down on the passengers, and spout nonsense. He leaves you wishing he had more screen time, and yet the character might become intolerable if he stuck around much longer.
The cannibalistic underground dweller of RAW MEAT is presented as a tragic figure. In fact, director Gary Sherman tries a bit too hard to make us sympathize with him. The last of his kind, the killer has lost his tribe to the plague and spends most of his screen time moping and crying over the loss. Sure, he can tear people to pieces when he's hungry, but more than hunger pains he's feeling the pain of loneliness.
First presented as a preserved caveman, this creature is not as it appears, as the body is inhabited by a parasitic alien lifeforce that has survived for millions of years by jumping from body to body. Desperate to escape Earth, it starts killing people to absorb their knowledge, taking over bodies, and creating zombies. Able to kill with a simple deep stare, it is a very creepy, formidable monster.
As the saying goes, "There are no small parts, only small actors," and Christopher Lee was anything but a small actor. He appears in this film for just one scene that lasts about two minutes, but he makes the most of those two minutes, his MI5 character intimidating Calhoun in a calm and cool manner, trying to get him to drop the investigation. He wins the scene, but Calhoun can't be thwarted for long.
Christopher Lee receives top billing in this film, sharing hero duties with fellow genre star Peter Cushing. Lee's Professor Sir Alexander Saxton is a dedicated man of science, at first more upset that his finding has disappeared than he is that it's killing people, but he soon steps up to handle the situation. The character's a bit of a stiff, so it's good Cushing was there for Lee to bounce off of.
WRITING / DIRECTING
The screenplay by Ceri Jones is well written, especially Calhoun's witty dialogue, and was competently brought to the screen by Sherman, but the film's 87 minutes do feel padded out. The cutaways examining the life of the (mostly) mute killer slow things down to a crawl and go on and on - did we really need five minutes straight of this guy mourning his family? Sherman thought we needed more; it's just one of several glimpses of his sadness. The cannibal isn't solely to blame for dragging things out: as groovy as the music accompanying it is, the title sequence didn't need to be four minutes long, either.
Director Gene Martin is credited with providing the "original story" that was fleshed out by screenwriters Arnaud D'Usseau and Julian Halevy, but the story was clearly inspired by John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella "Who Goes There?", which was also the basis for THE THING. It's an interesting twist on the story, with the train's paranoid passengers checking each other's eyes to determine who might be the alien instead of doing a blood test. Within the confines of its train setting, Martin managed to capture a wonderful atmosphere and craft a film that I think is an undersung classic.
Although their authority figure characters are both a blast to watch, Donald Pleasence bested Telly Savalas in their head-to-head category... and that's the only clear win RAW MEAT pulled off, giving the victory to HORROR EXPRESS in the end.
These films have their fan bases, but they're not among the most popular of the genre, so if you haven't seen RAW MEAT or HORROR EXPRESS, I recommend checking them out. Even though RAW MEAT bogs down a bit, anyone who enjoyed watching Pleasence in the HALLOWEEN films really needs to see him play Inspector Calhoun.
If you have seen them, what do you think of the results of this Face-Off? Let us know if you agree or disagree by leaving a comment below. If you would like to suggest a future Face-Off pairing, drop me a line at CodyHamman@joblo.com