Synopsis: In 1906, passengers aboard a European-bound Trans-Siberian Railway train are stalked, one by one, by an alien intelligence inhabiting the frozen body of an ancient primitive humanoid brought onboard by an anthropologist.
Stars: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, George Rigaud, Ángel del Pozo, Telly Savalas
Director: Eugenio Martín
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There are some horror films from the past that I know I should get to, but keep skipping because…well, because I know they will always be there. Consistently showing up on some subscription streaming service or available free on demand in sub-standard quality, these titles are public domain (think Night of the Living Dead) and can be broadcast by anyone who can send out the signal. Horror Express is one of those titles constantly popping up as a suggestion on my periphery but never entirely made it into the full view of my eyeline.
I recently decided to board this 1972 Spanish-UK production featuring the dynamic pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The duo had been co-stars in countless Hammer productions in the 1950s and 1960s, often as adversaries engaged in delightfully sharp conflict. Their most famous matches were Cushing’s Professor Van Helsing pursuing Lee’s singular Count Dracula around the globe, and the two actors continue to set the gold standard for how to play the literary characters with sophistication and (yes, campy) style.
In Horror Express, Lee (Dracula, Prince of Darkness) plays Sir Alexander Saxton, a professor in Shanghai circa 1906 who has discovered the find of the new century. A creature encased in a block of ice was removed from a cave and is being transported back to England via Moscow on the Trans-Siberian expressway. Also onboard the train is Doctor Wells (Cushing, Tales from the Crypt), a rival of Saxton that is only too happy to persuade the porter to find a way to let him a look inside the crate containing Saxton’s mysterious bounty. They don’t know that the frozen creature has defrosted and has a nasty habit of dispatching anyone who disturbs it.
As the train hurtles through the night toward its destination, the beast breaks out and starts a rampage through the train. Its true evil is discovered when it begins to swap hosts, passing a deadly power to destroy from one passenger to another as it fights to survive against Saxton and Wells’s efforts to kill it. When the train is boarded by a band of Cossacks led by Captain Kazan (a hammy Telly Savalas, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), the stage is set for an epic showdown between soldiers, a centuries-old monster, and men of science.
Somewhat surprisingly, director Eugenio Martín keeps Horror Express chugging along at a fine pace for a solid fifty minutes as he introduces the characters and initial monster mayhem. Despite their friendship off-screen, Cushing and Lee could play excellent enemies onscreen, and they are both tightly wound here. If Cushing feels a bit sluggish (as does the movie during its middle section), it can be explained by the actor losing his wife just before shooting and needing Lee to carry him through the film. The few women present, Silvia Tortosa, Helga Liné, and Alice Reinheart, are all either plain and sexless or gorgeous and wicked, so don’t look for any early heroines to show up.
I’m shocked Horror Express hasn’t been snapped up for a remake in all these years. Though it is a familiar reworking of the novel that inspired multiple iterations of what we know as 1951’s The Thing From Another World and 1982’s The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, this was very much its own creation. Why someone hasn’t given this a polish is beyond me. It would be a ghoulishly grand trip for the right filmmaker/studio. Until then, give this one a go, and don’t let it pass you by for as long as I did.