‘Horror Express’ (1973) Review

“He knows that a horse has four legs. He knows that a murderer has two arms. But still, the devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.”

I missed the birthdays of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee last week. It’s been a busy month, and I’m afraid I’ve fallen behind. I decided to watch an old Lee and Cushing favorite to make up for it.

Horror Express is a comfy old shoe of a horror film to me. It ran incessantly during October when I worked at a comic shop (as it was the only VHS horror film we had). It got to the point where regular customers could whistle the theme song right along with the baggage man. Eventually it became nothing but a Lee/Cushing/Savalas noise in the background of my day, something so familiar as to be invisible.

That familiarity bred contempt of a sort. For many years afterward I avoided rewatching the film. I’d seen it a little too much back in the day and wasn’t sure I could really find enjoyment in it anymore. Whenever I thought of it my mind would wander back to days spent sorting comics, running games and selling *shudder* packs of whatever card game was then attempting to usurp Magic’s place. And I would remember that theme song and decide not enough time had passed to watch it again.

A few years back I decided to finally give the film another shot. I think it might have been one of Sailor’s innumerable lists that was the deciding factor. (Yep: The 100 Greatest Overlooked Horror Movies.) I was immediately sucked back in and while yes, I did have comic shop flashbacks, I also was able to enjoy the film as a Hammer-esque treatment of the classic “Who Goes There?” story that also became The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s horror and sci-fi and a murder mystery all smushed together. Plus it’s got Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and an amazing performance by Telly Savalas that is not to be missed. It’s once again a film I’m happy to watch regularly – though I admit I do turn down that damn whistling when it shows up.

Just for the hell of it (and because I also missed Monster Sketch Monday this week) here’s a quick poster I did for the film.

The Medium
I had that VHS tape of Horror Express for a long time after I stopped working at the shop, but I never did watch it again. I actually went into the basement and dug into old boxes looking for it, but I think I gave it to my brother Scott along with a lot of other old VHS horror movies.

For streaming, there are a ton of different options for subscribers as well as free (with ads) options. The vast majority of the free options are poor quality pan-and-scan versions, so you’re better off being a subscriber at Fandor, FLIX Fling or, best option, Arrow’s video streaming service. It can also be rented/purchased at the usual places.

There are two Blu-ray releases – 2011’s Severin films disc and a recent Arrow Films restoration. The Arrow release is the best option, with a superior picture and some additional extras.

The Movie
Holy crap, but that theme song really worms its way into your head, doesn’t it? Within seconds I could hum the whole thing again. Hell, even the extended train whistles during the opening credits had me experiencing flashbacks to new book days and putting comics in subscriber files. Once the movie started in earnest – with Christopher Lee providing a voice-over about his ‘doomed’ Manchurian expedition – I was able to settle down and just enjoy Horror Express.

And Horror Express is a fun – if low-budget – Hammer-lite romp of a horror film. With Christopher Lee as the prickly, slightly amoral scientist, Professor Saxton, and Peter Cushing as his more good-natured rival. (Though it is Cushing’s Doctor Wells who unleashes the true horror on the train, by dint of a little outsourced science espionage. How’d your curiosity work out for you, Doctor?) And of course, Telly Savalas as the Cossak officer Captain Kazan. If there’s any real complaint that I have about this movie it’s that there is nowhere near enough of Captain Kazan and his pithy pronouncements. One honest Cossak indeed.

What we have is a “monster loose in an enclosed space” story, like Alien or The Thing, but in this case the enclosed space is the early 1900’s Trans-Siberian Express. It seems Professor Saxton has uncovered a ‘missing link’ specimen on his expedition to Manchuria and is transporting it to England. Of course it’s not really dead – and soon the bodies are piling up, all of them with blood pouring from their all-white eyes.

The monster makeup is quite good, and the camera doesn’t linger so we’re not forced to examine its flaws too closely. Mostly we see a hairy arm and claws as well as glowing, red eyes. There’s some fun incidents of grue, like the autopsies wherein we learn that the victims brains are now smooth as a baby’s bottom. (A result, we’re told, of their memories being drained.) The film also has an enjoyable sense of humor, with plenty of dry wit and dark comedy.

“What if one of you is the monster?”

“Monster? We’re British, you know!”

Things seem to come to a premature end with the creature shot down by Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña). It’s just a cue for things to get more crazy and interesting, however, as the scientists inspect the remains and discover the eye fluid contains images of everything the creature has ever seen. Including dinosaurs. Including the earth – as seen from space! I’m not saying it’s aliens. But it’s aliens.

Horror Express is just so much fun, really. It goes to crazy places. Revived ape-men not enough? How about aliens? No, how about body jumping aliens? Still not enough? Hold on, we’re going full on zombie horde as the movie careens along. Throw in the good Captain, a lady spy, a Count and his wife, a Rasputin wannabe and more white eyeballs and train models than you can shake a stick at. Whatever else, the movie is never boring.

“Miss Jones, I shall need your assistance.”

“Yes, well at your age I’m not surprised.”

“With an autopsy!”

“Oh, well that’s different.”

And there are some genuinely interesting and visually poetic moments. There’s a shot of a character, possessed by the alien and staring out the frosted window of the train into the howling snow and darkness that could easily have been the cover to a classic horror novel. Another moment after a whirlwind of death where a character is shot standing over the massed bodies of his foes could have been right out of The Matrix.

As an aside, Peter Cushing almost didn’t make this film. His beloved wife, Helen, had recently passed away and he had only arrived to give the director, Eugenio Martin, the courtesy of telling him in person. Lee spent some time with him, reminiscing over their shared films, and Cushing changed his mind.

The Bottom Line

Yes, Horror Express is a low budget film with some flat lighting and characters, a theme song that quickly gets on the nerves, and roles that don’t exactly require Cushing and Lee to work at their highest level. But you know, they’re not phoning it in, either. Everyone seems to be making an effort, and even if it all doesn’t quite make sense at least it’s not boring. And it’s honestly worth the price of admission to enjoy the Cushing/Lee chemistry and see Telly Savalas ham up a storm.

Note: Apparently season 2 of Creepshow (on Shudder) features a storyline that includes a character inserting himself into Horror Express! I haven’t seen it, but it’s become a must-watch when I inevitably re-up Shudder in September.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.