Written by: Arnaud d'Usseau (screenplay), Julian Zimet
Directed by: Eugenio MartŪn
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Alberto de Mendoza
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThere's a stink of hell on this train."
Perhaps best described as ďThe Thing on a train,Ē 1972ís Horror Express is a Spanish horror production starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, meaning it has a lot of elements that should make horror fans geek out. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of those elements come together to form a cool little alien/creature feature, and I mean that in every sense of the word. Situated on a Trans-Siberian express in the dead of winter, this is a chilly Euro-horror thatís probably given people the wrong impression since it's been found on public domain sets for years.
The action actually begins in Manchuria, where Professor Saxton (Lee) discovers the iced, fossilized remains of what might be the missing link between ape and man. After boxing it up in a crate, he hops on a train, where he runs into a colleague, Dr. Wells (Cushing). Before theyíre even able to set off, a curious thief mysteriously dies, his eyes turned a milky, vapid white. Despite the protests of a monk (Alberto de Mendoza) who believes the crateís contents to be pure, Satanic evil, the train departs the station. Once itís on the rails, the corpse thaws and reveals itself to be an ancient extraterrestrial who can possess his victims and co-opt their husks for its murderous purposes.
The comparisons to John Campbellís ďWho Goes ThereĒ (which served as the basis for all cinematic versions of The Thing) are pretty obvious. Between the frosty setting and the alien hiding in plain sight of its prey, itís kind of surprising Campbell didnít get any sort of credit (then again, such is the nation of Euro-cinema sometimes). While itís not nearly on the level of Nyby or Carpenterís adaptations of that story, Horror Express is neat enough. It makes one wrong step by showing the audience who the alien has possessed, so we miss out on some of the paranoiac tension that would naturally arise from such a situation. But itís hard to dispute how effective the monster is, especially when it begins life as a zombified apeman with red eyes who dispatches of people by staring at them, a tactic which basically erases their brain and turns them into a vegetable. An interesting update on the whole pod people scenario, perhaps.
Speaking of people, itís also hard to dispute the impressive cast. Lee and Cushing obviously appeared together before, and they may have made better films than this one (this isnít the best one that features them as a train-bound duo), but at least Horror Express lets them act as a tandem instead of opposing each other. Though theyíre a bit standoffish towards each other initially, they eventually have to team up against the monster, which is a fun change of pace. Lee is certainly the more stuffy of the two, a sort of grim, haughty scientist to Cushingís more kindly doctor. The latter also gets some of the filmís more comedic lines, though a lot of the humor sort of falls flat. Joining the famous duo is the gorgeous Silvia Tortosa, who plays a countess who unfortunately isnít given much to do besides look kind of pouty.
A couple of other standouts emerge, however; one of them is Mendoza as the mad monk, who will remind you a bit of Leeís turn as Rasputin for Hammer Films. Bearded and fierce, heís your typical soothsayer whose every word intones doom and gloom. This guy is delightfully deranged, so much so that he manages to outshine Telly Savalas, who wanders in towards the end as nutty Cossack captain. Carrying his usual intensity, Savalas functions as the requisite crazy guy that causes you to ponder if mankind isnít its own worst enemy during this type of thing. Not that the film really delves incredibly deeply into these types of musings--thereís some typical debate as to what should be done about the creature, considering it houses centuries of knowledge in its brain (since it can absorb the memories and knowledge of its host).
Considering how ravenous it is, the answer is obvious, though the characters do come up with an interesting method of dispatch. Before that moment comes, though, Horror Express has a great climax thatís reminiscent of a zombie flick. Director Eugenio Martin didnít dabble in horror a whole lot, but he certainly could have if this is any indication. Featuring a nice mix of gore and atmosphere, Horror Express feels like it owes a lot to its British brethren of the era due to its slightly gothic undercurrent. The establishing shots of the train set against ominously overcast landscape are dreadful and desolate. Like other versions of this tale, the isolation plays a key role in the terror, and Martin keeps the shots appropriately cramped and suffocating. The swift, efficient visuals are also accompanied by a haunting score from John Cacavas that compounds the eeriness.
As previously mentioned, Horror Express has been parked in the public domain station for years. If youíve ever bought one of those budget sets, you might have it sitting around, and it's one of those buried treasures that makes the whole set worthwhile. However, to truly do the flick justice, check out Severin Filmís Blu-ray/DVD combo release, which restores the film with an amazing presentation. The high-def version is of course superior and features a gorgeous print that retains a filmic look; still grainy (but not overpoweringly so), itís crisp and detailed, and the filmís muted color palette is faithfully represented. Audio-wise, the English and Spanish options are standard Dolby Digital mono and stereo tracks, respectively, but they are quite rich and full sounding.
Severinís packed this with a wealth of bonus features, too; among them are an introduction from Fango editor Chris Alexander, who recounts his early 80s experience with the film on VHS (nostalgia hounds will eat this up), a conversation with composer Cacavas, a new interview with Martin (who discusses the conception and production of the film and even tosses in some nice anecdotes involving Cushing and Lee), a 30 minute interview with producer Bernard Gordon on his days as a blacklisted Hollywood writer, and the filmís theatrical trailer. Most interesting among the extras is a feature length interview with Cushing; though not exclusively about Horror Express, it manages to be an interesting listen as you watch the film itself. Itís nice to see this get a legitimate, definitive release; I mean, if you donít think it deserves it, just go back to the high points of the first sentence of this review: a Spanish version of The Thing on a train, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hop aboard--trust me. Buy it!
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