WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
My first viewing of HORROR EXPRESS was (as of my posting this) three years ago at Hudson Horror Show #8! I had owned a copy on DVD but never watched it, so it was a real treat to be introduced to this film in its original format. But as I sat there in the theater, something about HORROR EXPRESS just felt really… familiar.
That feeling grew when the night was capped off with John Carpenter’s THE THING. But it wasn’t until several days later that I found out why I had such a strong feeling of deju vu: HORROR EXPRESS, much like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE THING, was a loose adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr’s Who Goes There?
Taking place in the year 1906, HORROR EXPRESS begins with Professor Alexander Saxton’s (Christopher Lee) discovery of a frozen ape-man in the icy peaks of Manchuria. Eager to get the newfound “missing link” back to his lab for study, Saxton has his precious cargo loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express. After some strange happenstances, it is revealed that the creature is actually still alive, and extremely intelligent. (As evidenced by its ability to pick the lock on its crate.)
The prehistoric monster wanders the train, claiming several more victims until its reign of terror is halted by a barrage of bullets from a police inspector named Mirov (Julio Peña). After autopsying the creature and those it killed, both Saxton and his colleague Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) ascertain that the beast somehow drained the contents of its victims’ brains. They also discover that it has been on Earth for centuries after studying fluid from its eyes under a microscope.
However, they soon find that their unwelcome passenger is still lurking about, because not only can the mysterious creature absorb minds, but it can also “upload” its own intelligence into another person. To keep itself hidden among the rest of the passengers, the alien entity hops into different hosts, as it attempts to complete its mysterious quest on Earth. Will the combined efforts of Wells and Saxton, plus the arrival of a Cossack officer (Captain Kazan, played with zeal by Telly Savalas) and his men be enough to halt the machinations of this mind-consuming menace?
HORROR EXPRESS is probably the least faithful adaptation of Who Goes There? that has been made thus far. Regardless of that, it is a fun and clever little movie. Instead of a shape-shifting alien that assimilates and mimics human beings, the creature in this film literally saps the memories and knowledge from people through their eyes, turning them into lifeless husks. (The eyes are the windows of the soul after all.)
The only misstep the film makes with its antagonist is that no effort is made to hide the identity of the alien after it hops into a new human vessel. There’s really no “whodunnit” aspect to keep the audience on its toes. (The intense feeling of paranoia among people trapped in an icy locale with an alien presence would be better showcased in Carpenter’s THE THING a decade later.) Also, it seems that at some point, the screenwriters weren’t sure how to let the audience in on who was no longer human.
When the alien implants itself within Inspector Mirov early in the film, he looks totally fine, except for his furry monster hand that he noticeably keeps hidden in his pocket. This doesn’t really make much sense: Why would there be any sort of physical transformation, especially if it would reveal the creature’s identity to everyone else? And why would only one hand be affected?! This seems like an idea that came from an early draft of the script in an effort to keep the audience in the loop. Thankfully, it is sort of abandoned as the movie progresses, when Saxton and Wells discover that the human hosts have glowing red eyes whenever they are in the dark.
And while we’re supposed to cheer for the heroic scientists who are fighting against the alien invader, as the story plays out you may begin feeling that its actions are purely out of self-preservation. This theory holds water once it’s discovered that the alien life form was stranded on Earth eons ago, and had to literally follow our evolutionary path, hoping that one day, humanity would evolve and achieve a certain level of technology. In a way, the creature was damned lucky that it was frozen in ice for so long, because mankind had since come a long way since our species’ hunter-gatherer days.
So you see, the alien’s endgame is simply that it wants to return to its home world. It’s a refugee that has suffered on our harsh planet for centuries, which is why it takes great pains to steal knowledge from various scientists and inventors that happen to be on the Trans-Siberian Express. Its ultimate goal isn’t world conquest, or the subjugation of mankind, but rather gaining enough knowledge to build a ship that could allow it to escape the Earth.
The cast of HORROR EXPRESS is exceptional, with the dynamic duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing leading the pack. It is great to see them paired up for a change, as we’ve already seen them at odds in numerous other productions. (e.g. THE CREEPING FLESH and numerous Hammer-produced Dracula films.) They play well off of each other, and I for one am eternally grateful that Peter Cushing didn’t quit this film as he had initially intended. (Prior to filming HORROR EXPRESS, Cushing was still grieving over the death of his wife, and it took a pep-talk from longtime friend Christopher Lee to get him back on board.)
The inclusion of two of Horror’s greatest headliners thankfully doesn’t overshadow the remainder of the cast members, who all put in solid performances. Particular kudos must go to both Telly Savalas and Alberto de Mendoza (Father Pujardov), because they help make the proceedings a lot of fun. Savalas gleefully chews the scenery as the overconfident Captain Kazan, while Mendoza gives two uniquely different performances.
For most of the film Mendoza’s Pujardov is a “spiritual counselor” (i.e. religious zealot) to Polish royalty, that’s none too stable and very superstitious. As the film progresses he tries to become an acolyte of the alien being (thinking it is Satan), even going as far as to serve himself up as a new vessel when Inspector Mirov’s body is riddled with bullets. The alien grudgingly enters Pujardov (it let’s him know earlier in the film that he has nothing of interest in his mind), thus rendering the commandeered monk calm, cool, and collected as he seeks out the final target: Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud).
Petrovski is the final key to the alien’s plan, as the Count has a formula for a new type of steel that actually hardens when subjected to intense heat. And naturally all that information is buried within Petrovski’s mind. But before emptying the Count’s mind, the alien sticks it to him, on behalf of the mad monk, telling The Count: “You know, in spite of everything, Pujardov had a certain affection for you. Yet you humiliated him often. Even in front of the Countess.”
This leads to me to surmise that when the alien soaks up a person’s mind, it not only gets their knowledge and skills, but their desires, fears, and emotions as well. It would have been cool if the film explored this angle more. Perhaps the sudden influx of emotions could have made the alien become somewhat unhinged (and therefore more dangerous), or conversely, it could have become more human giving its eventual demise a much bigger emotional punch.
HORROR EXPRESS had a rather low budget (roughly three-hundred thousand dollars), but director Eugenio Martin made the best of it. One set was used for all of the interior shots, and all of the makeup effects are simplistic but quite effective. The gore is minimal, with the bulk of it consisting of small amounts of fake blood, and white contact lenses that look terribly uncomfortable. The film also boasts a decent monster suit, impressive miniatures, and a really cool makeup appliance that gives its wearer the illusion of glowing red eyes.
And while there’s already a lot to love here, one of the strongest things about this movie is its soundtrack, which was composed by John Cacavas. His music for HORROR EXPRESS is haunting and beautiful, and at times seems like it would be a perfect fit for a Spaghetti Western. Cacavas’ music boosts the film’s atmosphere, and the main theme is extremely catchy. Have a listen for yourself HERE.
HORROR EXPRESS is a genre classic that rises above its meager budget, and is as entertaining now as it was in 1972. It has a fantastic cast, a great soundtrack, and is required viewing for fans of both Horror and Science-Fiction cinema. It has rapidly become one of my favorite movies, and I most definitely give it a hearty recommendation. I love HORROR EXPRESS and feel that it is more than deserving of:
Packaging: Severin Films’ HORROR EXPRESS Blu-ray/DVD combo comes in a standard Blu-ray amaray case with the original movie poster artwork on the cover. Nothing too exciting, but it does the trick!
Audio & Video: Having only seen HORROR EXPRESS on 35mm prior to viewing my Blu-ray, I have to say that this release is the best possible way to watch this film! Showcased in its original 1.66:1 ratio, and boasting an HD transfer from vault elements discovered in a Mongolian film depot, this is easily the best the film has ever looked!
While the transfer is admittedly far from perfect, when compared to previous releases, you can’t deny that it’s a major step up. The disc offers up both English and Spanish audio tracks in Dolby Digital Mono. The English track has some imperfections, but the dialogue and John Cacavas’ fantastic score sounded just fine coming out of my speakers.
The Extras: Sadly there isn’t an audio commentary on this release, but there are a wealth of other special features. Along with an intro by Fangoria Editor Chris Alexander, there’s a trailer for HORROR EXPRESS, as well as other Severin titles, including PSYCHOMANIA, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, and NIGHTMARE CASTLE. The rest of the extras are comprised of interviews, including one from 1973 with lead actor Peter Cushing. I listened to some of it, but have yet to take in its full seventy-nine minute running time.
Also included is short fourteen-minute interview with director Eugenio Martin, who seems a tad surprised by the film’s cult status. He shares a few anecdotes about the making of HORROR EXPRESS, and recalls that Lee and Cushing were consummate professionals. They rarely needed to rehearse, showed up on time, and always knew their lines. He also comments on how Telly Savalas liked to be surprised on set, and would ask the director to change things up during takes in order to elicit some genuine reactions from the actor.
Another short interview (roughly eight minutes) with composer John Cacavas, reveals how he broke into the industry and became lifetime friends with actor Telly Savalas. They worked on two albums and various TV shows together, and it seems that John wouldn’t have had the career he did, if he hadn’t hit it off with the star of Kojak! Also included here is a lengthy (half-hour) interview with Producer Bernard Gordon.
He doesn’t touch upon the film at all, but does offer up insight into being blacklisted during the rise of McCarthyism in America during the Cold War. He saw lives and careers ruined, and talks about the hardships he endured. He did manage to find some work, but got paid the bare minimum and couldn’t have his actual name listed in the credits. Though I would have liked a little background on his involvement with HORROR EXPRESS, this interview proves to be an interesting look at one of the darker periods of American history.
Final Verdict: A lot of love went into this release, and for the time being, it is the definitive version to buy. HORROR EXPRESS has never looked or sounded any better, and there’s plenty of extras here to warrant a purchase. While it is a little rough around the edges, I am more than content with this two-disc set, and will give it: