Archaeologists Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee along with a Rasputin-like Mad Monk, Telly Savalas as a Scenery Chewing Cossack AND a very Beautiful Helga Liné (!) & Silvia Tortosa (!) all battle a Fossilized Prehistoric Brain Sucking Alien (plus a trainload of Zombies !) whilst speeding along on the Trans-Siberian Express ! !
"A Nightmare of Terror Traveling Abroad the Horror Express !"
Throughout their long friendship and film career Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing made 22 movies together and while 1972’s HORROR EXPRESS might not be the best of them, it’s surely one of the most entertaining. Combining elements of Joseph Campbell’s short story Who Go’s there? (which formed the basis for the 1951 & 1980 versions of THE THING) along with Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and even with a bit of Josef Von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS.
A Spanish/British co-production directed by Eugenio Martín (who also directed the creepy A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL) it has an intricate & cleverly well written script that while on the surface seems to contain a random mash-up of genre plot-lines, but however presents them in a way that allows each to be tied into one another and each of them to serve a purpose of moving the plot forward (usually as fast as the speeding train upon which the movie is set). Perhaps even more surprisingly it lays everything out in a cohesive fashion (that is as cohesive as you can get with brain sucking alien caveman/monster)and is a unique blending of English “Hammer” gothic type horror combined with the more “out there” WTF Spanish style.
Probably sharing more screen time & dialogue together here than any of their other collaborations (besides maybe HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLE) the script has some genuinely humorous lines and watching the stiff upper class character that Lee plays trading barbs with the twinkle in eye Cushing is almost as entertaining as the horror elements themselves, plus seeing them band together in a “Holmes & Watson” fashion to solve the mystery of the rampaging monster is a joy to behold. The cast is filled with familiar faces including Helga Line (THE VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY and THE LORELEY’S GRASP), Silvia Tortosa (also LORELEY’S GRASP), George Rigaud (A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) and Julio Peña (WEREWOLF SHADOW).
Taking place In 1906 Lee plays Prof. Alexander Sexton who uncovers a frozen ape looking thing while on expedition in Manchuria. Arriving at the train station with his crated up specimen Sexton runs into his colleague and rival Dr. Wells (Cushing) who along with his assistant Mrs. Jones (Alice Reinhart) are also traveling via train. This sets up of the first of several wonderful Lee/Cushing dialogue scenes as Cushing slips a Ticketmaster some money to procure a berth on the sold out train and says to Lee “It's called "squeeze" in China and the Americans call it knowhow”, to which Lee (who reservation has been lost) replies “And in Britain we call it bribery and corruption” and sweeps the man’s desk clear with his cane.
While the crate is setting on the platform a thief tries to break into and is blinded (with his eyes looking like hard-boiled eggs) and a crazed looking monk (Alberto de Mendoza) declares that evil is located in the crate. Once everyone is aboard train were introduced to a cast of characters worthy of a pulp espionage adventure including out two rival archeologists, a spy (Helga Line) who’s interested in the secret formula for “steel harder then diamonds” held by a Count, the Counts daughter (Silvia Tortosa), a police inspector (Julio Peña ) and the above mentioned slightly lunatic monk.
Sexton’s specimen (it resembles a kind of creepy look ape) soon escapes by picking the lock on his crate. Later after the baggage man on the train meets the same fate as the thief Cushing gets to channel some Dr, Frankenstein as rolls up his sleeves and performs a quickie autopsy on him and discovers his brain completely smooth (“as a baby’s bottom”) with the conclusion being the creatures sucks out peoples brain memories thru their eyes leaving the bloody white orbs. This sets in motion the clever plot point of the creature moving thru various passengers gaining knowledge that in turn leads it to the next victim such as the thief's brain giving it knowledge to pick the lock (and plus is able to take over its victims body!).
Thanks to the retrieval of the creature’s eye and its dissection Cushing & Lee discover it’s an alien creature that’s been collecting knowledge in the hope of returning to its native planet and has been hanging around since the dinosaurs (this is known because a under a microscope a murky picture of a big ol’ dinosaur can be seen in the creature’s retina along a view of earth from space!?). The plot move along at a terrific pace with seemingly something new thrown in every few minutes and things get even better when a bunch of Cossacks led by the psychotic & scenery gobbling Telly Savalas all board the train and the creature's victims begin to rise back up as resurrected zombies !
As mentioned the script contains some very witty moments such as when wondering who is now possessed by the monster the police inspector says to Cushing & Lee “The two of you together. That's fine. But what if one of you is the monster?” to which Cushing replies “Monster? We’re British you know”. In a story related by director Martin in the supplements of the Severin disc Cushing had signed to do this picture but then decided to back out at the last minute as he could not bear to leave England so soon after the death of his wife Helen, but Christopher Lee gently prodded him into going (and their friendship is fully on display here).
Composer John Cacavas (who also composed the music for AIRPORT 1975 & tons of T.V. stuff) contributes a strangely effective & atmospheric spaghetti western type score complete with whistling that is used to great effect and is used several times has actual music played on a piano or whistled by characters in the film.
An excellent example of 1970’s Euro Horror and a great place for the uninitiated to dip their toe into the water. After years of shoddy PD releases (this has to be tied with LADY FRANKENSTEIN for most crappy video releases) Severin released (under its Spanish title PANICO EN EL TRANSIBERIANO or PANIC ON THE TRANS SIBERIAN) a nice blu ray that has a fascinating 40 minute long audio interview with Cushing (where he’s hyping up Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL), a video interviews with director Martin, composer Cacavas and producer Bernard Gordon (who speaks of being blacklisted). Plus you get Helga Line in HD.