In the mountains of Manchuria it lay hidden for two million years until discovered in 1906 by anthropologist Professor Sir Alexander Saxton, frozen deep inside a cave, a primitive humanoid creature which he believed to have been a clue to the missing link between apes and humans, further evidence to support the controversial and, to some, still heretical theory of evolution.
Returning from the mountains, Saxton managed with difficulty to arrange passage for the creature in its wooden crate in the Trans-Siberian Express from Peking to Moscow, maintaining a frosty distance from his fellow passengers, among them the Count and Countess Marion and Irina Petrovski and the volatile Father Pujardov who has already declared Saxton’s cargo to be unholy.
Also on board was Saxton’s more softly-spoken colleague Doctor Wells, with whom he shares a friendly rivalry, and his assistant Miss Jones. Curious about the crate in the train’s luggage carriage, although for professional reasons, Wells bribed the porter to examine and advise him of the contents but the attempt results in the porter’s death; the second such unexplained death to occur near the fossil, it would not be the last…
First released in 1972 and now gloriously restored from the original film elements by Arrow, Horror Express is, as the name implies, a horror film, but it is so much more, a well-crafted period drama with moments of comedy which shifts to reveal a strand of cosmic science fiction, although director Eugenio Martín, credited as the Anglicised Gene Martin, thought of his creation primarily as an action film.
Filmed in Spain and released there as Pánico en el Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express), the production is graced by the presence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Saxton and Wells, a rare collaboration beyond the auspices of Hammer and atypically playing colleagues with a grudging respect which becomes a friendship rather than opponents, more reflective of their close and enduring bond off-screen, a relationship Hammer only explored in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
With an eye firmly on the international market, also present is Telly Savalas as Captain Kazan, already a star from his appearances in Birdman of Alcatraz and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he had worked with Martín immediately before Horror Express on Pancho Villa, the same sets and models of the train having served both productions.
Faces familiar to a contemporary audience, they are the known companions among the strangers with whom the journey is shared, principally European players unknown to American audiences though dubbed in post-production by voices including those of Robert Rietty and Roger Delgado, each stage of the ride bringing a new twist as the tension escalates, carefully timed so each narrative station is arrived at precisely when it is needed.
Although uncredited as a source, there are parallels too pronounced to be a coincidence between Horror Express and John W Campbell’s Who Goes There? in the alien presence found in frozen wastes which moves from body to body accumulating memories to help it return to the stars, most famously filmed as The Thing by John Carpenter, but the early scenes also recall H P Lovecraft‘s At the Mountains of Madness.
For its time, Horror Express is surprisingly bloody, particularly in contrast to the relatively tame Hammer productions with which Lee and Cushing were inextricably associated, with violent murders and autopsies aplenty, and warning should be made for those who are squeamish about eyeballs.
Technically, the film has never been better presented, the beautiful design of the carriage interiors and costumes brought out in the restoration, while the large-scale miniature work is exemplary, only revealing itself to be other than a full-sized vehicle in the finale, derailing what should be the most dramatic sequence.
A friend of Telly Savalas who is interviewed on the disc, composer John Cacavas’ haunting score is simple but effective, echoing the whistle of the train as it travels the snowy wastes, the motif carried into the whistle of the baggage handler as he undertakes his illicit nocturnal mission and in Countess Irina’s piano playing.
Also included are archive interviews with Martín, producer Bernard Gordon, two short appraisals of the film, an introduction by journalist Chris Alexander and a commentary from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, all of them hugely enthusiastic in their unabashed love for Horror Express, an often overlooked but hugely entertaining film which has aged better than many of the better known works of the leads of a similar vintage.