EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally on the site on November 6, 2018 and is written by Bill Van Ryn. Now you can see it this weekend at the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama! Get more info at the official Drive-In Super Monster-Rama Facebook page and get your tickets at the Riverside Drive-In’s webpage.
There was something great about growing up in the 70s as a monster kid. With VHS still a distant promise waiting over the horizon, TV was the only way you could access movies once they passed through your local theaters–and if you were a kid, seeing them theatrically usually meant pleading your case with an adult who was totally disinterested. TV was the last stand. Fortunately, local stations desperate for programming often filled their lineup with syndicated packages of older films. Horror movies often turned up as time-fillers on local TV, usually in late night slots meant for insomniacs and people who worked graveyard shift. What this meant for us monster kids was, we scoured the TV Guide looking for movies noted “THRILLER”, and then you had to make a decision about whether or not it was worth staying up until 3am to watch.
1972’s Horror Express was one of those flicks that I *never* missed, no matter what. Not only does it star Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas shows up about halfway through the film as a Russian cossack (!), and it’s got a series of simple but gruesome attack scenes that were some of the goriest things I’d seen up until that point. The story is set in the early 1900s, and Lee plays an anthropologist who discovers a hairy ape-like fossil in the Himalayas. Believing it to be the missing link, he crates it and hurriedly books passage on the Trans-Siberian Express in order to return to England with it as quickly as possible. Cushing is a colleague of his who is also on board, and immediately senses that Lee is up to something noteworthy. Unbeknownst to anyone, the creature is actually the last vessel of an extraterrestrial intelligence that has the ability to lock eyes with its victims and drain their brains of all information contained therein. It gets out of the crate and starts absorbing people. Its victims die gruesomely in the process, bleeding profusely from the eyes, which turn white like a boiled fish. This alien presence can also transfer itself to another host in this way, allowing it to jump from body to body if necessary.
Horror Express is a British/Spanish coproduction directed by Eugenio Martin, who had just made the movie Pancho Villa starring Telly Savalas. Martin used the same train set from that previous film, and each different “car” of the train was actually the same set redressed for each new part of the train. That meant that the entire film had to be shot out of order, with every scene taking place in the corresponding car being completed before the set was taken down and redressed. The movie was shot silent, with the entire soundtrack dubbed in later, although Lee, Cushing, and Savalas all did their own dubbing, so their familiar voices are all present.
Most importantly, the story is engaging and clever, with the mystery of the creature being slowly unraveled by the protagonists using clues left behind. One of the more outlandish moments has Cushing obtaining the eyeball of the now dead fossil and extracting fluid from it — fluid that somehow contains actual images that the host observed, now visible under a microscope! This is how they determine that it was from outer space and had been on Earth since prehistoric times. Hey, it’s as good an explanation as anything, right?
Although not a Hammer production, this movie definitely feels like one, especially since we have Lee and Cushing together in the same film. It was perfect for late night television, and it was hard for me to forget those bleeding white eyeballs after I saw this movie. You’ve probably already noticed the similarities to the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, the basis for “The Thing”, and I always loved the way this movie sets up the hairy fossil as if it’s the villain. Eventually you realize that whatever the fossil was, it was just a shell, another victim of the real monster. Although we’re talking about the Chilling Classics public domain version of Horror Express, there exists a fabulous blu ray transfer from Severin Films, definitely worthy of your hard earned dollars.