Review: Horror Express (1972)

Written by Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet
Directed by Eugenio Martin
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Telly Savalas
US Release Feb. 1, 1967
RT 91 min.
Home Video Severin Films
Classic Horrors rating = 9 (out of 10)

horror-express

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

If there’s ever a case for giving a movie a second chance, let me make it here.  I don’t remember how long ago I first saw Horror Express, but I remember not liking it at all.  In retrospect, it was probably because I watched one of the poor public domain copies on VHS.  Watching it again recently on Blu-ray, I am ashamed of my former self.  It’s a great movie and has catapulted upwards to become one of my favorites!  I can’t wait to watch it again and think it would be the perfect movie to watch with someone who is not a horror fan as a fun example to demonstrate why we love the genre.

What first grabbed my attention upon this viewing was the music during the opening credits.  It’s very unusual with pauses for tribal drumming and what sounds, at points, like screaming.  The score by John Cacavas ends up being terrific all the way through.  (There’s an interesting bonus feature of an interview with him talking about his relationship with actor Telly Savalas.)  Afterwards, I immediately got online to see if there was a soundtrack.  The best I could find is a CD called, “Edgar Allan Poe Suite: Horror Express” from Citadel.  Please let me know if there is another.

Christopher Lee narrates a prologue foretelling disaster.  He says he will leave to others “the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies.”  In China in 1906, Professor Alexander Saxton (Lee) discovers in the ice in a cave what he believes to be evidence of the missing link: a part ape/part man that lived 2 million years ago.  At the station where it’s being loaded on the trans-Siberian express to Moscow, he encounters a cast of colorful characters, including Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), Father Pujardo (Alberto de Mendoza), Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud), and Countess Irina Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa).

Before the crate is placed onto the train, a dead man with white eyes lies under its tarp.  Father Pujardo warns everyone about an evil force and demonstrates how the same chalk that draws a cross on the side of the train does not make a mark on the crate.  “A conjurer’s trick,” says Saxton, although neither he nor anyone else doubts later the creature has come to life when dead bodies start appearing as the train speeds down the tracks.  Prior to a hairy arm reaching out and grabbing a nail to pick the lock, the Countess’s dog barks at the crate and Pujardo says there’s “the stink of hell on this train, even the dog knows it.”

The quick acknowledgement of what’s happening allows the part of Horror Express that’s straight “monster movie” to conclude so that it can evolve into a pre-The Thing version of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”  Soon after Pujardo asks, “You think evil can be killed with bullets?” the murders begin again.  Through autopsies and expert analysis, Saxton, Wells and his traveling companion, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart), theorize they’re dealing with some kind of disease.  If so, what are the symptoms?  Soon, the eyes of every passenger are being examined with a magnifying glass.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to spoil the entire mystery.  It offers twists and turns and ends up being something you never imagine.  It may be 50% horror, 50% sci-fi, but it’s 100% entertaining.  When the train stops at a Russian station, no one is allowed to get off the train, but Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas) and his Cossacks board to determine who is the killer.  Kazan is larger than life, escorting the “royalty” of the Count and Countess to their car while detaining the “peasants” for interrogation.  As Savalas chews the scenery, Kazan says, “Everyone is under arrest!”

Director Eugenio Martin keeps things moving quickly.  It’s the fastest hour and a half I’ve spent with a movie in a long time.  But it’s the script by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julien Zimet (Psyhcomania) that’s really special.  In very little time, it gives us fully-realized characters that are not caricatures.  In an early scene where Saxton and Wells check-in at the station, we learn all we need to know about them: what their personalities are like, what morals they possess and what history they may share.  They’re friendly rivals, yet work together as a great team.  It helps that in real life, Cushing and Lee were a great acting team.

In this scene, and in many others, there’s a sense of humor that’s not necessarily subtle, but is completely natural.  Lines like, “We call it bribery and corruption” and “Monster?  But we’re British!” are peppered throughout, delivered mostly by Cushing or Lee.  My favorite interaction between the two is when Saxton tells Wells he needs Miss Jones’s help.  Wells looks at the pretty woman with whom Saxton has been sitting and says, “Oh,” even though the help Saxton requested was for an autopsy.  Dialogue like this is not necessary, but elevates Horror Express above and beyond what it ever had a hope to be.

Believe it or not, there are also some serious issues thrown into the mix; granted, they’re not fully explored, but they don’t need to be.  After Saxton explains what he thought he had in his crate, I think it’s the aforementioned pretty woman who says, “I’ve heard of evolution; it’s immoral!”  Saxton replies, “It’s a fact and there’s no morality in a fact.”  When she asks him if it was his creature responsible for the deaths, he says, “Probably.”  When accused of not caring, he says, “A baggage man and a thief?  You’re right, I don’t care as much as I should.”

That’s an honest statement and maybe that’s part of what makes Horror Express so special: it’s honest.  As ridiculous as the story reads on paper, particularly as it becomes more convoluted, it’s as authentic as it can be.  It’s also as fun as it could possibly be. For an instant, I thought Kazan’s appearance was going to derail (pun intended) the story, but it ends up being a wonderful addition to the production.  I’ve got to make up for lost time and watch it again soon.  How many years of my life were wasted not watching Horror Express on a regular basis?!?

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