With Hammer leading the way for Euro-Horror from the mid-50’s to late 70’s, gothic charm became “the” style overseas. Spain, a country that now has a fairly healthy history of horror films, didn’t truly break into the genre game until the early 70’s with Paul Naschy flicks and Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. It was also during this time that Bernard Gordon, a writer blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, started to move on from strictly writing to producing and teamed up with Eugenio Martin to make a handful of films, including Hunt The Man Down and Vendetta. In an attempt to get a piece of the pie, Martin and Gordon hired two of Hammer’s most well-known players, the great Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, trapped them on a train with an extraterrestrial caveman, and aimed for the stars – so to speak – with Horror Express, a pretty neat entry in Spain’s genre history books.
The plot of Horror Express isn’t nearly as impressive as all the elements crammed into the script. The entire film, aside from the first ten minutes, takes a cue from Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express and keeps all the action on the Trans-Siberian train, with Lee and Cushing acting like a duo of Poirots. They aren’t detectives per se, but by God, they’re going to find out what’s behind all the mysterious deaths with the help of microscopes, autopsies, and science! The reason for all the hullabaloo is a cadaver Professor Saxton (Lee) discovered on an expedition, which turns out to be an alien that takes on the appearance of its victims while absorbing their knowledge, much like the creature from John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?.
Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, also inspired by Campbell’s novella, Horror Express is this strange sort of stalk-and-slash flick where the villain is a virus and can be in anyone at any given time. The effects are pretty spectacular, given the era and budget, especially the brain molds and eye transformation scenes. Horror Express’ creature is also pretty unique in the sense that it’s fairly powerless when the lights are on, and can only reveal itself in darkness.
Cushing and Lee? Check. Ape-man alien that drains brains and makes its victims bleed from their eyes while their pupils turn milky white? Check. Telly Savalas as a Siberian official without an accent? Check. Good effects? Check. Thick, gothic atmosphere? Check. Yeah, can’t really find a reason not to recommend Horror Express as a ridiculously good time.
Horror Express is public domain and has been treated poorly since the dawn of the home video market. I’ve passed on numerous $1 bin copies over the years (stills that were posted online always looked ridiculously awful), so this review viewing was actually my first. Severin went back to the film’s original 35mm negative for a 1080p transfer that is merely good, not great. The source material is pretty lackluster and for the first ten minutes or so, there’s an aggressive amount of specks, scratches and fading. It clears up some, but still rears its head often enough, along with some digital artifacting. The color and detail is impressive though, and it really is the best transfer out there. The sound leaves a lot to be desired, even though both of its tracks are lossless – Spanish is Digital Stereo and English is Digital Mono. There’s a fair amount of hissing and crackling, and the dubbed voices seem to have been recorded at a much lower quality than Lee and Cushing.
Introduction by Fangoria Editor Chris Alexander (06:50) – Chris Alexander gives a pretty lengthy intro (as far as DVD intros go), talking about how he found the film in the early 80s and shares a few nuggets of trivia about the production.
Murder On The Trans-Siberian Express (13:59) – Director Eugenio Martin’s interview is a bit disappointing, as he doesn’t seem especially comfortable speaking in English instead of Spanish. The film is very bizarre so there’s a lot to talk about, but he can’t seem to articulate very well and it’s a pretty boring chat overall. He hits all the obvious points (he loves Cushing, Lee and Savalas), but only glosses over conceptualization and special effects, which are easily the two most interesting things about Horror Express.
Notes From The Blacklist (30:30) – Originally produced for a DVD release of producer Samuel Bronston’s films that never came to be, this featurette focuses on writer Bernard Gordon’s blacklisting in Hollywood and how he started working for Bronston. He spends a good chunk of time talking about the production of 55 Days At Peking – which is, presumably, the DVD release this interview was intended for – and wraps up with his eventual segue into producing and the end of McCarthyism’s stranglehold on the film world. Oddly enough, there’s barely a mention of Horror Express.
Audio Interview With Peter Cushing (87:45) – God bless Severin for going all out with Horror Express; almost every supplement is extremely long and informative. The audio-only interview with Cushing – who has a reputation as being an extremely good interviewee and a gentleman through and through – from 1973 acts as a commentary for the film, playing over it until around ten minutes shy of its full runtime (it finished playing out though, minus sound for the finale, which is really weird). He talks about anything and everything, commenting on the bizarreness of the story, his friendship with Lee, and the production in general. Cushing is always a delight to listen to, and this interview is no exception.
Telly And Me (08:04) – Traveling to promote his album, composer John Cacavas met Telly Savalas by chance. A hotel clerk, who he had given a copy of his music to, passed it along to Savalas, who also happened to be a guest at the hotel. Cacavas was invited upstairs to listen to some music Savalas had recorded, which was apparently terrible, and Cacavas agreed to help him in exchange for a job composing film scores. The composer goes over most of his career, going into greater detail on his gigs with Savalas (Kojak, Horror Express, and his solo albums).