It just wouldn’t be Halloween without at least one campy horror film starring a master of the genre. In the case of Horror Express, a 1972 film by Eugenio Martín, we get two masters: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing plays a surgeon and Lee an archeologist; the two acquaintances are both traveling through Siberia on an express train on their way back to Europe. In a rarity, neither of the two are playing the villain. The horror in question is an old fossil that Lee is bringing back with him, a potential link between modern man and neanderthal. But it seems the fossil, though thousands of years old, still has some life kicking around in it. Death seems to follow the fossil wherever it goes, and once on the train, all hell breaks loose. Possibly literally.
It occurs to me that outside of Indiana Jones, archeology may be the most maligned profession in cinema.
It would be easy and natural for this to just be a standard creature feature, with some prehistoric beast going around and killing people. But that’s not the direction Horror Express goes in. Instead, it delves into the supernatural side, prompted by the question of how the creature is still living after all those centuries. And when it kills, it is not a simple physical kill, such as strangling or crushing. The victims bleed out from their eyes and nose, and their eyes are turned white as if boiled. Stranger still, autopsies reveal that their brains have been rendered completely smooth. The way it is handled keeps an air of mystery about the film even once the main characters realize the creature is killing.
Of course, the real draw here is the actors playing those characters. Cushing and Lee are both in fine form here. Each is perfectly believable in his role, each has just a tiny touch of the macabre to their portrayal, and each — of course — is amiably dominating the screen with their presence. There’s a fair amount of wit in the performances as well, both in the dialogue itself and the delivery. Given the nature of the film and the actors, it’s a natural question to wonder which of the two out-hams the other. The answer is Lee, by a hair, but both are outdone — by leagues — by Telly Savalas. Savalas comes in during the third act as a Cossack inspector, and his every mannerism effectively screams “I am the King of all I survey!” He may not get as much time to develop his character as the others, but he is highly entertaining to watch.
The rest of the cast consists of Spanish actors whose filmographies otherwise don’t cross over into English-language productions. (In fact, technically Horror Express wasn’t filmed in English either; it was filmed mute and lip-synched to the script, with the voices dubbed in afterward, and the title sequence is in Spanish even in the English-language release.) A few of the other roles are significant to the film, but most of them do not stand out either in strength or in weakness. The main exception to this would be Alberto de Mendoza as Father Pujardov; while the motivations of his mad Russian monk are unclear, his performance is very convincing.
The only thing harder than killing Rasputin is killing imitations of him.
Horror Express is by no means a film that should be taken too seriously. It’s campy, and at least partly deliberately so, and it is full of the usual scientific fallacies of creature films from decades earlier. It even states at one point that mankind has not yet figured out how to leave Earth’s gravity — remember, this was filmed a few years after we had landed on the Moon. But as long as one doesn’t take it seriously, it’s fun to watch.