Horror Express (1972)
Directed by: Eugenio Martín
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Alice Reinheart, Telly Savalas, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné, George Rigaud
1/2 (out of 4)
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Once again, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee team up for another horror venture (I believe this is their 20th film together). This time, they aren’t arch-enemies but reluctant allies on the Trans-Siberian express. Unlike the Dracula series produced by Hammer Film Productions, this is a different beast entirely; it’s helmed by Spanish director Eugenio Martín, who delivers to the audience brilliant scientists, a beautiful spy, the missing link, a mad monk, a sadistic Cossack, and an alien terror that absorbs your mind as it kills you. Plus, it has three great personalities in the form of Cushing, Lee, and Telly Savalas (Kojak playing a Cossack! He also starred in Martín’s Pancho Villa that same year). The end result is engaging sci-fi/horror even when it is being patently ridiculous and implausible. But in the end, it’s all fun.
The year is 1906. Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) is returning from an archaeological expedition in Manchuria with a wooden box containing a “fossil”, which ends up killing a thief after he tries to open it. The thief’s eyes are turned completely white, and crazy Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) thinks it’s the work of Satan. Pujardov works as spiritual advisor to Count Petrovski and his wife Irina (Silvia Tortosa), who enjoy having him around like a pet, watching him worry about their immortal souls (how cute) while periodically taunting him with sticks of spiritual crisis (Hey, Pujardov, check out this scientific discovery. Try reconciling it with your funny religion now!) Also onboard the train (taking a route from Shanghai into Russia) is Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), Saxton’s professional adversary, and he is understandably curious about the nature of Saxton’s discovery. Wells pays a conductor to peek inside, and the guy falls dead, eyes turned white, like boiled fish. Soon enough, the fossil, revealed to be a half ape-half human creature, has escaped, and our good doctors reluctantly join forces to figure out the bizarre nature of the killings and solve the mystery behind this 2 million year old “missing link”.
There are very strange and funny reveals. After an autopsy on a dead victim, the brain is shown to be completely white and “smooth as a baby’s bottom” as Alice Reinheart’s character exclaims. Saxton and Wells develop the theory that the creature drains memories, and in the process wipes the brain clean. When the creature is cornered and shot dead by Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), an examination of its eye fluid reveals images of earth’s past – directly embedded in the fluid itself! It soon becomes apparent that the creature can transfer its essence into other people, provided the lights are turned off to reveal its (cheesy) glowing red eyes. The eyes are given a lot of power in Horror Express; they are used as instruments of both knowledge and destruction. (In one scene, mad monk Pujardov gives an eye to the monster as tribute). The silliest moment in the movie is indeed the scene where our protagonists are looking through a microscope at some eye fluid and witnessing pictures of a brontosaurus, and earth as seen from space. But the movie plays it totally straight. The best way to handle this film is to accept the reality it presents to you. (Personally, I applaud Horror Express for its steadfast belief in the nature of its universe, and for sticking to its internal logic.)
I think there are more important concepts being presented here anyway, a main one being the age-old battle between science and religion. Issues are raised around evolution versus God, the need for some to explain bizarre phenomena scientifically and others to explain it spiritually. The creature, later revealed to be alien in origin, is a being that could be interpreted from a religious standpoint (Pujardov’s attempts to draw a cross on the box fail; the takeover of human bodies resembles demonic possession). A later appearance by the great Telly Savalas as a no-nonsense Russian official has him expressing his belief in God but also the need to convince an underling of his understanding of science (“I know about telegraphs, trains, electrical currents…. a horse has four legs, a murder has two arms, but still the devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack, hmm?”) Stick around for the ending and the final revelation of the nature of the creature, which should immediately have you wondering about Chris Carter’s influences for the The X-Files. (Here is where I think the original inspiration for the Black Oil lies, not to mention Mulder and Scully’s constant adversarial positions regarding science, the supernatural, aliens, and belief in God). I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the connection between this movie and Who Goes There by John W. Campbell – as the alien creature goes around attempting to brainstorm his way off the planet while possessing bodies, you’ll be thinking a lot about John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Other fun stuff to watch: the awesome performances by Lee, Cushing, Savalas; the creepy nature of the deaths; the claustrophobia of the confined space of the moving train; the air of superiority exhibited by our British fellows, exacerbated by their scientific backgrounds (imagine how annoying an English scientist must be to the regular peasants). There’s certainly a tounge-in-cheek approach to some of the material (Cushing’s character reacts to idea that a Brit could be corrupted: “Monster? We’re British, you know.”). It’s good stuff, and while the specifics of the monster’s physical nature are illogical (for example, why does a person possessed by an alien still have an ape-like hand?), it helps to see the whole forest, not the trees. There are really good ideas in Horror Express (and a nice haunting theme song to boot); it has earned its status as a scifi, horror,and cult classic.
- Bill Gordon
Horror Express has just been released on a new Blu-ray/DVD edition by Severin Films. The Blu-ray transfer has some issues (which you can read about here), but this is still the best the movie has ever looked, and it completely puts the previous Image Entertainment/Euroshock DVD to shame. In fact, even the DVD transfer that comes with this new edition is also superior to the Image version. See DVD screen caps below for comparisons (click the thumbs to enlarge):