- Ravi Swami
"Horror Express", Dir: Eugenio "Gene" Martin, 1972
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Despite not being a huge fan of horror films, I do have a soft-spot for the type of often-low budget horror films produced in the late 1960's - 1970's, in particular the quirky and atmospheric film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe by Roger Corman, or those produced by Hammer Films in the U.K.
I have a vague recollection of "Horror Express", a Spanish production that roped in actors like Peter Cushing , Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas, from either a late 70's late-night TV broadcast or via clips from a film review show and what lingers in the memory aren't the actors so much as the impression that the film was possibly Mexican - Spanish as it turned out - and the disturbing image of a Rasputin-like character with glowing eyes wreaking chaos on a speeding steam-train.
That association alone was enough for me not to investigate further for the film on streaming channels. However, a recent Facebook post suggesting that the plot was inspired by the seminal science-fiction pulp story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, itself adapted into 3 films, the first and second being "The Thing From Another World" and "The Thing", directed by Howard Hawks and John Carpenter respectively, piqued my interest.
Indeed, on checking out the Wikipedia page for the film, this connection is verified, though any mention of the source is omitted from the opening titles or end-credits of the film, merely suggesting that it is an "original" story by the Spanish director, Eugenio "Gene" Martin.
In fact it follows the premise of "Who Goes There?" quite closely in the backstory of the alien life-form that has been frozen in ice for millennia in China - not Antarctica as in the original story - before being unearthed by the dodgy anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) and stored in a wooden box to be transported from Shanghai to London for study.
The main difference is in the novel idea of setting the story on a speeding train and the subsequent mayhem that ensues as the parasitic "energy being" trapped in the frozen body of a pre-human anthropoid infects various people in an effort to escape its earthbound prison - unfortunate victims bleed from the eyes, nose and mouth and their eyes become white, while "Pujardov", a sinister Rasputin lookalike Eastern Orthodox monk and who is accompanying a Russian Count and his wife, becomes the aliens' primary host, with glowing red eyes, something I wasn't aware of previously since I watched it before we owned a colour TV.
Peter Cushing, as Saxton's professional rival Dr Wells, is a kind of foil to Lee and for the most part is there to deliver witty asides that help diffuse the sense of creeping terror - an element of wry humour that seems to have been retained from Campbell's original story.
The film is clearly hampered by the limitations of visual effects of the era it was made and relies heavily on stock-in-trade workarounds like imaginative lighting, where the monsters' gruesome behaviour is mostly suggested or shown in tight close-up, eg it's glowing red eye or hairy hand, and the cramped environment of the train (a twist on the equally cramped confines of an Antarctic base in the original story), and watching it now it feels less scary and horrifying than it appeared initially mainly due to the fact that it never fully gets into its' stride and relies too heavily on the shock value of the zombified white eyes of the victims, something that soon wears thin.
Telly Savalas, playing "Captain Kazan", a power-crazed Cossack officer, makes a relatively late appearance in the film, one his very few (perhaps only?), in the horror genre, roughly a year before global success in his more well-known persona as TV detective "Theo Kojak" in "Kojak", and feels like an addition for commercial reasons though admittedly he does have considerable screen-presence.
Once again the interesting premise taps into ideas that were very prevalent at the start of the 20th Century (it's set in 1906) and that also underpin "Who Goes There?" of lost civilizations and aliens before recorded prehistory that assures the film - a curious collision of science-fiction, supernatural thriller and crime mysteries set on trains, in films - a reputation as a minor cult classic, and ends with the speeding train being derailed and crashing over a cliff, taking Pujardov and an army of resurrected zombies with it and so halting in its' tracks the possibility of a global infection, something also hinted at in "Who Goes There?"
The film ends with a final pull-back on the planet Earth in space, as if to underline that this is not the run-of-the-mill horror film with a conventional supernatural theme and in the process invites the viewer to ponder on larger themes on a cosmic scale.