Column: The Vault of Secrets: Horror Express (1972)

By Orrin Grey

Horror Express (1972). Directed by: Eugenio Martin. Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight, we had intended to take a visit to 16th century Prague, but instead, we’ve jumped not quite so far back in time for a ride on the Transiberian Express in 1906.

What’s the occasion? Well, in the time since our last installment, Sir Christopher Lee passed on shortly after his 93rd birthday, so it didn’t seem right not to mark the occasion by paying tribute to him. Tonight’s film isn’t necessarily one of his best roles, and certainly isn’t one of his most well-known, but it is an unusual one and it seems as appropriate as any to mark the passing of the last of the great horror stars of his time.

Horror Express was shot in Madrid and released in 1972. It is currently in the public domain, which means that you can find low-rent transfers of it on all sorts of horror film multi-packs of the sort that specialize in public domain flicks. Even without that going against it, the film has a decidedly midnight movie quality, and was probably saved from bargain shelf oblivion largely by the fact that it has Lee and Cushing in its lead roles.

But don’t let any of that fool you, as there’s a lot of great stuff going on in Horror Express, which is full-to-bursting with ideas and notes that are much better than the movie that contains them. The story concerns Professor Alexander Saxton (a rather dashing Christopher Lee), who opens the movie with a bit of narration as he discovers a creepy frozen corpse in the mountains of China. Believing that it may be the Missing Link, he boxes up the find and prepares to haul it back on the Transiberian Express.

Unfortunately, even before the crate can get loaded onto the train, weird things start to happen, including a would-be thief who breaks into the crate, only to then be found mysteriously dead beside it, his eyes turned completely white. Next, the requisite crazy priest shows up, claiming that whatever is inside the crate is the Devil, which he demonstrates by the fact that he can’t draw a cross on the side of the crate, a pretty nice touch, though one that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, given the eventual explanation of the creature.

Once everyone is on board the train, the story begins in earnest, as we’re introduced to a rather large cast of eccentric characters, all boasting a variety of secrets and plots. The film also wastes no time busting the creature out of its crate, as it begins knocking off people throughout the train. Where the really good stuff comes in is what the creature is and what it’s up to. While the film’s credits cite the screenplay as having been based on an original story by Gene Martin (the pseudonym of Spanish director Eugenio Martin), it has been suggested that the film was actually inspired by John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” This would make Horror Express itself a sort of missing link between other adaptations of the story: the 1951 Howard Hawks The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing. While there are enough similarities to make the suggestion plausible, the specifics of the creature in Horror Express and the very different set-up mean that it is, at most, inspired by “Who Goes There?” rather than an actual adaptation.

Regardless, the creature does prove to be of extraterrestrial – rather than demonic – origins, as our heroes first learn when they are able to examine its eye fluid. They discover that the creature stores its memories in its eyes and they see under the microscope images, not only of dinosaurs, but of the Earth from outer space. By this time, they’ve already killed the creature, which happens at the film’s midway point, but the fun is far from over. The entity has actually transferred itself into one of the passengers – who also gets a monster hand out of the deal, for some reason – and is continuing killing the other passengers and stealing their memories, a process which apparently leaves the brain smooth, as our protagonists find out in an autopsy. There are a lot of sub-plots going on through all of this, and a lot of characters are introduced and killed off. While none of them get a lot of development, none are entirely superfluous to the proceedings either.

In the film’s final act, the cast is joined by a scenery-chewing Telly Savalas, who gets to deliver great lines like, “The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack,” as well as push people around and whip the priest (who, of course, immediately becomes a disciple of the monster). Before all is said and done, there’s even a sort of zombie sequence, as the creature – who has passed to yet another host – revives most of the people it has killed into white-eyed zombies to attack the other passengers. So, yeah, this movie sort of has everything.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we find out what’s in the cellar ….