(SPOILERS) This berserk Spanish/British horror boasts Hammer titans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both as good guys!) to its name, and cloaked in period trappings (it’s set in 1906), suggests a fairly standard supernatural horror, one with crazy priests and satanic beasts. But, with an alien life form aboard the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow, Horror Express finishes up more akin to The Cassandra Crossing meets The Thing.
Countess Petrovski: The czar will hear of this. I’ll have you sent to Siberia.
Captain Kazan: I am in Siberia!
Christopher Lee’s Alexander Saxton, anthropologist and professor of the Royal Geological Society, has retrieved a frozen corpse from Manchuria. Believing it might be the Missing Link he crates it up to transport home via the titular train. Other passengers include his colleague and rival Dr Wells (Cushing), an international spy, and an antic monk called Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, strikingly lunatic), who for some reason has the ear of a Polish Count (George Rigaud) and Countess (Silvia Tortosa). Eventually, none other than Telly Savalas, as Cossack Captain Kazan, rocks up to investigate matters, before he and his men are duly transformed into zombies (Savalas seemed to make a bit of a habit of appearing out of the blue in third acts during the ‘70s – see also Capricorn One).
Professor Saxton: That box of bones, madam, could have solved many of the riddles of science.
Countess Petrovski: I have heard of evolution. It’s… it’s immoral.
Professor Saxton: It’s a fact, and there’s no morality in a fact.
There can’t help but be a flavour of Murder on the Orient Express to the setting and liberal distribution of “suspects”, but it’s the clash of early twentieth century pseudo-scientific thought with religious zealotry, by way of science fiction trappings, that gives Horror Express its cachet. Saxton preaches the true religion of science, but his over-reaching quest for knowledge is as dangerous as Pujardov’s for sacred fulfilment and meaning. Kazan, the practical materialist, arrives occupying the confident middle ground, but is quickly revealed as ill-equipped to deal with the forces manifesting on the train.
This blending of religion and aliens has been fertile terrain for science fiction and horror fare; if Horror Express is widely acknowledged to have taken its monstrous premise from John W Campbell’s Who Goes There?, this aspect also derives from the science/ magic/ superstition blurring found in Nigel Kneale’s take on ancient astronauts (Quatermass and the Pit) and later John Carpenter with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. A more contemporary parallel can be found in Doctor Who, with stories like The Daemons, and particularly the Tom Baker era (Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl, City of Death) linking alien life forms to the evolution of mankind.
This alien comments that it survived for millions of years in protozoa and fish, and that “the history of your planet is part of me”. It doesn’t appear to have pushed mankind’s development, like the Fendahl or Scaroth; rather, like Carpenter’s The Thing, it accumulates the knowledge and memories of those it infests or drains. Later, it offers a Faustian pact to Lee (“Let me go and I will teach you to end disease, pain, hunger”), emphasising the running theme of Satanic inversion (on account of the mad monk); at the climax – rather bafflingly, if it could have done this all along – it makes the dead to rise, a blasphemous version of the saviour. And, like a decidedly less benign E.T. (also the subject of Christ metaphors), “I was left behind, an accident”.
Its actual motivation is rather murky – does it live merely to destroy and inhabit? That it is given voice at the climax suggests a reasoning force (Carpenter’s film wisely eschews this, so keeping the terror primal and instinctive, for all the alien’s technological prowess), but it really does little but kill people, an energy being bent on survival.
One of the most captivating ideas in Horror Express is one Kneale earlier used in Quatermass and the Pit, to depict a dead Martian’s race memories. This then resurfaced in the Tom Baker story The Ark in Space, wherein the Doctor links himself up to the dead insect Wirrn queen. We learn that images are retained in the fluid of the eyes of those the creature has inhabited; visual memory is held not in the brain, but the lens itself. As a consequence, Wells and Saxton are able to scrutinise pictures of the Earth in prehistoric times (“It’s a brontosaurus!”) and from space; the eye of Satan.
Father Pujardov: You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives! The unholy one is among us!
Pujardov is revealed as a devotee of anything that can bring him the spiritual attainment and knowledge he seeks (as such, Saxton, in refusing the creature’s offer, is shown to be morally upright, despite his disavowal of such limited perspectives when viewed through the untainted microscope of scientific theory). De Mendoza’s performance is delightfully demented, the express’s very own Rasputin (he’s even referred to as a mad monk), and the holy man practising demonic deeds (“Come unto me, Satan!”) recalls the aforementioned ancient astronaut Doctor Who story of the previous year, The Daemons, even if Pujardov makes for a no-holds-barred nutter in comparison to the Master. (Among other colourful Pujardov lines, the standout is, “There’s the stink of Hell on this train. Even the dog knows it”).
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster?
Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know.
Horror Express’s appeal is as much down to the proliferation of fine and funny lines as its themes and idea. The screenplay was written by Americans Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, and exhibits a deliciously playful approach to its period’s historicity. Savalas’ Cosack is so arch its untrue, with his exclamations of “Peasants! Peasants!” and wry response to Wells’ “But what if the monk is innocent?”; “Ahhh, we have lots of innocent monks”.
Countess Petrovski: My husband, the Count Petrovski, says that in the fifteenth century your King Henry betrayed us to the Russsians. Hmmm?
Professor Saxton: I hope that you and your husband, madam, will accept my profoundest apologies.
There’s also Irina’s memorable summation Englishness (“Oh, yes, England. Queen Victoria, crumpets, Shakespeare”) and the exchange between Saxton and Wells regarding the incapacity of his corpse (“The occupant hasn’t eaten in nearly two million years”). Cushing in particular is granted the wonderfully incredulous,
Dr Wells: Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago, got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there, then locked everything up, neat and tidy, and got away?
Even the probably unintended laughs (“My God, it’s the baggage man!”) can be seen as self-aware. The unlikely ability of the creature, when sucking out memories “Iike chalk erased from a blackboard”, to leave the brains of its victims wrinkle-free is summed up by Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) with “Smooth as a baby’s bottom!” Which I’m fairly certain is the only time that’s ever been said about a brain. It’s also unclear why the creature should develop a Neanderthal hairy hand when it has taken over a new victim, other than as an effective signifier of it as a host.
The effects are mostly very good, by virtue of being minimalist; the creature, only revealed in the dark, is identifiable by its glowing red eyes, while its victims are signified by the whites of theirs, fringed by blood as if their corneas have burst. Martin’s direction is inventive, and he’s aided by an infectiously jangly – very un-Hammer, which is in its favour – score from John Cavacas. If the Hornby model of the train going over a cliff isn’t fooling anyone, the final ominous shot of the Earth receding into space is an effectively portentous point to leave matters, echoing the fears expressed on the express earlier (“A creature like that – how would it ever die?”)
The picture was titled Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express in Spain, and one presumes it was a desire to beef it up elsewhere as a “legitimately” English affair that saw Spanish director Eugenio Martin billed as the more anglicised Gene Martin. He employed sets from his previous movie, Pancho Villa, which also starred Telly Savalas. This was Cushing’s first feature following the death of his wife, and he was considering pulling out until Lee persuaded him to remain.
It’s easy to understand why Horror Express has established a cult reputation. Many of the Hammers are revealed as rather stolid affairs, but beneath its formulaic veneer, Express flaunts an appealingly vital European sensibility, and a welter of inventiveness in its mash-up of ideas. It’s one thing to riff on Who Goes There? by transposing it to the turn of the century, quite another to then relocate it to a locomotive stoked by tensions between increasing pervasive science and under-threat religious thought, while lacing the whole concoction with calculated humour. And then bring on Telly Savalas! It’s no masterpiece by any means, but Horror Express is sort-of brilliant.