There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.
Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.
As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’
Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.
As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.
Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.