Sunday, 11 March 2012

Horror Express

Quake Xpress

Horror Express
aka Pánico en el Transiberiano
aka Panic In The Trans-Siberian Train
UK/Spain 1972
Directed by Eugenio Martín
Severin Region 1

Warning: Yeah, there’s gonna be some spoilers in here alright!

Horror Express is a dreadful, dreadful movie... and all the more fun for it.

It’s a film I’ve had to stay away from for all of my life because, frankly, the only prints that have been available in a home video format up until now have been terrible pan-and-scan “public domain” prints. I won’t knowingly buy a film in the wrong aspect ratio if I can help it... as that then ceases to be the actual film. Severin’s new restored version of this movie sets this crime against filmanity right by issuing it in its correct theatrical aspect ratio... and with a few extras to boot!

Now then, this film toplines both of the top two “British Horror” icons of their day and probably of all time, I’m guessing, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The film also features what I can only refer to as an extended cameo, in the last 20 minutes or so, by Telly Savalas, who plays kind of a crazed cossack... and when I say crazed, I suspect the man’s demeanour was not like that on the printed page of the script. Telly Savalas seems to be suffering from an affliction in this movie known as “over-the-top-hamitus” and, while it certainly served him well in claiming the part of Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and making it his own, it does little but distract from an already daft plot when it comes to Horror Express.

Horror Express is, I have to say, a real mish-mash of the good and the bad. The acting from all the cast seems a little disjointed and out of kilter even when there are some good lines for them to say... and there are some great “ooh-err-missus” one liners in this film which, if placed in a Carry On film for instance, might have had fans of that broad genre comedy rolling in the aisles. Here, these particular pieces of dialogue are standout and witty and not terribly badly performed... but they seem to just hang there after they’ve been spoken with no real flow to the dialogue... at least that’s the way it seems to me.

The film tells the story of Professor Saxton (played by Christopher Lee) who starts the movie off in voice-over narration, which is stupidly not picked up again at the end of the film. Saxton digs up a fossilised missing link creature from the ice in Manchuria and, eventually, loads it on board the Trans-Siberian Express under lock and key while fending off enquiries from several concerned or curious individuals such as a professional rival Dr. Wells (played by Peter Cushing, who had just lost his wife in real life and really didn’t want to shoot this movie, but who does a wonderful job in it).

One such concerned party is a mad monk, played by Alberto de Mendoza, who tries drawing a cross on the crate holding the creature with white chalk. When the chalk doesn’t work on the crate, this obviously means there is evil within and he continues to ramble on about the evil of Satan and saving people’s souls from eternal damnation until... well I’ll get to that soon.

Of course, if you haven’t guessed it by now, the creature in the box soon becomes a “creature on the loose” although, and this is a little unusual for a movie featuring a hairy missing link creature, it’s not lacking in intelligence in any way shape or form and it soon becomes apparent why when the said monster starts killing off the passengers in the train. The way it does this is not by strangling or mauling them, you see, but by giving them what can best be described as... “a good staring”. Looking into the eyes of his victims with his glowy red eyes causes people to literally start leaking blood from every facial orifice as the creature downloads the victim’s knowledge into it’s own mind and wipes said victim’s brains clean. Now I know these poor, unfortunate soul’s brains were wiped clean because when Peter Cushing performs a “weird science autopsy” on one of the victims by sawing through the cranium and opening up the old brain box, the brain is completely smooth and ridgeless and looks like nothing less than a giant stress toy or a rugby ball. In fact, I was half hoping Cushing would grab onto the brain and start throwing it around the carriage with Christopher Lee in some kind of internal organ rugby league game but, alas, it was not to be... although it has to be said the general tone of this movie would not have ruled that incident out.

Now, you know something is not completely what it seems in this movie when a detective on the train shoots the monster dead with his revolver only halfway through the film... the monster giving him a good, sound staring from a distance. However, it soon becomes clear that, although this particular host shell of the monster is dead, the creature survived by downloading itself through its mesmerising stare into the body of the detective. There are two dead giveaways for this which I’m sure you will pick up straight away... one is the detective keeps hiding his left arm because it’s gone all hairy, although subsequent incidents in the film refute any scientific rationale or consistency for this unfortunate condition as anything other than to give the audience a less than subtle clue that the detective has not been left unchanged by his experiences... and the other tell-tale sign is that when the detective turns the lights out on people his eyes glow red from a not-so-great make-up application to the front of his face and he stares people dead with all the facial bleeding and the brain wiping that we know to be the creatures main modus operandi.

Okay... now while everybody on the train is being a bit thick and not realising why the detective is keeping his left arm in his pocket and going for “intimate chats” in soon-to-be darkened rooms for the duration of the picture, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee start making like the scientists they are and begin pooling their knowledge and studying the creature, in what is probably the most implausible affront to both human logic and audience intelligence ever to be attempted in seventies cinema.

For instance, after extracting the original creature’s eyeball and drawing some blood from it, they look at it under a microscope and are astonished (as are any credible members of the audience left with this movie at this point) to find the last moments of the detective shooting the creature playing out as a kind of moving image in the blood. Another drop of blood and they can see various images of prehistoric monsters in the creature's precious bodily fluids... leading them to believe that the creature has lived a long time... long enough to be witnessing all these monsters. A third drop of blood shows us the creature's view of the earth from space, as it was millions of years ago... thus leading our coldly logical scientists into surmising that the creature is an alien who landed on earth many moons ago... or I guess an agent of satan gazing at the earth from heaven/hell, if the mad priest is to be listened to at this point.

Interestingly and bizarrely enough, at this point, when the mad priest accidentally discovers the detective is now the creature, he just up and renounces his loyalty to God and offers himself, repeatedly and whether he’s wanted or not, to become the servant of said creature... who mostly appears to be less interested in him because he just doesn’t rate the priests IQ as something as fitting enough for a decent meal.

All continues in this vein now until Telly Savalas’ aforementioned, over zealous cossack boards the train with his soldiers to see what’s going on and who’s been killing the passengers. He pretty much becomes the human villain of the piece here because he’s quite happy to throw his weight around with people and brutalise his way to an answer. He doesn’t have to wait too long before the detective’s hand is revealed... or detectives paw perhaps but, either way, the detective’s red eye problem soon gives him away and the cossack shoots him dead...

... but not before the creature downloads itself into the body of the mad priest and runs off to the front of the train. Not that the priest has any hairy arm problems like his predecessor, of course, so I don’t know what that’s all about, to be honest. The cossacks all give chase and it’s at this point that the priest/creature goes into what can only be described as a “stare frenzy” and kills a carriage full of attacking soldiers with his “mental blood eye” thingy. Telly Savalas takes rather longer to have his brain wiped clean and makes much more of a fight of it... apparently the curse of ham acting can do that to a character.

Meanwhile, our heroes Lee and Cushing have got all the remaining passengers to the back of the train and proceed to uncouple the carriage and leave the creature in the train. Suspense is maintained in this scene, of a sorts, because we now know the signalmen at the next set of points have been asked to throw the switch and send the train off onto a side track... a side track which implausibly ends at the edge of a cliff top... because where else would you build your train line to if it isn’t leading to a gazillion and a half feet drop to certain death? Best way to deal with the passengers I guess.

Anyway, the train is uncoupled and the creature rides the train to his death while the carriage uncoupled with all the passengers looking out the end slowly comes to a stop right at the edge of the drop, thus allowing all on board to witness the explosion of the train as it lands in the canyon below.

Wait a minute! Did I say explosion?

On a train in a film set in the nineteenth century there seems to be a way for this carriage to catch alight and literally explode on impact? And not just once, mind you, but to repeatedly explode with all the gravitas that a good solid series of explosions can conjure up to ensure the audience knows that the creature is definitely dead this time thank you very much.

Yes, that’s right. Just when you thought the film couldn’t get any dumber, the train actually explodes like a 1970s TV cops and robbers show. This is probably not the best way to end the film but there you have it... it’s an ending of sorts.

To conclude this review I would have to point out that, although the movie doesn’t hang together too well, it’s certainly an enjoyable movie to relax to. Yes it has it’s flaws, as detailed here, but many audiences for these kinds of movies (myself included) would see these characteristics as traits rather than flaws... and so I’d have to give this one a recommendation to anyone who loves watching this kind of silliness... it truly does stretch the whole suspension-of-disbelief issue and takes it into previously uncharted territory. Anyone who loves watching schlocky movies of this type will be happy with this little euro-concoction and the “dead glowing red eyes” of the various “beastiefied” characters are certainly worth the price of admission alone. Long term fans of the movie will doubtless also benefit from picking up the new Severin edition of the film as the restored print and transfer is excellent and there are a few interesting extras on there too. If you’re a monster addict, seek out and watch!


  1. One of your best reviews, about one of the strangest horror films I have ever seen, Telly Savalas is so OTT that Lee and Cushing look a little bemused by him.
    This is a horror movie that should be watched by all film fans, they don't make them like this one!
    Thanks for a great review.


  2. Hello Mr. H

    Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

    And thanks for getting me the movie for my birthday!

    Keep reading. ;-)