It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.
It was in this setting, however, that England’s Hammer Studio decided to mix the two together once again in what they hoped to be a high-class concoction, first as a television series and then as the film The Quatermass Experiment. Although horror was often regarded as a dying genre, Hammer proved that handled properly and with respect, fans were still ready to turn out for a good horror-scifi half-breed. Two more Quatermass films were made, the latest being 1967’s superb Quatermass and the Pit, which sees the good doctor and investigator of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal grappling with an alien carcass discovered beneath London and possessed, seemingly, of a Satanic nature as well.
Which brings us nicely, if rather half-assedly, to Horror Express, a film that seems to draw from both the feel of a Hammer film as well as that of a ripping HG Wells story without actually being from either source. The idea of gods, angels, and devils as space aliens is no longer especially new and novel, though few serious (or even comical) studies of the notion exist in film. It’s a favorite of conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists, however, with the best-known proponents of the idea being those who believe that “ancient astronauts” visited Earth thousands of years ago and helped with everything from the erection of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pyramids to the carving and raising of the ominous heads on Easter Island. Apart from the notion that aliens were jetting through the cosmos showing off their masonry and stone-carving skills is the theory that so-called holy beings, your Jesus and your various angels and maybe even a Greek god or two, were beings from another planet whose miraculous powers were rather run-of-the-mill back home but really something here on Earth where we didn’t have the ability to turn water into wine. Thus these creatures would be perceived as gods and angels, and the naughty ones as demons and devils, by us backward shepherds here on planet Earth.
It’s not a completely daft idea, as far as such theories go, at least no more so than Jesus being the son of a supreme being who created everything out of nothing and, with the entire universe at his disposal, whiled away the centuries picking on Job and pulling stunts like, “Abraham, sacrifice your son! No just joking! Dude, I can’t believe you were really going to sacrifice your son.” The idea that these angels, that perhaps even Jesus himself were aliens isn’t entirely insane, especially when you take into consideration the power of Jesus to appear as a blond-haired, glowing white guy despite his Jewish-Arabic origins.
Horror Express is not a Hammer film, it could easily pass for one thanks to its quick pace, period setting, and the presence of Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and while it doesn’t present us with the scenario of our deities being space travelers, it does rely heavily on the notion that beings from other worlds have visited this planet long before the presence of mankind in our current form, and that if said beings were perhaps trapped in the body of a monkey for two million years only to find themselves awakened on a train going through Siberia, they’d be annoyed. Lee stars as Professor Saxton, an intrepid scientist-adventurer the likes of which we simply do not see enough of these days. On an expedition to the far north of china, his team uncovers the remarkably well-preserved mummy of an humanlike ape Saxton assumes to be the missing link, not to mention being one of the greatest anthropological or archaeological discoveries of all time. Hey, consider that some people think of a particularly nice chunk of pot shard to be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and you can understand why Saxton is so excited about his Peking Man.
Sexton immediately returns to the city with his find and books passage to Europe on board the Trans-Siberian Express, only to discover that much to his chagrin his number one scientific and one-liner rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also along for the trip and keeps bugging Saxton about seeing what’s in that padlocked box. A Chinese thief at the station doesn’t see fit to badger Saxton and, assuming the crate is full of jewels or fine women’s lingerie, goes about taking a peek. When the police find him, he’s dropped dead with blood pouring from his sockets and his eyes turned completely white. Saxton, being a fine, condescending British scientist, doesn’t think much of the incident. The guy was a thief, after all. A mad Russian monk with wild unkempt hair and beard (is there any other kind of Russian monk), however, sees the entire affair as a sign that whatever is contained within the crate must surely be the work of Satan. To prove his point, he attempts to draw a cross on the box, only to discover that being the wooden container of all things Luicferian, the cross will not show up. Whether or not something less holy, like perhaps, “Springsteen 4 Ever!” would have showed up is one of the mysteries that shall remain forever unanswered.
Although the cross incident impresses the locals, Saxton dismisses it as a simple parlor trick, and points out that the guy is bugging his eyes out and ranting and raving about Satan. So all aboard the horror express, including Saxton, Wells, the crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, who acted in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and One on Top of the Other, among many European cult films), a suspicious Russian police inspector named Mirov (Euro-cult veteran Julio Pena, who also starred in films like Horror Rises from the Tomb, Werewolf Versus the Vampire Women, A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary), a mysterious female spy, two Russian nobles, and a whole host of other people whose only job is to fill up the dining cart. In other words, it’s a regular Agatha Christie gathering, the kind you always get on these old trains but rarely, if ever, on modern trains. See, therein lies the problem with modern rail travel: not nearly enough intrigue. Used to be that for the price of a ticket, you’d get spies menacing one another with stilettos, upper-class society types embroiled in murder mysteries, and alien-possessed monkey-men throwing things at Peter Cushing. No more. Maybe instead of offering the usual “first class, second class, et cetera” nonsense they should offer something like, “first class, second class, and turn-of-the-century intrigue class.”
Needless to say, it isn’t long before the ape-man claims another victim, this time a porter whom Wells had bribed to take a peek into the box and report back to him. Then the ape-man picks the lock and disappears, much to Saxton’s annoyance. Faced with no other reasonable possibility, Inspector Mirov and the two British scientists are forced to assume that a two-million year old ape man has somehow been revived, learned to pick modern locks, and is currently at large and turning people’s eyes white. An autopsy on the baggage handler also reveals that the brain is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, disregarding then the obvious statistically rare and dismissible occurrence of an ugly, pockmarked baby bottom. It’s clear that this is no ordinary two-million year-old missing link. As the list of victims grows, Wells, Saxton, and Mirov join forces to uncover the mystery at the heart of the creature’s rampage. Things only get harder when they realize that the creature itself is not the ape-man, but an entity inside the ape-man which is able to leap from one body to another when the need arises. This revelation prompts the best line in the entire movie, in which Mirov turns accusingly to Saxton and Wells and proclaims, “Even one of you could be the monster!” to which Cushing’s Wells replies indignantly, “Impossible! We’re British, you know!”
Eventually, it is discovered that the entity is a space alien, marooned on the planet millions of years ago and really keen on getting the hell out of here. The creature’s trump card in attempting to get Wells and Saxton not to kill it is that it’s seen millions of years of earthly history prior to being frozen and can provide them with knowledge immeasurable. It’s a tempting Faustian deal, but one the stolid British researchers resist, though the crazed monk, fearing that this beast is Satan himself, decides to cast his lot with the side whose physical manifestation is running amok on the train. AN impromptu stop at a remote Siberian outpost allows Cossack soldier Telly Savalas to board the train with his troops and either get to the bottom of things in a quick and efficient manner or provide more corpse fodder for the creature, who also reveals an ability to revive the bodies of its victims and send them, zombie-like, shambling through the claustrophobic train cars in a final horrific onslaught against the living. You guess which eventuality comes to pass.
Horror Express is a ripping good yarn with a fast pace and a snappy wit. Cushing and Lee are superb in one of their countless pairings, and each horror veteran crackles with energy as they dig deep into their characters and revel in the story around them. Though there are a couple tongue-in-cheek touches to the film, the film itself is never completely tongue-in-cheek. Rather, it simply relies on clever twists and a wicked sense of humor to carry the admittedly zany plot. There is plenty of ammunition on hand for those who wish to pick apart the logic of a film about an ancient alien consciousness riding the rails with Telly Savalas, but the spirit of the film is so high and the performances so winning that one scarcely has time or cause to pause and think about the absurdity of the blood from the eye of the creature acting as sort a microscopic slideshow. That the creature’s memory is contained in the fluid of the eye is in itself not a bad idea, but the fact that Lee and Cushing can extract a drop of blood and look at it under a microscope to enjoy various pictures of dinosaurs and the earth from outer space is, well, you know, as outlandish as the fact that people are only mildly surprised when a two-million year-old monkey mummy springs back to life and starts killing.
There are also a series of coincidences that the alien must have been eternally thankful for – such as the fact that it needs to figure out how to get out of the locked box, only to be able to absorb the skills of a Chinese thief. And it needs to learn some way of building a rocket capable of escaping earth’s atmosphere only to be put on a train alongside a female spy stealing a sample of an indestructible metal to be used in the construction of, perhaps, rockets. And that the creator of the metal, the formula of which is so secret that only he himself knows it, is also on board.
But honestly, none of this matters, because what Horror Express wants to be is a faced-paced, fun horror-scifi thriller, and that’s exactly what it is. Cushing’s Wells is hilariously pompous yet thoroughly likable, and Christopher Lee gets to play yet another stern but heroic man of reason, something he proved considerably adroit at in The Devil Rides Out. The supporting cast is comprised of Eurocult veterans, largely from Spain, all of whom have extensive experience in horror, historical adventures, and spaghetti westerns, among others. And then there’s Telly. Although a big enough name thanks to turns as Kojak on television and as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so that he’s never been identified as a horror film icon, there’s no denying that when Savalas made a rare appearance in such a film, it was usually going to be pretty good, not to mention pretty weird. In the same year as Horror Express, Savalas appeared in Mario Bava’s superb mindwarp of a horror film, Lisa and the Devil. He goes pretty far over the top here as a sadistic Cossack soldier, but his performance, while bordering on camp, works within the context of such a playful film. I only wish he’d shown up earlier, but I guess too big a dose of his character would have ruined the performance.
Part of the reason Horror Express got made was that the producer purchased the model train that was used in the bigger budget historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra and figured, heck, if he owned this really keen train set, he might as well make a crazed scifi-horror film around it. Exteriors are appropriately bleak and hopeless looking, bringing to mind when combined with the mind-stealing alien life form the sci-fi classic Thing from Another Planet, remade in the 1980s by John Carpenter simply as The Thing. Horror Express shares quite a bit with Thing from Another Planet, in fact. From the icy setting to the alien to the claustrophobic interiors and growing sense of paranoia that infects the passengers. Much of the film is beautifully shot, with exquisite sets and decoration, and some of the scenes are genuinely eerie, the most prominent being the horde of white-eyed ghouls shambling through the darkened train cars as the remaining passengers scramble for safety. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a ton of horror, science fiction, and spaghetti westerns to his credits, and he works wonders within the confined spaces of the train. Coupled with a superb score, the film has a nearly overwhelming sense of dread that is tempered only by the spriteful performances of Lee and Cushing.
The monkey man make-up is neither dazzling nor awful, and though we probably get too clear a look at it too often for its own good, it’s hardly of a quality that would destroy a film, especially one so heavy with wit and stand-out performances. There are some fairly gory special effects, but nothing out of the ordinary for what other studios, including Hammer, were doing at the time. Some bleeding eye violence, some gratuitous brain surgery, that sort of thing. If you miss the days when horror and science fiction, while not exactly being intelligent, were at least willing to play with lofty ideas and theories and mix them together with charm and drollness, then by all means hop on board the Horror Express and please forgive me for statements like that. I hadn’t sent he film until I sat down to watch it for this review, and the only reason I don’t regret having missed out for so long is that it gave me the chance to have such a wonderful, rollicking good time at the horror films to discover.