(1972) Directed by Eugenio Martín; Written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet; Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña and Telly Savalas. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“They say that this is a cult picture – I think it is… But when we shot the picture, we didn’t have in mind that, we just were doing an adventure story that we liked, and that was all. …But now, when I look back…when you have Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly (Savalas), the train, the sober sense of humor of the story, and the scent of adventure that pervades the picture, maybe the whole thing works, but who knows which picture is going to be a cult picture? Impossible to know.” – Eugenio Martín (from 2011 interview)
Horror Express (its original Spanish title was Pánico en el Transiberiano, aka: Horror on the Trans-Siberian Express) could be the best Hammer film not made by Hammer. Of course, considering the inclusion of the production company’s two biggest stars, Christopher Lee* and Peter Cushing, and the period horror setting, it would be easy enough to make that error. The Spanish/British co-production was filmed in Madrid on a budget of roughly $300,000. Much like Hammer’s modestly budgeted films, the filmmakers made every penny (or equivalent) count,**/*** with inventive use of sets, good effects, and a strong cast.
* Fun Fact #1: Mr. Lee’s name is misspelled in the opening credits, as “Cristopher Lee.” Oddly enough, his name is spelled correctly in the closing credits.
** Fun Fact #2: Martín used the same train model from another production, Pancho Villa (1972).
*** Fun Fact #3: According to the Blu-ray commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, only one train carriage was used in the shoot, but the interior was re-arranged to fit the requirements of the individual scenes.
Set in 1906, Horror Express opens in the frozen wastes of Sichuan Province, China, where Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) has made the discovery of a lifetime, a two-million-year-old ape man. At the train station in Peking, he encounters rival scientist, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), who takes a keen curiosity in his specimen. Once the train starts rolling on its icy journey, the former adversaries are forced to become allies, when they learn the specimen isn’t quite dead. A malevolent force trapped inside the prehistoric hominid threatens anyone who gets too close. After some passengers meet with gruesome ends, the mysterious intelligence transfers to Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña).
One of the film’s most intriguing concepts (similar to the creature in John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?) is that the alien creature builds on the cumulative knowledge of the countless animals/people it’s absorbed, jumping from host to host over the millennia. It’s not a pretty process, however, as the memory transfer boils the victim’s skulls, leaving their eyes white.* When Dr. Wells examines a sample from one of the unfortunate victim’s eyes under a microscope, it yields an astonishing secret. Stored within the eye, are images from the prehistoric past, including a view of the Earth from space. Held under scrutiny, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Not only did the memories somehow survive through the years, but were passed on from the simplest to the most complex organisms (What sort of memory would a protozoan have?). Also, it’s clear that the creature had ample opportunity to take over Professor Saxton prior to boarding the train, yet it chose another host. What is it about the police inspector that’s favorable to Saxton?
* Fun Fact #4: According to Martín, the actors were unable to see while wearing the opaque contact lenses used in the film, so they had to rehearse without wearing them.
Cushing and Lee never fail to captivate whenever they’re on screen together. Because he was grieving his beloved wife’s death earlier that year, Cushing almost decided to pass on the film. Thankfully for us, he was convinced by his co-star and close friend to continue. Despite the emotional pain Cushing was experiencing at the time, his performance is never off the mark. It’s a tribute to his professionalism that he maintains an endearing, genteel presence that complements Lee’s more brash characterization. Although Cushing might seem somewhat subdued compared to Lee, he delivers the film’s best line. Approached with the suggestion that one of them is the creature, Dr. Wells dryly remarks, “Monster? We’re British, you know.” Lee is suitably imperious as snooty Professor Saxton, who bristles at anyone who contests his authority or credentials.
Just in case we’re led to believe this is all Cushing and Lee’s movie, a third lead is thrown into the mix two-thirds of the way in. Telly Savalas seems to be having a great time as Cossack leader Captain Kazan. He doesn’t chew the scenery as much as devour it. Savalas steals the thunder from the other two leads in the brief time he’s on screen, with his contrasting style. One of the most enjoyable things about his performance is he’s so unpredictable, as when he gargles a goblet of wine, much to the chagrin of the refined passengers. Depending on your point of view, his over the top approach is too much or just right. To my taste, it’s exactly the shot in the arm the film needs.
Another performance worth noting is Alberto de Mendoza* as Father Pujardov, a Russian priest who bears a strong resemblance to Rasputin. He initially warns about the evil that’s being brought aboard the train, but eventually does a complete turn, falling in league with the alien. Alice Reinhart also deserves a nod for the thankless but vital role of Dr Wells’ assistant, Miss Jones. Sadly, her appearance in the film is all too brief, when her character succumbs to the monster.
* Fun Fact #5: According to the Blu-ray commentary, Olive Gregg provided the English voices for the women in the film, while Robert Rietti dubbed the voice for Alberto de Mendoza’s character.
Director Eugenio Martín makes good use of limited resources for Horror Express, exploiting the claustrophobic confines of the train to maximize the tension. We’re trapped, along with the characters, as the Trans-Siberian Express hurtles toward its destination (and their destiny). John Cacavas memorable score adds to the film’s air of mystery (The whistling elements seem to prefigure the music for Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Files). Horror Express does everything a good horror thriller should do. Like a train on a tight schedule, it hits all the right stops, with a series of twists and turns, intrigue and surprises. Hop aboard if you dare.
* Side Note: See the Arrow Blu-ray if you can. It looks the best it’s ever likely to look without going back in time and re-filming it, shot for shot.