Horror Express


The 70’s brought a wave of realism to the horror genre the likes of which had never been seen before with such mavericks such a Roman Polanski, William Freidkin and Tobe Hooper forgoing dark, foreboding castles and cobwebby crypts in favour of more bleeding edge, up to date terrors such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massarce. But even though the genre was now more likely to have satan infiltrate the upper class or have hippies get annihilated by skin-wearing cannibals while on a road trip, the switch wasn’t exactly immediate and before this new wave swept cinema, some of the old guard still managed to get some entertaining shots in.
Take Horror Express for example, a groovy, camp, period piece that couldn’t be more like a Hammer Films picture if it tried that was part of a dying breed that wasn’t going to lie down and die without one last good scare.


It’s 1906 and astronomically anal British anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton has made the stunning discovery of some shaggy humanoid remains in a god forsaken cave in Manchuria. Boxing it up and hauling it to Shanghai, Saxton is hoping that this pug-faced trogolodite ends up being a missing link in human evolution, but even before he manages to get it stored away on the Trans-Siberian Express, weird shit starts to happen as a local thief is found dead with milky white eyes, but – as is typical of an upstanding member of the Empire – Saxton couldn’t give the slightest of shits and so the journey gets under way with his mottled cargo safely on board.
Struggling to get comfortable, Saxton is continuously bothered by the various other passengers but none more so that painfully inquisitive rival and Geological Society colleage, Doctor Wells, who has one eye on some of the ladies on the train and the other firmly on Saxton’s crate as he absolutely has to know what dwells within. Well, he doesn’t have to wait long, because the frozen fossil lurking in the baggage car isn’t actually dead and, worse yet, has been inhabited by an extraterrestrial force that allows it to fatally feed on the knowledge of it’s victims merely by making eye contact. As the white-eyed corpses start piling up, Saxton and Wells pool their resources to try and figure out exactly what this entity is and what its weaknesses are, but just when they manage to catch up, the creature changes the rules on them by leaping out of its mangy host and into the body of one of the many passengers that are populating the locomotive.
If the beast manages to disembark in a populated area, all may be lost, but alongside stopping the rampage of an alien lifeform that’s growing exponentially smarter with every kill, there’s a crazed monk willing to throw away his religion in order to worship the beast and the power-crazed, paranoid and xenophobic Cossack, Captain Kazan who boards the train hoping to smoke out rebels that don’t even exist. When all is said and done, this is one rail journey that’s gone way off the rails.


While Horror Express –  like other 70’s oddities such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Mutations and Death Line – is nothing more that pure pulp from beginning to end, it’s also a tremendously fun excursion into the kind of camp, horror romp that would be made instantly passe the second Leatherface swung his hammer, or Regan McNeill vomited green bile into a priest’s face.
The main draw here is that we get to experience yet another team up between regular Hammer buddies Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who immediately engages in a friendly battle of oneupmanship where the irresistible force of Cushing’s foppish quiff squares off against the immovable object of Lee’s moustachioed stiff upper lip to magnificent effect. In fact, there’s numerous times where Horror Express could pass as a vaudeville act with a brain sucking monster as the straight man as their measured one liners draw more blood than the creature: “The occupant hasn’t eaten in two million years!” Booms Lee at one point, to which Cushing replies, “That’s one way to economize on food bills.” Elsewhere someone makes the inconceivable suggestion that maybe the snobbish Saxton or Wells could also be the alien’s potential host only for Cushing to exquisitely remark, “The monster? But we’re British!”.


Ba-dump-tish, indeed, but it’s not just Lee and Cushing who are in on the joke as virtually everyone else in the cast gets to chew on the scenery at least once before Telly Savalas literally storms the film like an invading pirate and starts raving like an insane cue ball. “There’s a stink of hell on this train!” Warns Alberto de Mendoza’s deranged monk while after Wells asks for some assistance while he’s chatting up a pretty passenger, his colleague nails him with a curt “At your age I’m not surprised.”.
But in case you’re worried that the cast is liable to launch into a thigh slapping rendition of “Who’s on first?” at any moment, Horror Express’ director, Eugenio Martin, manages to create a nice, creepy atmosphere that, thanks to it’s body hopping, IQ absorbing talents, weirdly feels like a dry run for John Carpenter’s The Thing and the actually act of the victims having their brain leeched dry of knowledge is genuinely unsettling in that baroque, overplayed 70’s sort of way. As a poor, gibbering wreck is forced to give this mental marauder the intelligence equivalent of a big mac and fries, the cameraman simply goes nuts, zooming in and out of focus while the actor writhes around in agony with bone white contacts in and blood leaking from their eyes, nose and mouths. If this ghoulish image isn’t enough then a makeshift autopsy that reveals that the surface of the victim’s brains are “Smooth as a baby’s bottom” will also make the skin crawl a little despite being winningly goofy. In fact, the moment where a possessed, crimson-eyed Father Pujardov flits around a darkened dinner car, draining the brains of numerous, screaming Cossacks like a vampiric, hairy Rasputin is a kickass sequence that doesn’t really get the due it should.


Fans of more modern brands of horror, or even the excesses of 80’s genre stuff may find glowing red eyes and gleefully overacting rather trite, but taken as an old school swing at some Lovecraftian weirdness, Horror Express has big ideas and copious charm to spare. If nothing else it personifies the kind of movie my generation might have sneakily caught on TV one night in their pre-teens that causes the kind of low-key trauma that leads to a quick sprint to bed once they turned the downstairs light off.
Hardly earth shattering, then – but definitely creepy, funny and smart enough to be among the best of a dying relic.


One comment

  1. This was a surprising favourite of mine when I first saw it in my teens. Cushing and Lee were always great together. Thank you for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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