I have a weakness for cheesy, "so bad they're good" low budget horror, sci-fi or action movies. I watch'em so you don't have to!
HORROR EXPRESS (1972) - Directed by Eugenio Martin
1972's Horror Express is a long time bargain-video favorite that actually manages to successfully combine period drama and gory brain-draining. I've been tripping over this flick in budget bins since the VHS era, but never pulled the trigger on it till a DVD turned up recently at my local dollar store and I decided that I could no longer resist the allure of Christopher Lee (Saruman!), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin!) and Telly Savalas (Kojak!) all in the same movie for a mere eight bits!
Horror Express (also known by the much wordier title "Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express," for those of you who are keeping score) is a stylish Spanish-made cheapie that does a fine job of imitating the look and vibe of the classic Hammer Studio horror films of the '60s - right down to the casting of Lee and Cushing, who'd worked together in numerous Hammer productions. Horror Express opens in the snowy mountains of Manchuria circa 1906, where Lee's crusading scientist character discovers a frozen man/ape fossil deep in a cave. Believing it to be the "missing link," Lee packs his prize in a wooden crate and prepares to ship it back to England via the Trans-Siberian Express train. Needless to say, those plans quickly go awry before the train even leaves the station. Minor panic ensues when a nosy thief peeks into the crate while it's still on the train platform and instantly keels over dead with his eyes gone completely white. A crazed Rasputin-esque monk about to board the train declares this to be "The work of Satan!," which Lee of course dismisses as "nonsense."
"Horror Express" Trailer:
Once the train is in motion, we quickly learn that the "fossil" wasn't quite as dead as everyone thought, as it escapes from its crate and is soon clomping around the train, sucking the brains out of various passengers. As brain-drained, white-eyed bodies start piling up, Lee and Cushing - who mainly provides comedic relief here, as Lee's professional rival who just happens to be on the same train - determine that the actual "fossil" isn't responsible for the deaths - the real culprit is an alien organism riding shotgun within its body. This "creature" has been trapped on Earth for millions of years, awaiting the day when humans have evolved enough that it can "steal" the information it needs to get home out of someone's brain. (Gosh!) The caveman's body is eventually destroyed in a hail of gunfire, but by this time the intelligence within it has already transferred into a gruff police inspector (Julio Pena), and from there... well, let's just say things get a whole lot weirder. By the time Telly Savalas arrives around the three-quarter mark as a swishy Cossack army captain whose job is to ferret out the murderer, hell has well and truly broken loose. Before long the "alien" has taken over the body of the crazed Monk and is re-animating the bodies of his previous victims for a final-reel zombie invasion scene! I will leave it up to you to find out of Saruman and Tarkin -- I mean, Lee and Cushing -- are able to stop this horror before the train pulls into its destination.
Despite its obvious low budget (supposedly this flick was made for a mere $300,000) Horror Express was a fun watch. The film has a rich look, interesting set designs and some cool period costumes. I'll grant that the monster makeup on the "fossil" isn't terribly convincing and the gore is minimal, though we do get some bleeding eyes and a pretty bitchin' autopsy scene where Cushing cuts off a victim's skullcap with a hacksaw. All in all, it's a pretty cool flick, with elements of horror, science fiction and even some comedy. I've read some reviews of the film which compare Horror Express to The Thing (or more accurately, to "Who Goes There?," John W. Campbell Jr.'s classic short story that inspired both film versions of The Thing). I may not have noticed the similarities myself if they hadn't been pointed out to me, but now that they have, I'd have to agree that if John Carpenter's Thing had been set in the early 20th century rather than the present day, it might have looked something like Horror Express. At the very least, I would assume that the Horror Express screenwriting team must have been familiar with Campbell's story.
Trailer in German (!)
Some useless trivia about "Horror Express"...
Horror Express was Peter Cushing's first acting project after the death of his beloved wife, and he was still so grief-stricken at the time that he almost quit the film. Losing one of the two big name horror icons in the cast likely would've crippled the production, but fortunately Christopher Lee managed to talk Cushing into staying on by reminiscing with his old friend about the good times they'd had working together in the past.
Legend has it that this film was conceived mainly as a way to re-use existing locomotive footage and the train-car stage sets from director Eugenio Martin's previous film, a Western about Pancho Villa.
Due to its international cast of actors, all of whom spoke a variety of languages, the film was shot without sound. All of the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed in during post production. Lee, Cushing and Savalas all provided their own voices for the English dubbed version of the film.
Horror Express is currently in the Public Domain due to expiration of its copyright. Therefore it is legal for anyone who has a print of the film to duplicate and distribute it. This is why there are so many different video/DVD versions of the movie available on a variety of labels. Obviously the quality of such releases differs depending on which version you buy. The copy I own was released on the Digiview Productions label (suppliers of "dollar DVDs" to Wal-Mart and other discount retailers) and their version is quite watchable, even if it appears to have been dubbed from a VHS copy. However, MPI/Severin Films released an all new deluxe edition of the film (with bonus features including new and archived interviews with the cast and crew) on DVD and Blu-Ray in September of 2011. Whichever version you buy, Horror Express is a fun, funky '70s bit of Eurotrash that will provide B-Movie fans with an enjoyably bizarre ride.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 11, 2015:
Bumping in honor of the great Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away this week. R.I.P. sir.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 24, 2012:
Thanx for your comment, Jean. I can imagine that after being creeped out by those "red eyes" at such a young age, that the image would stick with you for life!!
JeanLaForce on July 24, 2012:
This film really scared me. I was 5 or 6 years old when I saw for the first time. I did not want to pass in the hallways and dark areas because of these "red eye". At the time, I did not understand the substance of the story is by reviewing the film after 25 years that I finally understood. This is a movie I will never forget.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 08, 2012:
Hi Shawn... yep, they definitely got their money's worth out of their meager budget on this one. Thanx for the comment.
Shawn Dudley from Los Angeles, California on June 07, 2012:
Great review! Horror Express is a favorite of mine, one of the best Cushing/Lee vehicles of the 70s. Pretty damn gonzo flick too! You made a couple mentions of the very stylish and opulent look to the film, despite its low budget; that's one of the primary reasons I like it. It may be low budget, but they spent their money wisely and ended up with a great looking film.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on September 23, 2011:
Thanx for stopping by, Rachelle. Hope you track the film down and enjoy it!
Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on September 23, 2011:
Oh yes, I remember this one. I am a huge fan of the Hammer films, so I might not be too objective. Thanks for reminding me about this one, I'll probably download it from somewhere.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on August 18, 2011:
Thanx for your comments, Ruff and Marlin. @ Ruff - the line you mention ("Monsters? We're ENGLISH you know!") was my favorite line in the whole movie.
Marlin - you can find this movie pretty much anywhere cheap DVDs are sold, as long as you get a decent quality copy it's a good'un!
Marlin 55 from USA on August 18, 2011:
This was interesting. I've never seen this flick, but it has some of my favorite horror actors in it./ It was a great read.
ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on August 18, 2011:
I watched this movie once. It was funny when questioned about the murders Lee % Cushing both said they couldn't be responsible, they were english.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on August 17, 2011:
Glad you dug it Alastar... yeah, they really don't make'em like this flick anymore, do they? *SIGH*
Alastar Packer from North Carolina on August 17, 2011:
Kewl break down on this pre-slasher horror flick. This type's days were numbered weren't they Freddie. What a shame. Believe we played this one on a double bill with another Hammer film when the movie show was trying this genre out. Even had a freakish dude dressed up like a Vampire rise out of a coffin in the lobby to scare folk..LOL.