Happy New Year and welcome to another year of your favorite films here at Monday Picks. This week’s feature to ring in the New Year is the 1972 Spanish horror classic Horror Express a.k.a. Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express. The film stars both Hammer Films greats Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who battle an alien life form which has existed on Earth for millions of years.
The film opens in 1906 Manchuria where English naturalist and explorer Alexander Saxton (Lee) has discovered an ape-like creature that has been frozen for thousands of years. Convinced he has found the missing link, Saxton and his party crate up the fossil and prepare to transport the cargo by train to Moscow, Russia.
While in Shanghai, Saxton encounters his fellow Royal Society member Doctor Wells (Cushing) who also plans to board the train bound for Moscow. While under guard, Saxton’s crate is picked by a thief who turns up dead on the station platform, his eyes turned white. A crazed monk and spiritual advisor to a Polish Count believes Saxton’s cargo is unholy. Saxton dismisses the monk’s ranting as spiritual nonsense.
Once aboard the train, Saxton tries to keep his find a secret from those who are eager to find out what he’s transporting. The curious Doctor Wells pays a baggage porter to have a look inside. Later that evening, the porter winds up dead as he encounters the ape-like creature in the crate, with glowing red eyes, which kills the porter in the same fashion as the thief at the station. The creature breaks free and begins its murderous body count on the train.
As the body count rises, Saxton, Wells, a Russian police inspector named Mirov, and a Polish Countess try to find out what the creature is and why it’s victims are found dead with opaque white eyes. Dr. Wells and his assistant Ms. Jones perform an autopsy on the baggage porter and find that his mind has been wiped clean. Wells and Ms. Jones believe that the creature has the ability to absorb its victims traits, memories, and capabilities such as picking a lock and escaping its crate.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is after the ape like creature is killed by Mirov the policeman; the creature transports itself into the body of the inspector as its new host on Earth. Sensing the creature in the body of the inspector, the Rasputin-like monk swears allegiance to the inspector, which he believes is the devil in the flesh. At the same time, Saxton and Wells extract fluid from the eye of the ape creature and see images of pre-historic Earth, and Earth as it looks from outer space.
Later in the film as the creature assumes another host, it is revealed to Saxton that the creature is a form of energy from another galaxy which was marooned on Earth millions of years ago and survived by living in protozoa, fish, mammals, and eventually man. Being a man of science and curious as to unlock the mysteries of the universe from such a being, Saxon holds the creature at gun point and threatens to kill the alien who will do whatever it can to protect itself at all costs.
I first encountered Horror Express on a late night movie channel and was captivated by its similar plot to John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” which was the inspiration behind Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, and John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing. The creature absorbs the identity and traits of its host and tries to preserve itself at all costs. A brilliant, yet very unconventional horror film which American audiences were not use to. Eugenio Martin’s direction is very good and Lee and Cushing are absolutely terrific on screen, being that both men were lifelong friends and had starred in many British horror films from the 1950s-1970s.
Another notable performance is that of Telly Savalas who plays a Cossack Captain (Kazan) who boards the train with his men in search of rebels who plan to undermine Czarist Russia. It’s a bit of an over the top performance, but Savalas manages to turn out some great screen time in such a short span of the film.
Horror Express was filmed for three hundred thousand dollars in Madrid, Spain from 1971-72. Producer Bernard Gordon and Martin had collaborated on the film Pancho Villa together and were able to use many of the props such as the model train for Horror Express. Gordon was hesitant about securing both Lee and Cushing for the film because he didn’t want the film to be considered another Hammer feature.
Cushing had suffered a tragic loss and was distraught over the recent death of his beloved wife. He told Gordon once he arrived in Spain that he didn’t want to do the film, Gordon didn’t want to postpone filming or loose one of his major stars. Lee stepped in and convinced his dear old friend that the film would be great for him to get his mind off the death of his wife. As a result, Cushing turned out an amazing performance thanks to Lee’s overwhelming devotion to his friend and long time co-star.
Horror Express is available on combo DVD and Blu-Ray Disc thru Severin Home Video.