"Horror Express" (1972) Review
HORROR EXPRESS (1972) - Directed by Eugenio Martin
1972's Horror Express is a long time bargain-video favorite that actually manages to successfully combine period drama and gory brain-draining. I've been tripping over this flick in budget bins since the VHS era, but never pulled the trigger on it till a DVD turned up recently at my local dollar store and I decided that I could no longer resist the allure of Christopher Lee (Saruman!), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin!) and Telly Savalas (Kojak!) all in the same movie for a mere eight bits!
Horror Express (also known by the much wordier title "Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express," for those of you who are keeping score) is a stylish Spanish-made cheapie that does a fine job of imitating the look and vibe of the classic Hammer Studio horror films of the '60s - right down to the casting of Lee and Cushing, who'd worked together in numerous Hammer productions. Horror Express opens in the snowy mountains of Manchuria circa 1906, where Lee's crusading scientist character discovers a frozen man/ape fossil deep in a cave. Believing it to be the "missing link," Lee packs his prize in a wooden crate and prepares to ship it back to England via the Trans-Siberian Express train. Needless to say, those plans quickly go awry before the train even leaves the station. Minor panic ensues when a nosy thief peeks into the crate while it's still on the train platform and instantly keels over dead with his eyes gone completely white. A crazed Rasputin-esque monk about to board the train declares this to be "The work of Satan!," which Lee of course dismisses as "nonsense."
"Horror Express" Trailer:
Once the train is in motion, we quickly learn that the "fossil" wasn't quite as dead as everyone thought, as it escapes from its crate and is soon clomping around the train, sucking the brains out of various passengers. As brain-drained, white-eyed bodies start piling up, Lee and Cushing - who mainly provides comedic relief here, as Lee's professional rival who just happens to be on the same train - determine that the actual "fossil" isn't responsible for the deaths - the real culprit is an alien organism riding shotgun within its body. This "creature" has been trapped on Earth for millions of years, awaiting the day when humans have evolved enough that it can "steal" the information it needs to get home out of someone's brain. (Gosh!) The caveman's body is eventually destroyed in a hail of gunfire, but by this time the intelligence within it has already transferred into a gruff police inspector (Julio Pena), and from there... well, let's just say things get a whole lot weirder. By the time Telly Savalas arrives around the three-quarter mark as a swishy Cossack army captain whose job is to ferret out the murderer, hell has well and truly broken loose. Before long the "alien" has taken over the body of the crazed Monk and is re-animating the bodies of his previous victims for a final-reel zombie invasion scene! I will leave it up to you to find out of Saruman and Tarkin -- I mean, Lee and Cushing -- are able to stop this horror before the train pulls into its destination.
Despite its obvious low budget (supposedly this flick was made for a mere $300,000) Horror Express was a fun watch. The film has a rich look, interesting set designs and some cool period costumes. I'll grant that the monster makeup on the "fossil" isn't terribly convincing and the gore is minimal, though we do get some bleeding eyes and a pretty bitchin' autopsy scene where Cushing cuts off a victim's skullcap with a hacksaw. All in all, it's a pretty cool flick, with elements of horror, science fiction and even some comedy. I've read some reviews of the film which compare Horror Express to The Thing (or more accurately, to "Who Goes There?," John W. Campbell Jr.'s classic short story that inspired both film versions of The Thing). I may not have noticed the similarities myself if they hadn't been pointed out to me, but now that they have, I'd have to agree that if John Carpenter's Thing had been set in the early 20th century rather than the present day, it might have looked something like Horror Express. At the very least, I would assume that the Horror Express screenwriting team must have been familiar with Campbell's story.
Trailer in German (!)
Some useless trivia about "Horror Express"...
Horror Express was Peter Cushing's first acting project after the death of his beloved wife, and he was still so grief-stricken at the time that he almost quit the film. Losing one of the two big name horror icons in the cast likely would've crippled the production, but fortunately Christopher Lee managed to talk Cushing into staying on by reminiscing with his old friend about the good times they'd had working together in the past.
Legend has it that this film was conceived mainly as a way to re-use existing locomotive footage and the train-car stage sets from director Eugenio Martin's previous film, a Western about Pancho Villa.
Due to its international cast of actors, all of whom spoke a variety of languages, the film was shot without sound. All of the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed in during post production. Lee, Cushing and Savalas all provided their own voices for the English dubbed version of the film.
Horror Express is currently in the Public Domain due to expiration of its copyright. Therefore it is legal for anyone who has a print of the film to duplicate and distribute it. This is why there are so many different video/DVD versions of the movie available on a variety of labels. Obviously the quality of such releases differs depending on which version you buy. The copy I own was released on the Digiview Productions label (suppliers of "dollar DVDs" to Wal-Mart and other discount retailers) and their version is quite watchable, even if it appears to have been dubbed from a VHS copy. However, MPI/Severin Films released an all new deluxe edition of the film (with bonus features including new and archived interviews with the cast and crew) on DVD and Blu-Ray in September of 2011. Whichever version you buy, Horror Express is a fun, funky '70s bit of Eurotrash that will provide B-Movie fans with an enjoyably bizarre ride.