Directed by Eugenio Martín. Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña. Horror/Sci-Fi, UK/Spain, 91 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 11th February 2019.
There are people of a certain age for whom the idea of horror royalty Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battling a telepathic alien creature that takes over the bodies of its victims and creates zombies on a train is a dream come true. Add to that already tantalising mix KOJACK star Telly Savalas, an early 20th century period setting and elements of classic sci-fi in the vein of John W. Campbell and Nigel Kneale and you get HORROR EXPRESS, a 1972 Anglo-Spanish co-production that is ripe for (re)discovery as it has a lot going on in it that has been aped by other movies, and thanks to Arrow Video we can now enjoy all of this goodness in shiny HD for the first time in the UK.
Despite the credits stating it has been adapted from an ‘original story’ by director Eugenio Martin, HORROR EXPRESS does have more than a whiff of John W. Campbell’s novella WHO GOES THERE? about it, and by 1972 WHO GOES THERE? had already spawned one movie adaptation in Howard Hawks’ 1951 film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and would go on to be re-told again in 1982 with John Carpenter’s THE THING. Nevertheless, HORROR EXPRESS carries similar themes of paranoia, isolated locations and alien creatures using humans as a cover but brings in elements of zombie movies and possession to up the horror, as well as some neat little sci-fi twists to make it a little different.
But whatever plot details the filmmakers came up with pales in comparison to who they managed to cast. The pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing has always wielded some top notch acting regardless of the film they were in but here the pair look as if they are actually having fun, even sending themselves up slightly. Lee plays the very firm and stoic Professor Sir Alexander Saxton, a moustachioed scientist who has discovered a strange creature frozen in an icy cave. When transporting the creature by train across Siberia Saxton is joined by rival scientist Dr. Wells (Cushing) and the pair soon find themselves in a bit of a pickle when the creatures escapes from its crate and runs amok on the train, killing people by staring at them with glowing eyes and the victims having their brains drained of memories and knowledge. The trouble is, once Saxton, Wells and police inspector Mirov (Julio Peña – THE WEREWOLF VERSUS THE VAMPIRE WOMAN) manage to kill the creature they discover that the body was just a vessel for an alien intelligence that is now using the bodies of the other people on the train to hide in plain sight from those wishing to destroy it, eventually turning its victims into mindless zombie-like beings.
So yes, HORROR EXPRESS is basically THE THING on a train if you wish but with Lee and Cushing on top form plus a guest appearance from Telly Savalas hamming it up as a Cossack who boards the train to look for rebel stowaways the film is an absolute hoot. Savalas chews the scenery as if he were in a different movie altogether but leaves enough for Lee to huff and puff his way through his stiff upper lipped aristocratic gentleman routine and the two basically try and outdo each other for front-and-centre attention. However, it is Peter Cushing who gives the best performance here, understated and gentle in his approach but delivering some wickedly funny lines like only he can, the greatest being when Mirov accuses Wells and Saxton of being the monster to which Cushing smacks him down with a plummy “Monster? We’re British, you know!” It is also worthy to note that HORROR EXPRESS was Peter Cushing’s first film role after the death of his wife and he very nearly walked away from it until Christopher Lee stepped in and persuaded his old friend to take the role, and despite his gaunt appearance you’d never realise he was still in mourning as he plays Dr. Wells with a mischievous glint in his eye and an energy that harks back to his early Van Helsing performances for Hammer.
There are other characters on the train that we encounter, the most notable being Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza – A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN), a monk travelling with a Countess who as well as being based on Rasputin also bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert De Niro, and despite being very highly strung about the creature and blaming it all on the Devil is actually the sanest character in the film as he seems to know the score from the very beginning. He also becomes the alien’s puppet later on when exposition is needed in a scene that feels like the makers of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE might have watched and made notes about. You’ll know it when you see it.
Despite having being available in the public domain and on various bare bones DVDs for some years this 2K restoration is definitely worth the upgrade as the film looks amazing, the colour correction putting right all of the contrast issues from older prints and adding a warmth to the picture, which is ironic given the setting, and the joins and burn marks have been removed to give a crisp and clean image. Special features include a fascinating audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and critic Kim Newman, who both offer up a ton of information about the film and those involved in making it, and there is also an interview with filmmaker Steve Haberman (DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT) about his appreciation of HORROR EXPRESS, an interview with filmmaker and friend of HORROR EXPRESS producer Bernard Gordon, Ted Newsom, and archival interviews with composer John Cavacas, director Eugenio Martin and producer Bernard Gordon so a bit of background to delve into but overall, this excellent release is the only way to view HORROR EXPRESS from now on as it is the best the film is ever likely to look, and nigh on 50 years after it was made it still manages to be fun, creepy and exciting by mashing genres together and doing a lot of things we now take for granted in horror movies long before anyone else did, although for some reason it isn’t cited as an influential film. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining and endlessly rewatchable one that should be purchased immediately and enjoyed in this glorious and definitive edition.
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