Veteran horror duo Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star as scientists (Sir Alexander Saxton and Dr. Wells) who try and bring a prehistoric Siberian mummified corpse back to England for study. Purported to be a ‘missing link’ (or an extraterrestrial), the corpse gets a big choo-choo on ride across pre-Revolutionary Russia.
The similarities to 1951’s The Thing are notable–a weird frozen being found in a bleak wintry area, an isolated community (a train here instead of a remote military post), and a series of strange happenings as the newcomer thaws out. As the plot thickens, as it certainly does, we get some trappings of 1956’s seminal Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well.
In supporting roles are Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Pena, Angel del Pozo, Telly Savalas, and Helga Line. de Mendoza is a Rasputin-like monk, Pujardov; Tortosa and Rigaud are the Countess and Count Petrovska/Petrovski, Line is Natasha, del Pozo is an engineer, Yevtushenko; Pena is Inspector Mirov, Savalas is Cossack captain Kazar. Not to mention the creature himself (Juan Olaguivel).
One advantage of these later (post ’60s) horror/sci-fi films is the use of color. We start of in an icy cave–best place to start this kind of movie–and, just like that, our explorers find ye old skeletal cave inhabitant. This is a swift opening: the thing is carted off, and, soon back in civilization. Saxton and Wells meet up at the Peking (Beijing) train station; Saxton has booked a berth, so to speak, for his new souvenier.
Seeing Saxton, Wells introduces him to his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart). “He dabbles in fossils and bones.” Ok, that settles that. Out by the tracks, a sneaky but unlucky thief messes with the lock on the corpses’ crate; just like that, the interloper is dead, with wigged-out eyes. Saxton has a great aside when a priest intones over the victim that God be merciful of his soul–“not that he deserves it.”
The priest is none other than Pujardov; showing Saxton the corpse, he goes on about the presence of evil…but the crate is duly loaded on the train. Once ensconced aboard, Saxton has a peek to see if the fossil is comfy. The two Englishmen make the Countess’s acquaintance; she thinks highly of their country “Queen Victoria, crumpets, and Shakespeare…”
Another scientist introduces himself, Yevtushenko. Wells wants a sneak peek at the fossil. Both Sexton and Wells converge at the same compartment; the Countess has some sort of issue…meanwhile, in the baggage car, the bribed worker pries open the fossil’s viewing panel. He’s blase about what he sees, and walks away.
The fossil slithers around, and, somehow finds an Allan wrench to open the lock. When the worker looks again, he falls dead, blood pouring out of his eyes. The Count and Countess are counseled by the priest that the lady shouldn’t keep a meeting with Wells and Saxton; you know those foreigners.
In between scenes, we get a panorama of the train hurtling across the frozen tundra. There’s a meeting in the baggage car; what happened to the baggage guy? Konev is detailed to open the tell-tale crate with an ax. The guy is in the crate–but not the two-million-year-old ex-fossil. It’s officially alive. Well, let’s not panic the passengers.
Man! It has no manners–looming like a creep over two sleeping little kids. A soldier who’s searching for it gets ambushed. All the victims get the bloody ping-pong ball eyes. The Countess rebuffs her over-eager dinner guest, the engineer Yevtushenko. Wells gets roused by an Mirov–they need a doctor “What are the symptoms?” Uhh… “He’s dead!” Ohh, I only do autopsies after dessert. No, Wells has to jump in right now.
For some reason, the consensus is that the thing has escaped the train. This is the well-established we’re-out-of-danger-now false sense of security ploy. So far the plot has kept pace with the train, so to speak. Stuff happens quickly and continuously–excellent.
Let’s get to the autopsy. The Countess drops in on Saxton. Geez, “that ‘box of bones’ could’ve solved the riddles of science!” he tells her. He admits that the creature is responsible for the killings, but basically doesn’t care. Back at the operating table they determine the corpse’s brain has altered somehow–it’s memory removed “like chalk erased from a blackboard.” But the thing hasn’t finished with the corpse yet.
Stupidly, Natasha goes into the notorious baggageroom–to check the safe–unbeknownest to her, the thing watches. But then it gets her; too late! She made eye contact. Gross! Dr. Wells comes calling, a bit late in the game; but the thing is still there. Wells almost loses an arm, but help arrives–Inspector Mirov–and the cop plugs our bad boy a couple of times.
We see it full length for the first time. The red eyeball mesmerizes Mirov, but he gets his wits back; they find the corpse of Natasha. A cunning complication is that, since we now know that Natasha was a (anti-Czarist) spy, the brain absorbing power of the creature thing might raise security issues (not so much as a motive, but inadvertently).
“What was the creature looking for?” muses Mirov. It seems that the Count is into rare gems…somewhat explaining Natasha getting into the safe (?). “Satan lives!” Insists the priest. But now an autopsy on the possibly dead creature. It seems its visual memory is stored in that red eye. Then they see prehistoric critters in there. Pretty good long-term memory; even of the earth as seen from space. So the thing is an alien too? The priest is taken aback, but he ascribes it to a memory of creation.
Doesn’t this just get more interesting? Pujardov recalls that Satan was banished from heaven shortly after creation…not sure how that explains anything, but, good point. The Inspector is offered a bribe for the historic eye. And what a pun: “I see,” he says; revealing, presumably through his contact with the creature, that he’s morphing into a creature himself.
Miss Jones is his first victim. Playing sycophant, the priest offers the eye to Mirov. He tells the holy man he’s not worth killing anyway, and nonchalantly chucks the eye in the stove. Mirov refuses to stop the train, and starts getting weird with the staff. The priest, seeing which way the wind’s blowing, again offers to help the turncoat Inspector.
He’s still undiscovered by everyone else. Aha! Now the train’s gonna stop. Here’s Kazar about ready to intercept it. Back on the train, Mirov asks the engineer about the feasibility of space travel. If Mirov is essentially a creature in training, wouldn’t he already know this prehistoric stuff? More speculation ensues. How about this? The thing is both an alien (who possessed primitive-Joe millions of years ago) and also a corpse.
This is great. The beast was the “host…[now]..It’s someone on the train.” This is Bodysnatchers-style ‘who is the alien’ paranoia. One thing’s for sure–the priest has literally gone to the dark side. The Cossacks board the train as soon as it squeeks to a halt. Kazar greets them warmly: “peasants!” An American lady fingers the Inspector as the bad guy. Everyone’s under arrest, in any case. For good measure, the priest has “the evil eye.”
“Beware the wrath of Satan!” Even so, Kazar beats him almost to death. He notices though, that Mirov is still in charge. Sure enough, the Inspector freaks up the room with his red googly eyes (the lights having gone dim). Taken aback, Kazar is unable to stop Mirov. Even the priest comes back around.
Another great line as Wells try to intervene on behalf of the priest/monk: “what if he’s innocent?!” [Kazar has given orders to shoot anyone in the adjoining room where Mirov and Pujardov are holed up]. Kazar responds derisively, “Ahh!, we got lots of innocent monks!” Filling the compartment with lead doesn’t help at all; both alien-infected guys attack the fearful Cossacks. Even Kazar falls victim.
Now what? Pujardov comes for coffee? He doesn’t ask for a refill–he just kills everyone in the room except the Countess. Confronted by Saxton, the ex-priest confesses: I’m a form of energy, occupying this shell [body].” Yes, from another galaxy. Not just in that one fossil, but apparently everywhere back in the ancient times.
Very Satan-like, he offers Sexton unheard of powers to let him go. Just for fun, he ressurrects most of the corpses into compliant zombies. Realistically (really) the good guys retreat to the uninfected part of the train and attempt to uncouple it. The zombies come on eerily. Moscow says to kill everyone on board.
Meaning that the train is diverted to a dead end line that crashes spectacularly off a cliff. Except for the thankfully-decoupled last car, which shudders to a halt just short of the chasm, good guys intact. End of alien zombies. The end.
This was indeed a Horror Express! A wild ride, and unhesitatingly exciting. Suspension of disbelief wasn’t difficult; despite the dual horror/sci-fi origin of the creature. As I’ve noted in other reviews, many films set 100 or more years ago have a bit of twilight left around from a more superstitious era (regarding the wonders of science no less than those of the supernatural). The effect is to round the jagged edges of some of the more fantastic elements.
Once we end up in the 1920s, explanations have to get laid on thick to help plausibility. At any rate, Horror Express uses just enough explication to give us drama instead of a merely surreal dream. The performances are interesting and very complimentary.
Savalas and de Mendoza are easily the most interesting characters. Lee and Cushing are somewhat lost in this cluster of fools, nuts, and ‘peasants.’ More curious is that there’s zero romance; which begs the question–should there be? No. One great thing about the alien possession device is that we can have good bad guys and bad good guys. Obviously, that makes character development somewhat meaningless.
Yet, what of the two outlandish guys–Kazar and Pujardov? They’re both relics of an almost mythic tradition (even by 1906 standards). But, putting aside their ‘recruitment’ to the alien side, can we really judge them? It’s fitting that the best quip in the movie is delivered by the Cossack regarding the priest. Indeed, there’s something quaint about both of them, and something dangerous too. Saxton himself, for all of his gentlemently air is nonetheless a bit amoral.
The best thing about this movie is the simplicity of the plot, and the near absolute focus on its progress. Yes, Savalas hijacks things unexpectedly, but even his larger-than-life character gets absorbed into the zombie population. The deft way that Horror Express begins and ends could not be improved on.
If you want to escape for a while into a spooky, exotic roller-coaster ride, this will do it. The only question is–how many nightmares will you have of hurtling through Siberia with a trainload of alien zombies, only to crash in a fiery heap? 9.5 out of 10.