Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee tackle an alien threat in this British/Spanish horror
Horror often dips into various other genres, taking something like a Western, action film, or even musical, and giving it a terrifying twist. The results of these sub-genres can vary wildly in quality, but they reflect the versatility of the medium, and offer up interesting takes even if not entirely successful. Horror Express is such a mashup, thankfully one where its diverse mix of ingredients make a recipe for success. Period horror with a dash of sci-fi, science conflicting with faith, and British film-making out of the Hammer playbook crossed with a Spanish sensibility.
Horror royalty and Hammer alumni Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee reunite for this tale of mad monks, primitive humanoids and bloodthirsty zombies set aboard a train bound for Moscow — all aboard the Horror Express! Renowned anthropologist Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express with a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid which, he believes, may prove to be the missing link in human evolution. But all hell breaks loose when the creature thaws out, turning out to be not quite as dead as once thought! Directed by Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin, Horror Express remains one for the most thrilling (and, quite literally!) chilling horror efforts of the early 1970s.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton and Dr Wells, rivals from the British Royal Geological Society. Tensions inflame once more as Wells finds himself on a train with Saxton, heading for London with an interesting specimen that pay shine light on the evolution of man. En route, this frozen body thaws out, unleashing an entity, one that moves from host to host, looking to protect itself, and get home. All while drumming up some old fashioned paranoia along the way. It’s a plot that sounds familiar, body hopping creatures fueling distrust and danger, exemplified in classic sci-fi/horror fare such as The Thing, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Slither, and The Faculty. Where Horror Express sets itself apart is not just it’s setting, a train in the early 1900s, but how the creature and it’s potential hosts, open up the film to exploring the conflict between science and faith.
Saxton and Wells are at the film’s center, their knowledge of the natural world shaken by what they witness. The rest of those onboard offer different viewpoints and responses. They run the gamut of royalty, scientists, a spy, law enforcement, and even a group of Cossacks led by Telly Savalas. These aren’t just token characters, each is well realized, and used in advancement of the plot, and themes of conflict and distrust. It also opens up a critique of British Imperialistic attitudes. The snaffling of a ‘treasure’ from oversea and absconding with it to London being something that happened all too frequently. The film doesn’t focus on these deeper themes, but laces them into a well paced old school horror romp thanks to deft work by writers Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Halevy, resulting in a monster movie meets murder mystery, akin to Lifeforce colliding with Murder on the Orient Express. Claustrophobic intensity and insights into this diverse group is fueled by this creatures ability to absorb facets of it’s victims, using their knowledge to further it’s own agenda and sowing more conflict. It’s motives (and past) are also hinted to be more complex than just survival.
Director Eugenio Martín turns in a genre blending tale that is both smart and chilling. It helps that he has such a game cast at his disposal. Lee and Cushing are as superb as you’d expect, portraying characters similar in intellect and interest, but with a hard and soft approach. Watching these actors duel is always a delight and their being on a more level playing field here rather than as good vs. bad characters, makes for an even more interesting dynamic. Alberto de Mendoza is also a standout, as Russian monk Father Pujardov, who champions a religious explanation for the weird occurrences. Jam-packed with ideas, talent, and a streak of weirdness, Martín makes all these parts into something very memorable indeed.
Arrow’s presentation is clean and natural, with no signs of over processing and a natural grain preserved. Detail, color, and contrast impress. There are a few points of the film where image quality seems to vary slightly, this may be due to different stock sources. Want more detail? I direct you to a screen comparison by our very own Austin Vashaw, comparing Arrow’s new release to the old 2011 Blu-ray.
Extra features are plentiful, and impress:
- Brand new audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
- Introduction to the film by film journalist and Horror Express super-fan Chris Alexander: A rather gleeful introduction to the film
- Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express — an interview with director Eugenio Martin:
- Notes from the Blacklist — Horror Express producer Bernard Gordon on working in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era: Perhaps the most interesting, certainly the most unsettling extra feature
- Ticket to Die: Another fan of the film (filmmaker Steve Haberman) shares his take
- Telly and Me — an interview with composer John Cacavas: Under 10 minutes which barely seems enough time to pay to such a fantastic score
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by Adam Scovell: A well considered essay delving into the pull between science and the supernatural that lies at the heart of the film
The Bottom Line
Horror Express sees Euro horror meet Hammer. A film that impressively balances entertainment with culture clashes, and questions of science vs. faith, all packed together in this claustrophobic, chilling tale. Arrow Video turn in a superb treatment for a film that is highly recommended.
Horror Express from Arrow Films is available via MVD Entertainment from February 12th