DVD Review: Horror Express

I recently mentioned this as one of my favorite movies. Since I wrote a brief review of it a long time ago, I thought this would be a good time to drag that out, revise and extend it a bit, and repost it.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing disapprove I love Horror Express more than is reasonable. It stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but it’s not a Hammer film. Hell, it isn’t even Amicus or Tigon.

It was produced by a Spanish studio with a little help from Granada TV, and filmed in Spain; beyond Cushing, Lee, and Telly Savalas, there are few actors in the cast whose first language is English. The whole thing was filmed without audio, and the actors’ voices dubbed in afterwards.  Fortunately, the three stars have dubbed their own voices–it would be too weird if they sounded like someone else.

The story begins in China in 1906. Professor Saxton (Lee) is leading an expedition for the Royal Geological Society, when he discovers an apeman frozen in ice—he calls it a “fossil” even though there’s plenty of flesh left on those very old bones. He intends to cart this important find back to England on a trans-Siberian express train.

A rival scientist, Dr. Wells (Cushing) happens to be at the Shanghai train station at the same time (according to the signs around the station and dialog, it’s Shanghai; the caption at the beginning of the scene says it’s Peking). When Wells learns that Saxton’s discovered something remarkable, he’s eager to get a peek at it, but Saxton has the crate securely fastened shut with big chains and a padlock.

The big, padlocked crate draws attention from other people as well. A thief tries to pick the lock to see if there’s anything worth stealing inside, but he winds up lying dead on the station platform with his eyes glazed and white, as if he were blind. After this incident, a Rasputiny monk declares the contents of the box evil; he demonstrates it by failing to draw a cross on it. Saxton sneeringly dismisses this as a trick using some kind of special chalk or hypnosis. I think that the monk just didn’t press down hard enough.

Once the crate is in the luggage car and the train is speeding its way across Russia, Wells bribes the train’s baggage-man to open it for him. Since Professor Saxton didn’t bother making any effort to keep his “fossil” frozen, the apeman has thawed out a bit–and it’s not quite as dead as a 2 million-year-old creature might reasonably be expected to be.

But this isn’t an ordinary movie about a revived prehistoric apeman on a rampage aboard a train. No. Prior to its freezing, this apeman was possessed by an alien entity that absorbs the knowledge of whomever looks into its bright red eyes (or the one bright red eye it still has left).

It uses the skills it picked up from the thief back at the Shanghai station to pick the padlock on the box and free itself.

The hapless baggage-man is its next victim, although the only thing it gains from him is the movie’s theme music, which the man was whistling. The creature will whistle it for the rest of the film.

When the baggage-man is discovered missing, a Russian police inspector named Mirov, who is also aboard the train, demands that Saxton open the box–which has been chained shut again. They find the missing man, but the “fossil” is gone. Our heroes draw the obvious conclusion:

Dead baggage-man with white eyesWells: “Are you telling me that an ape that lived 2 million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man, put him in there, then locked every- thing up neat and tidy and got away?”

Saxton: Yes, I am! It’s alive! It must be!

The apeman wanders the train, menacing a pair of sleeping children and killing a couple of Mirov’s men when they run into it, but for the most part, the entity within the ape seeks  people who have information it needs. Its ultimate goal is to return to space, where it belongs—but this is the early 1900s, remember. Space travel is still far in the future.

As luck would have it, the other travelers aboard the train include a Polish count who has invented a very strong steel alloy, his lovely countess (the monk accompanies them as a sort of chaplain/confessor), a spy who tries to steal a sample of that steel from the baggage-room safe, and a young engineer who has studied the infant science of sending rockets into space. At least three of these people are of use to the alien.

Smooth brain Once it extracts the experiences and special knowledge from its victims, it not only leaves them with those boiled, white eyes, but brains “as smooth as a baby’s bottom,”—which is how Dr. Wells’s assistant describes it when they perform an autopsy on the dead baggage-man.

The entity can also jump from host to host. Quickly perceiving that a decrepit proto-human hominid in the modern world has obvious disadvantages, it abandons the apeman’s body for that of Mirov. The inspector now has red-eyed, brain-draining powers. Oddly enough, he also has one hairy, apey hand which he carefully conceals in his coat pocket as he and the British scientists investigate the rash of strange deaths on the train and he listens to their speculations about the type of monster they’re chasing.

The train makes an emergency stop in Siberia to bring aboard a Cossack officer, Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas), and his squadron of soldiers to address the problem in a less intellectual fashion. Kazan gathers all the passengers in the dining car to question them—with the exceptions of the count and countess, since Their Excellencies are exempt from suspicion. The scene resembles the end of Murder on the Orient Express on an acid trip, as if Hercule Poirot had been replaced by a bald, braying Cossack.

Kazan’s idea of conducting an investigation is to bully people to get at the truth. He has this to say about himself:

He knows that a horse has four legs. He knows that a murderer has two arms. But the Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.

Maybe it makes more sense in Russian.

After Kazan beats up a few passengers, including Saxton and the monk, Wells tests a theory he’s been forming and shuts off the dining-car lights; this turns Mirov’s eyes glowy red and exposes the alien within him. The soldiers shoot him but before Mirov dies, the alien entity jumps into someone else.

The Mad Monk has been having a crisis of faith since the apeman started running around, and at this point decides to ally himself with the entity. He offers “Satan” a haven in himself.

After killing off Kazan and most of his men with the glowy-red-eyes trick, the possessed  monk heads for the one person it really needs to get information from. It’s already absorbed the minds of the spy and the engineer. That leaves the count.

It doesn’t know that Saxton is armed and ready to defend the countess. Nor does anyone aboard the train know that Moscow’s plan to deal with the problem now that the soldiers didn’t do the trick is to divert the train off the main track and onto to a side-line that dead-ends at the edge of a cliff.

The movie picks up for its big finale when Saxton corners the alien and it displays its most impressive power: bringing the dead back to life. As zombie soldiers roam the corridors, can our heroes dispatch the alien and save the remaining passengers before the train goes over that cliff?

It’s cheaply done. The apeman costume isn’t much to see, and unfortunately we see too much of it. Some of the exterior shots of the train speeding across Siberia are so obviously models that one almost expects to see Lionel on the side of the engine. But in spite of its shortcomings, the film is a lot of fun because it doesn’t take its own bizarre plot developments too seriously. Part of its appeal also lies in the fact that Cushing and Lee work together for a change as the good guys against a monster, instead of one or the other being monstrous.

Things I especially enjoy about this movie:

  • Brontosaurus seen through an apeman's eye. Wells and Saxton settling who gets the upper berth when they find they have to share a compartment.
  • Saxton flirting with the pretty countess by discussing England (“Queen Victoria, crumpets, Shakespeare”) and apologizing for certain events in medieval history.
  • The squicky but very goofy science involved when Dr. Wells extracts fluid from the apeman’s eyeball and puts it under a microscope to see things that the apeman/alien saw: not just the inspector right before the body-jump, but dinosaurs and the Earth from space.
  • Saxton’s and Wells’s expressions of severe British disapproval at the Captain Kazan’s over-the-top behavior.
  • The following exchange on the possibility of alien possession:

    Mirov (who happens to be possessed by the alien): What if one of you is the monster?
    Wells: Monsters? But we’re British!

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.