Horror Express (1972)
Directed by Eugenio Martin
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Helga Liné, Telly Savalas, George Rigaud, Victor Israel
For any horror fan that is just starting his long journey into the depths of genre, one path that is easy and most followed are the ones that feature certain iconic actors known for their work in the genre, such as names like Karloff, Price, Chaney, Lorre, and of course Cushing and Lee. With the work Cushing and Lee did with Hammer Films, as well as many other genre pics, it gave a young and eager fan plenty of titles to investigate. If you found one of the many films that they both appeared in, then it was an even better deal!
One of those titles is Eugenio Martin’s Panico en el Transiberiano (Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train), or more commonly known simply as Horror Express. This 1972 film starts out with Lee on an expedition through some wintery caves, finding a body that looks to have been frozen for quite some time. Shortly thereafter, he is trying to board the title train with his specimen locked up nice and tight in a chained crate. It doesn’t take long time for rival Cushing to suddenly appear and seems to be very curious as to what Lee has found. So much so, it’s not above him to bribe the guy in charge of the baggage to break into the crate to see what is in it. It seems that this ancient old ‘specimen’ is much older than Lee ever would have imagined and is still alive, much to his terror, along with the rest of the passengers.
Shorty after the train leaves, the baggage clerk tries to take that peek into the crate and quickly regrets his decision. His body is later found inside the crate, with blood coming out of his mouth and eyes, which by the way are now completely white. But the mysterious creature that was inside is now gone. This same thing happened to a thief at the train station who tried to break into the crate. With the police still on board investigating this strange death, it becomes more intriguing for the inspector trying to uncover the mystery of just what was in that large wooden box.
This film excels in many areas. The first and easiest to see is the cast. Christopher Lee is perfectly cast as the arrogant Sir Alexander Saxton. He is desperately trying to keep his discovery from prying eyes, until he realizes what he has actually found. Then he shifts into hero mode, through still in the very essence of the prim and proper British stereotype. Cushing on the other hand, plays a much friendlier Doctor, even though he has come to understand the concept and use of bribery and such methods of getting what he wants. Though they both might not think too much of a lowly thief that was found dead, they are not bad guys. Once they discover just what they are up against, they band together and fight for the right cause.
In the minor roles, the always gorgeous Helga Liné appears as an international spy. Granted her screen time isn’t that long, but every second she is on the screen is a treat to watch. Julio Peña plays the police inspector, also appeared in Night of the Devils (1971), as well in a couple of Paul Naschy outings, Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973) and The Werewolf vs the Vampire Women (1971). And speaking of Naschy, one would almost think he had a twin brother, since Alberto de Mendoza appears here as the worried priest Pujardov, who just happens to look exactly like Mr. Naschy. De Mendoza did appear along side Naschy in The People Who Owned the Dark (1976), but also appeared in a few Italian films, such as in Lucio Fulci’s The Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971). Of course, we have Telly Savalas as the crooked Captain who loves the power that he has.
But we also wanted to mention someone else. Victor Israel plays the baggage clerk and is the Spanish version of Hammer’s Michael Ripper, or the Philippines’ Vic Diaz. He appeared in tons of both Italian and Spanish films, from westerns to horror, usually in just little bit parts where you go “Hey…wasn’t that guy in….” Some of his horror creds are The House that Screamed (1969), Graveyard of Horrors (1971), Night of the Howling Beast (1975), Amando de Ossorio’s last film The Sea Serpent (1984) and even Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead (1980). If you watch a lot of European films, then once you spot this guy, you’ll start to see him over and over again.
Horror Express does a great job taking a science fiction element (though it does have some highly laughable scientific explanations) and incorporating that into a great horror story that takes place on the confined space of a moving train. While it is pretty easy to follow the ‘mystery’, the story still holds the viewer’s attention between the characters and the pretty damn good effects. From the look of the creature, with his burning red eyes to his hairy clawed hands, they come across quite well. The glowing eyes effect is done exceptionally well, especially for that time.
The musical score by John Cacavas is simply a masterpiece of cinematic enhancement. First and foremost is the eerie and very catchy whistling tune that is heard in the very beginning of the film. In fact, it is so catchy that even one of the characters in the movie whistles it during one of the scenes! While he did work on the film Pancho Villa because of Telly Savalas, they became great friends, which led to him getting into the film business. Horror Express was his first picture. Staring at music at a very young age while growing up in South Dakota, Cacavas would eventually relocate to England, composing a score to Hammer’s Satanic Rites of Dracula. When he moved back to the states, he worked pretty steadily in television and a few movies. But his score for Horror Express is one of my all time favorites.
The new blu-ray release by Severin is just amazing. It comes with both the blu-ray and the regular DVD. The extras include an interview with director Martin which is very informative and interesting, especially when he explains how Peter Cushing almost didn’t do the film. There is also an interview with the producer Bernard Gordon who talks about his early days in Hollywood and how he was blacklisted. These kind of stories never cease to amaze me on how things were working back then and something that I really hope never happens again. Next is a small interview with composer Cacavas who talks about how he got his start in the business. The real bonus here though is an audio interview with Peter Cushing that was done back in 1973, where he discusses everything from his early career to what he was doing currently. Any time you can hear this amazing man talk is worth every second. Well worth the listen.
So much fun and so different than the usual horror monster trappings, with an incredible cast, a beautiful score, I don’t think I could recommend this film enough.