Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing first performed in a movie together in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Cushing played Oscric, a minor character, while Lee was an uncredited spear carrier). They were nearly inseperable after that, performing again together more than 20 more times. They made several great movies, quite a few bad ones, and became stars performing for Hammer Studios in a slew of horror films. They were the best of friends up until Cushing died in 1994. In 1972, both actors were set to make a low-budget horror movie based upon the novel Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. (the same book had previously been adapted by Howard Hawks as The Thing From Another World in 1951 and would later be remade into The Thing by John Carpenter in 1982). This new film, now entitled Horror Express, moved its setting from Antarctica to a train rolling from China to England.
Still mourning the death of his wife a few months prior, Cushing arrived in Spain for the shoot only to say that he was not able to perform. It was Lee who stepped in reminiscing with Cushing about their previous film roles and warming him to the idea of working together again. They say Lee even slept in Cushing’s room during the shoot to comfort his friend when he’d wake up with night terrors.
In the film, Lee plays Saxton, a British anthropologist who has discovered the frozen remains of a humanoid creature in a cave in China. He believes it to be the missing link and loads it on a Trans-Siberian train to take it to England for further study. On board the train, Doctor Wells (Cushing) takes an interest in this chained-up box that Saxton has brought on board and becomes frustrated when Saxton refuses to answer any questions about it. Later, Wells hires a man to open the crate and tell him what’s inside. When the man cracks open the crate, he finds the creature is no longer frozen, but very much thawed, alive, and filled with murderous rage. With glowing red eyes, he kills the man merely by looking at him, causing the man to bleed out of his eyes, nose, and mouth and turning his eyes into bright white orbs.
Much like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the film briefly turns into a murder mystery aboard a train filled with eccentric guests, including a count and countess and a Rasputin-looking Russian priest. But before any Poirot-like detective can show up, the passengers start dying like flies and our heroes discover that the creature is an alien who is able to magically scoop out his victim’s knowledge and memories with its red eyes, turning their brains into smooth balls. At some point, a Cossack officer shows up (a cigar-chomping, red smoking-jacket-wearing Telly Savalas) with a group of soldiers ready to kick alien butt and take names. In the best scene, the shape-shifting alien wipes out a car load of soldiers with just his red eyes, all of which Savalas takes in perfect stride.
Things get weirder, and more awesome from there. Horror Express is an utterly ridiculous and yet completely enjoyable film. There are so many dumb moments that bring up stupid questions. Like why does a Trans-Siberian train only have six cars (one of which is a dining car, another a storage car, and yet another lavishly decorated with fancy curtains, fancy candles, and a piano)? Or why do the security guards all carry rifles? Wouldn’t pistols be more functional on a tightly compacted train? Or how about why does the fancy car also contain scientific equipment like a microscope? I have to admit I spent entirely too much time trying to understand the spaces on the train as there is entirely too much walking around corners on a vehicle that shouldn’t really have walkable corners.
None of these questions really matter in the end. Nor do plot conveniences and contrivances. The movies doesn’t care that its story is utter nonsense and neither did I. It is but joy to watch Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing work together (and on the same side for once instead of mortal enemies). Telly Savalis is amazing as Captain Kazan. The creature design is sloppy at best, but so, so good. Wiping out everyone with nothing but red eyes is brilliant.
I’d call this a guilty pleasure movie except I feel no guilt whatsoever for loving it.
Arrow Video presents Horror Express with a brand new 2K restoration from the original film elements. It looks quite good all things considered, very natural and clean. There is some grain and some minor variances in clarity but overall it's a very nice transfer. Audio sounds good as well. Dialogue comes in clear and the various effects like the train clatter and wind all come in well enough.
Extras include new appreciations by Steve Haberman and Ted Newsome. Ported in from a previous Blu-ray release from Severin are an audio commentary, archival interviews with director Eugenio Martin and John Cacavas, plus a 30-minute reminiscence with Bernard Gordon who discusses trying to work during the McCarthy era.
If you are a fan of Hammer Horror-esque films, or of Cushing and Lee definitely check Horror Express out. It's loads of fun, and Arrow has done an excellent job of presenting it.