Horror Express

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Horror Express  (British-Spanish 1972, dir: Eugenio Martia; cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Jorge Rigaud, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peqa, Angel del Pozo, Helga Lini, Alice Reinheart; aka Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train)

 

 

 

A delightfully spooky horror/sci-fi thriller, Horror Express is an atmospheric (albeit gory) period piece suffused with Hammer Films and H.G Wells's sensibility. (Despite it not being a Hammer Film, nor based on a Wells story.)

The year is 1906, the British Empire at its zenith. Christopher Lee is an English archeologist, the kind who wears tweeds and bandies about the Empire under the sponsorship of some sort of Royal Exploratory Society or other. (One reviewer called his character, Professor Saxton, an American, but most for reviewers Saxton is British, which how I read the film). The Society should be pleased, because Lee has just discovered a two-million-year-old frozen man in the snowy mountains of China.

Lee crates up the corpse and loads it upon the Trans-Siberian Express, planning to return to Europe with it. He's paranoid enough to chain the crate shut. Much to his annoyance, as he prepares to depart the train station in China, a Chinese spy dies trying to break into the crate.  Then another passenger, a Rasputin-style monk (played by Jorge Rigaud), accuses the crate of containing the work of Satan!

Compounding Lee's difficulties, at the train station he runs into another passenger and rival scientist, Dr. Wells (cute homage to H.G. Wells, no?), played by Peter Cushing. Yes, it's a small world. Lee is mum about what's in the crate, so Cushing bribes the baggage car clerk to investigate.

After the train leaves the station, the clerk opens the crate ... and the body count mounts!

 

 

Seems the thing in the crate is alive. And it's no frozen "missing link", as Lee hypothesizes. It's an ancient man whose body was possessed by an alien from outer space. An alien who, once thawed, can possess body after body. An alien like one of those mind creatures the USS Enterprise was always bumping into, to Spock's constant surprise ("Fascinating. A lifeform of pure energy!") Seems there are hordes of "pure energy" lifeforms out there.

Which is not to say that the "pure energy" lifeform in Horror Express is white bread. It has its own identify. Its unique talents. Things that make it ... kinda special. For one thing, its eyes glow red. That's always nice to have in a horror film. And when its glowing red eyes stare at you, your own eyes start to bleed, then turn white. You don't see that in Star Trek.

As the body count mounts, what with everyone's eyes bleeding and turning white, Lee and Cushing make some startling scientific discoveries. The alien's eye fluid contains its visual memories. See, the two scientists examine the alien's eye fluid under a microscope, and in the fluid they see tiny pictures of dinosaurs and of planet Earth as seen from a spaceship. You could say the alien has a "photographic memory." (I don't buy that Lee and Cushing could accurately speculate, in 1906, what Earth looks like from space -- but hey, if you accept eye fluid memory ...)

 

 

 

Apart from Lee and Cushing, there's a large and excellent cast of character actors. Rigaud's monk effectively vacillates between piety and villainy. Telly Savalas is under-utilized as a swaggering Cossack officer (John Stanley's 1994 Creature Features guide mistakenly identifies Savalas as a "Hungarian cop") who boards the train to investigate the murders. The actresses are attractive in the Hammer tradition.

The special effects and gore are fine by 1972's standards. The train looks like a model train, which it is, yet there are some nice shots of it racing across the snowy nighttime Siberian wastes -- especially the long shots, when we're not too close to the model.

If Alien was a "haunted house on a space ship," Horror Express is a "haunted house on a train." An enjoyable atmospheric spook-ride. Imagine Alien committing Murder on the Orient Express, written by H.G. Wells and shot by Hammer. (It's not a Hammer film, but it looks like one.) A fun film performed by a talented cast.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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