On the occasion of Peter Cushing’s 98th birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
An Anglo-Spanish co-production, this perennial 1972 crowd-pleaser was shot in Spain, where it was released as Panico en el Transiberiano (Panic on the Trans-Siberian). Despite its English title, the film is as much SF as horror, concerning an alien life-form that moves from host to host, accumulating knowledge from each victim it kills as it seeks a way to return to its distant home.
Like Bad Man’s River (1971) and Pancho Villa (1972), it was directed by Eugenio (aka Gene) Martín and produced by Bernard Gordon. The blacklisted Gordon had scripted Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau and The Man Who Turned to Stone (both 1957) as “Raymond T. Marcus,” and used Philip Yordan as his front on The Day of the Triffids (1962).
One of the film’s greatest assets is its screenplay by Arnaud D’Usseau and Julian Halevy (aka Zimet), who had collaborated on an equally unusual genre film about a gang of living dead bikers, Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1971). Horror Express is also among the finest of the more than twenty films that teamed Britain’s two top horror stars, Christopher Lee and Cushing.
Still grieving from the death of his wife Helen after a long illness—a loss that shook him until the end of his days—Cushing required some persuasion from his old friend to carry on with the project. Luckily, it gave the actors, often used as little more than window-dressing in spite of their prominent billing, two of their biggest and best roles out of all of their many collaborations.
It is 1906, and Professor Alexander Saxton (Lee) has found a fossilized missing link in China, a major discovery that he is bringing back to England in its crate. While waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Express, which travels between Peking and Moscow, he encounters Dr. Wells (Cushing), a fellow scientist with whom he has a strained (and delightfully played) relationship.
After the mysterious death of a locksmith who tried to open the crate on the platform, the curious Wells bribes the baggage man to look inside. But as the supposed fossil begins using its newly-acquired skill to pick the padlock, it fixes the baggage man with a glowing red stare, and moments later he lies dead, blood flowing from every facial orifice and his eyes turned to white.
The haunting main theme by John Cacavas is used as a clever linking device: first heard being whistled by the baggage man, it is passed along with the other information absorbed by the alien. Wells and his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart), perform an autopsy and see that the contours of the baggage man’s brain are smoothed out, as though his memories were all erased.
Played by Juan Olaguibel in effective makeup by Julián Ruiz, the creature roams the train claiming additional victims, such as a beautiful spy, Natasha (Helga Liné). She is killed while trying to steal a package placed in the safe by Countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa), who is traveling with her husband, Count Petrovski (Jorge Rigaud), and a monk, Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza).
The Count keeps Pujardov around as much for entertainment as for his spiritual guidance, and humiliates the sycophant at every opportunity, yet the monk is unusually sensitive to the evil on board the train. When the creature is cornered and shot by Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), the alien enters Mirov’s body; oddly, one of his hands grows similarly hairy and must be concealed.
Petrovski tells Mirov that the package contains a revolutionary type of steel, harder than a diamond, for which only he knows the formula. Meanwhile, the scientists discover an important clue when they place fluid from the creature’s eye under a microscope, and learn that it contains the alien’s visual memory, including images of dinosaurs and of the Earth as seen from space.
When Miss Jones is found dead, it becomes clear that the menace is still on the loose, and that the passengers must remain in pairs for safety until the host is identified. This gives Cushing the opportunity to deliver the film’s single best line, for when Mirov asks him and Saxton, “What if one of you is the monster?,” the shocked Wells replies, “Monster? We’re British, you know.”
Just as the protagonists gradually piece together the nature of this alien foe, the audience is kept continually intrigued by the slow revelation of its origins and purpose. After it has killed Yevtushenko (Angel del Pozo) to gain his engineering knowledge, the train is boarded by Capt. Kazan (Telly Savalas, who had played the title role in Pancho Villa) and his vicious Cossacks.
Saxton and Wells deduce that the alien can only kill in the dark, and that an earlier effort to identify the host by examining the eyes of the passengers was useless with the lights on. As Kazan brutalizes everyone aboard in his attempts to investigate, suspicion falls on Mirov, and Saxton douses the lights long enough to reveal his glowing red eyes, confirming him as the host.
Mirov is mortally wounded, but the alien finds a willing new host in Pujardov, who has become obsessed with serving what he thinks is Satan, and quickly takes out all of the Cossacks single-handed. He has just killed the Count for the formula when Saxton arrives to rescue Irina, and learns that the alien was left behind when several of its kind visited the Earth millennia ago.
It can also raise the dead, forcing Saxton and Irina to run a gauntlet of zombie Cossacks as they rush to rejoin Wells and the others at the rear of the train, which has been diverted toward a cliff by the authorities. With moments to spare they uncouple the last car, which rolls to a stop at the edge of the precipice as Pujardov, unable to master the controls, plunges to a fiery death.
Filled with action, gruesome deaths, witty dialogue, and suspense, Horror Express easily overcomes a modest budget with imagination and skill. The crew makes the most of its confined setting (which only increases the tension), with both handsome interiors and atmospheric shots of the convincing model train racing through the snowy wilderness, as well as its outstanding stars.