Horror Express moves along at a brisk enough pace, though it isn’t exactly what you’d call horrifying. Considering the presence of stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both mainstays at Hammer Films, it’s more a goofy exercise in Hammer pastiche, coming at a time when the studio itself was churning out just that sort of thing (witness Vampire Circus), combined with a plotline lifted wholesale out of The Thing from Another World, and refracted through the Euroshock sensibility of its Spanish director, Eugenio Martin. Not to mention, given the film’s 1906 setting, it can’t even properly be called gothic so much as Edwardian horror, a decidedly more down-market prospect, closer in mood to Conan Doyle’s work than Mary Shelley’s.
Horror Express opens in full-on action mode with a helicopter-mounted aerial shot tracking a sled-dog team across the barren tundra of remotest Siberia. Inside a soundstage-y ice cave, anthropologist Alexander Saxton (Lee) discovers a figure frozen into place since the last Ice Age, a half-simian humanoid he takes to be something like the missing link. Now all he has to do is figure out a way to smuggle it out of Imperial Russia and whisk it back to the V&A in tea-cozy London. Crating the critter up and sneaking it on board the Trans-Siberian Express turns out to be just what the doctor ordered, as long as that doctor isn’t Dr. Wells (Cushing), Saxton’s chief rival and fellow at the Royal Society, who catches on quick to Saxton’s scheme and insists on “accompanying” him on his trip.
Once train and plot get chugging along on a full head of steam, Horror Express shifts gears to Agatha Christie overdrive, introducing Saxton and Wells to an assortment of upper-crust characters, including a Polish count and countess who travel in the company of their very own mad monk, Pujardov (played by the recently departed Alberto de Mendoza), and then embroiling the travelers in a series of bizarre murders related to the thing in the crate. Folks keep turning up dead, their eyes gone all white, and a tastefully gruesome autopsy scene reveals their brains to have been “de-wrinkled,” whatever that might entail. Late in the proceedings, a pre-lollypop Telly Savalas turns up as Kazan, a Cossack officer, who proceeds to verbally work over the entire passenger list, providing some of the funniest moments in the entire film.
At first glance, Horror Express seems a fairly typical creature feature, where the filmmakers keep the beastie out of sight as long as possibly, primarily to cover up the subpar makeup and effects work. But, if nothing else, Horror Express cannot be faulted for playing it safe. Come to find out that some disembodied alien energy force has possessed Link, taking over what skills and intellect its Cro-Magnon brainpan allowed it, forcing it to kill in order to avail itself of more evolved capabilities. And we can say “evolution” in mixed company here, since the film rather charmingly includes a scene where Lee espouses the virtues of Darwin’s theory in typical brusque, stiff-upper-lipped fashion, right before slicing into an eyeball to reveal the images trapped within its viscous fluid. With these shades of Un Chien Andalou, you might suspect a subterranean surrealist agenda at work, burrowing mole-like beneath the silly surfaces of the film, but you’d be sorely mistaken. The best that can be said for Horror Express is that it doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and it isn’t too proud to steal outright what other films politely borrow.
Bearing in mind that Horror Express remains in the public domain, as well as Severin's claims to have gone back to original 35mm negatives for their remaster, it has to be said that the Blu-ray presentation is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, the film looks as good as it probably ever will. On the other, the quality ranges from decent to shabby. Artifacts aplenty, flickering, color variability, scratches, and shimmer all play a predominant role, as does a bounteous assortment of compression issues. Clarity, though, is fairly well defined, and color density is adequately presented. For sound, you've got a choice between Spanish Dolby Digital stereo (without the option for subtitles, alas) and English Dolby Digital mono, which effectually isn't a choice at all, unless you happen to speak Spanish fluently. On the English-language track, hiss and high-end squawk abounds, though dialogue is usually clear enough, even with voices that were obviously dubbed.
Honestly, the supplements here are in many ways more interesting than the feature presentation, starting with an introduction from Fangoria editor Chris Alexander. Alexander waxes enthusiastic about Horror Express, recalling his initial discovery of the film in a discount VHS bin, then going on to cover bits of interest about its conception, making, and reception, especially the means necessary to recruit Cushing, who'd recently lost his wife of three decades. Next up, there's an interview with writer-director Eugenio Martin, who covers much the same ground, in his charmingly Spanish-inflected but quite proper English. According to Martin, Horror Express was made first and foremost because the production team had a full-scale train set and some funds left over from their previous film, a Pancho Villa biopic starring Telly Savalas. "Telly and Me" lets composer John Cacavas recount amusing episodes from his career-long friendship with Savalas, most of which concern boozing it up and/or cruising for female companionship. There's an audio-only interview with star Peter Cushing, conducted in 1973 by The Guardian, including a Q&A session with an audience. It lasts nearly the film's running time, providing a kind of de facto commentary track, and it's an entertaining listen. Finally, there's a truly fascinating half-hour interview with producer Bernard Gordon, who got his start as a screenwriter, cranking out early genre efforts for rising stars like Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. Concerning Hudson, he has the following telling anecdote: During a particular scene that involved descending a flight of stairs, Hudson was overly preoccupied with his motivation. The director told him, "Forget why. Empty your head and just walk down the stairs." Gordon concludes, "From then on, there was no stopping the guy." In the late '40s, Gordon ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted. Eventually, with the help of writer Philip Yordan, he found work as script doctor for Samuel Bronston's elaborate, labored Spanish super-productions like El Cid and 55 Days at Peking. Fascinating as it is, the only caveat is that this extensive interview touches not at all on any aspect of making Horror Express.
All aboard for Severin's lovingly packaged Blu-ray of this early-'70s goofball odyssey.