4.5 out of 5 stars

Before anything even appears onscreen, Horror Express announces its intentions to audiences: an approaching train whistle drones over a black screen, going on for just long enough to become removed from its source and begin to resemble a ghostly howl. The train sounds fade into a whistled lullaby, one that eerily resembles the opening theme from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), before this also fades into something different altogether: a psych-rock guitar that introduces an orchestra. Gothic horror turns to 1970s kitsch, turns to sweeping historical epic, all in the span of a minute of music.

To which of these moods does the film ultimately commit? A nice mélange of them all, it turns out. Horror Express lies at the transcendently fun sweet spot between Gothic horror, period drama, pulp science fiction, and exploitation kitsch. Think characters from A Passage to India (1984) transposed into The Thing (1982); a seemingly incompatible assortment of tones and genres that, miraculously, fit together like jigsaw pieces to form one of the most strange and purely fun horror films of the ’70s.

As is the case with their Hammer films, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing take centre stage, playing two anthropologists aboard a trans-Siberian train to Moscow with a secret special guest in tow: a humanoid fossil that may be the evolutionary missing link. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes all too apparent that the fossil isn’t a fossil at all when a smattering of corpses begins popping up around the train, all with blood dripping from their glassy white eyes. What starts as a typical escaped-prehistoric-ape-on-the-Trans-Siberian-Express film (how many times have we been forced to sit through that story?) turns out to only be the beginning of a convoluted saga that navigates zombies, aliens, religious fanatics, and a lot of shocking gore, without a single false step.

It truly is the pulpiest story ever told, but anyone who expects the all-out campiness of, say, sleazy train horror film Terror Train (1980) has another thing coming. Spanish director Eugenio Martin gives the film a more respectable sheen than its blood-soaked thrills and chills called for and, against the odds, it ends up being a genuinely effective horror thriller. The camp factor is there, don’t get me wrong (how could it not be, given the ape-man wreaking supernatural havoc?), but it’s also a lean slab of fast-paced, technically impressive filmmaking on a tight budget and tighter script. It’s rare for a horror film to get even one idea right, yet Horror Express manages a balancing act of tone and ideas and makes it seem almost effortless.

Of course, one of the great joys beyond the wackier-than-wacky premise is the dynamic between Lee and Cushing, maybe the most iconic acting duo in horror history. It’s hard to pick a favourite pair of performances from them given how they elevate just about everything they appear in, but their work in Horror Express is certainly up there. As with most of their roles, it’s more than clear that both classically trained actors are having a great time playing up both the high and low art of the story.

Cushing’s performance is most surprising of all given that he experienced likely the biggest tragedy of his life shortly before filming began—his wife of 28 years had just died, and the only reason he showed up to set at all was to inform the crew in person that he couldn’t bring himself to make a film so soon after her death. Of course, he did end up starring and doing a great job of it, thanks in no small part to Lee’s persuasive charm, and the world is all the better for it.

Argentinian actor Alberto de Mendoza nearly steals the show from both leads, though, as a Russian Orthodox monk who comes to believe the creature is not a prehistoric missing link but rather Satan himself. His character, clearly based in appearance and personality on Russian mystic Rasputin, is easily the most eccentric in the film, which also makes him the most fun. His is the meatiest role and, without spoiling anything, also the one with the most dramatic character development as the plot unspools.

And then there’s Kojak himself, Telly Savalas, hamming it up as a Russian captain investigating the murders. His performance is the only one to self-consciously enter camp territory, infusing welcome humour into the film amidst a set of otherwise fairly sincere performances. The fact that he was headlined alongside Lee and Cushing is probably just a matter of star power, as he only really appears in the final third of the film, but he certainly leaves his mark in his brief time onscreen.

That sudden arrival of a major name in the eleventh hour is perhaps to be expected in such a strange, consistently surprising film. All of its disparate elements pile high over the course of the film, like a cinematic game of Jenga, always seeming like it should be toppling over yet somehow remaining perfectly stable. Call it serendipity or a left-field horror classic, but I call it one of the bloodiest, wackiest, most perversely fun 90-minutes in classic horror.

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horror express

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements. As is typical of Arrow Video, this film looks gorgeous. Textured and vivid, every detail—from Christopher Lee’s moustache to the white bleeding eyes of the monster’s victims—is gloriously restored. The film looks as incredible as it likely ever has, making this a must-buy for fans of classic British horror.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • Original Uncompressed mono audio. It wouldn’t be an Arrow release if it didn’t sound as good as it looked. The film is more interested in visuals than sound design (get a load of those bleeding eyes!), but the film never sounds less than full and resonant, particularly when the aggressively catchy theme music comes in.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • Brand new audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. In my experience, home video commentaries are frequently phoned-in and add very little to the film to which they’re attached. This is the rare exception, as Stephen Jones and Kim Newman gush about a film for which they both clearly feel a deep love. Both men have clearly done their research, and the trivia tidbits are endlessly fascinating, but the real joy is in hearing two devoted film fans given a chance to make the case for a film they feel is truly special. Their passion is infectious, as the conversation made me appreciate the film even more than I already did, which was quite a bit to begin with.
  • Introduction to the film by film journalist and Horror Express super-fan Chris Alexander. I was surprised by how dull I found this interview. Fangoria editor-in-chief Chris Alexander has the charisma to spare, there’s no question of that, but he comes across as more than a little smug and grating. More than anything else, the introduction feels off-the-cuff in a bad way; Alexander rambles aimlessly for seven minutes without revealing anything that isn’t communicated more effectively in the commentary. It doesn’t help, either, that his body language and up-close-and-personal presence in front of the camera screams of someone who‘s just cornered you in a bar to talk at you about his favourite horror movie. Certainly not worth the seven minutes it makes you wait to get to the film itself. 
  • Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express. An interview with director Eugenio Martin. Spanish director Eugenio Martin (credited as Gene Martin in the film’s credits) talks about the origins and production of the film. His insight and clear passion for the project makes this essential post-film viewing. His stories about the cast members’ rapport on set are particularly wonderful; Martin, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing apparently took immense joy in playing with the model train that’s seen in the film’s exterior shots. So many directors are ashamed or dismissive when discussing a film that drew a cult audience; Martin does no such thing, displaying a welcome enthusiasm and pride for this film and the people who helped make it.
  • Notes from the Blacklist. Horror Express producer Bernard Gordon on working in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era. Certainly a very fascinating interview that speaks to an oft-forgotten era of American filmmaking history, but the connection to Horror Express is largely tangential. In fact, the film isn’t mentioned at all in the entire featurette, as it covers solely the films Gordon wrote in the 1950s and ‘60s before and during his years as a blacklisted screenwriter. It’s altogether compelling, but only mandatory for those with a keen interest in the history of Hollywood.
  • Telly and Me, an interview with composer John Cacavas. Cacavas talks about his friendship with Telly Savalas, as well as his being a part of Savalas’ dual careers as an actor and a singer. Cacavas paints a warm portrait of Savalas as a generous, open-hearted man with a magnetic personality—all in spite of his profoundly corny spoken-word cover of the Bread song “If.”
  • Original Theatrical Trailer.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

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Cast & Crew

director: Eugenio Martin.
writers: Arnaud d’Usseau & Julian Zimet (as Julian Halevy)
starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas & Silvia Tortosa.