(Thanks, Garbage Cinema!)
To me, Horror Express is an excellent example of a perfect “B” movie. Not FLAWLESS, mind you, but perfect in the solid manner it locks you into your seat right from the beginning and takes you on a nearly non-stop roller coaster ride that’s terrifying, amusing and very, very satisfying by the time the credits roll.
Granted, the version I first saw on New York City’s WOR-TV (Channel 9, to those in the know) had no end credits at all and subsequent countless viewings on that channel (where the film seemed to be in heavy horror rotation every few months) led me to believe this was the way the film was in its initial theatrical release. However, when checking this horror classic out recently on a borrowed Blu-Ray, I discovered the film did indeed have credits, but they were in Spanish, meaning whomever prepared the US version or television edit saved some money (and about a minute or so of time) by merely chopping off those end titles and that was that…
Fortunately, the film BEFORE those cut off credits is a pretty damned amazing slice of meaty sci-fi and horror on a tasty murder mystery on a train bun. A dash of H.P. Lovecraft and The Thing with Ten Little Indians, a great cast that includes three genre greats and many unknowns acting up a storm PLUS a memorable monster for the ages and lots of bloody moments? I was in on this one back in 1975 or ’76 and it still gets me to shut up and sit down for about an hour and a half when it pops up on TCM today. And yes, it’s been in the public domain for ages, so nearly everyone I know has seen it or knows of it. This is less a review than a sort of love letter to this chilling blast from the past.
Everything clicks here from the plot about a discovered frozen creature deemed a “missing link” being transported on the Trans-Siberian Express thawing out and methodically killing anyone who gets close to the box it’s in, to the inspired casting all around. Even as a kid, I know that placing a creepy, ugly as hell formerly frozen monster in an enclosed moving space meant no escape for anyone, particularly when that monster “dies” at some point in the picture and we find out he can swap bodies and wipe brains clean with his glowing gaze (*shudder*). Christoper Lee plays a smug professor type who discovers our evil chilled creature and Peter Cushing is his equally brainy rival who soon comes to bond with Lee once the horror is loose on the titular express and the pair need to figure out how to stop the killings before things get even more out of hand.
The problem is, things get WAY out of hand and in record time thanks to a crazy monk who thinks the monster is some sort of antichrist and goes from a man of God to Satan’s BFF in a hilarious yet unsettling manner. The actor playing the monk, Alberto de Mendoza, makes the best of his stringy hair, black robes and wonderfully overzealous portrayal and he steals the show until later in the film when Telly Savalas playing a brutal Cossack leader arrives on the scene with a pack of troops. He and de Mendoza share a few scenes that are like watching a ping-pong chess tournament between two men attempting to out-chew the scenery. Both performances work because de Mendoza’s monk at this point isn’t what he seems on the outside and Savalas’ tough guy is taking him on as if he’s a humble religious man and an easy target for abuse.
Of course, that turns out badly, there’s a great, bloody battle scene played out in mostly darkness and the film makes a shift from cosmic horror attempting global takeover into zombie territory as the now-doomed train is rushing for a cliff. Director Eugenio Martín gets a ton of mileage from a handful of lovingly detailed sets and costumes, some great surprise twists (unexpected demises, anyone?) and a creepy, effective music score by composer John Cacavas (you may find yourself whistling in the shower one day and stop cold because it’s a certain piece of music from a key moment and you’re now peeking through the shower curtain to see if you locked that door…). While it’s not “gory” at all, the film does have some icky bits with an exposed (and smooth as a baby’s butt) brain wiped clean by the alien’s stare, nice “boiled” eyeballs on victims and yes, lots of blood throughout.
As noted earlier, this one’s a recent Blu-Ray/DVD arrival and it looks MUCH better than that public domain version I posted above. The disc has special features worth seeing, so other than picture quality and a Spanish language track, it’s pretty much your call if you’ve yet to see this one. I say check out the film above and if it floats your boat, go get that Blu-Ray and invite a few friends over for a screening party. I’d bet even if they hate horror movies, this one gets and keeps their attention from the moment you press “Play”…
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