With The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became the new kings of British horror, and their frequent co-starring roles made them a tandem the likes of which the industry hadn’t seen since the heyday of the Karloff-Lugosi double-threats of the late-30’s. Their films for Hammer and Amicus have long been fan faves, but the film I’m going to sing the praises of here doesn’t have quite the same profile as the likes of Horror of Dracula. Most horror fans of a certain vintage no…doubt have a soft spot for it, but for the few out there who haven’t had the pleasure yet, allow me to direct your attention to Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972).
At the turn of the 20th Century, anthropologist Lee finds, in the mountains of China, what for all the world looks like a dark-haired abominable snowman frozen in ice. He loads his jealously guarded prize onto the Trans-Siberian Express, much to the curiosity of rival scientist Cushing. It turns out the creature isn’t dead, and it also turns out it can pick locks and has other useful skills, as it absorbs the knowledge of whoever meets its eyes. Unfortunately for those individuals, their brains are boiled away. The apeman is inhabited by an alien life force, which soon transfers itself first to one human being, then another.
All sorts of wonderful paranoia ensues. Who is the monster? Who can be trusted? All of these pre-Thing joys are coupled with some Night of the Living Dead grotesqueries at the climax, shortly after Telly Savalas joins the party. The whole concoction rattles along at fine old speed, much like the train itself, and there’s a neat streak of humour present as well. When Cushing and Lee (forced to become allies in the face of the evil) are asked if THEY could be the monster, Cushing sees the suggestion as absolutely preposterous because, after all, they’re English. The methods by which our boys figure out what the monster is and what it wants to do are utterly preposterous, but presented with such a straight face that they in no way derail the movie.
Then there’s the setting. Train films have a special appeal all their own, even the mediocre ones. Under Siege 2, Silver Streak, Murder on the Orient Express, gotta love ‘em all. The constant movement, the confined yet luxurious spaces, the whiff of exotic travel, all the films have these elements. But add a monster, a mad monk, and the energetic but clearly amused performances of Lee and Cushing to the mix, and the result is hard to beat.
Image’s DVD is a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer that is a big improvement over previous VHS editions of the film. The extras are sadly lacking, though there is a good liner essay by Marc Walkow.
And while we’re on the subject of train movies, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Snakes on a Train. The cash-in, I’m sorry to say, is actually pretty dull, as it takes far too long to actually unleash those snakes on that train. (A problem Snakes on a Plan emphatically does not have. Marvellous film. If you haven’t seen it yet, what’s wrong with you?) Flat and uninteresting as most of the pick is, it is ALMOST worth sitting through thanks to the ending. My world is now a little bit better, because I have seen a snake eat a train.