The April 29 addition of Horror Express to Shudder’s online catalogue can’t be a coincidence — that’s the same day the streamer’s hit anthology series Creepshow aired its second season finale, “Night of the Living Late Show,” featuring a character who’s obsessed with… Horror Express.
Horror Express is a B-movie with zero aspirations to be anything more, made by a Spanish production company, released in 1972, and boosted by a cast that contains two horror superstars (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, together outside of Hammer for once) and a number of over-the-top performances (from Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, and Julio Peña). It also has the curiosity factor of being loosely adapted from Who Goes There?, the 1938 John W. Campbell novella that also inspired 1951’s The Thing From Another World and 1982’s The Thing, as well as the 2011 Thing prequel. And, well, it’s a story about a “missing link” specimen that un-freezes and reanimates while aboard the Trans-Siberian Express from Shanghai to Moscow, circa 1906… unleashing an alien life-form with the ability to leap into different human hosts.
It takes a while for that to happen, of course. The first third of the movie mostly consists of scientist Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) forcefully trying to keep his discovery — which he believes will help prove that evolution exists — secret from everyone else on the train, especially his professional rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), who’s immediately so curious he pays a baggage handler to peep into the carefully locked crate. Others aboard include the officious Inspector Mirov (Peña), tweedy academic Yevtushenko (Ángel del Pozo), a glamorous spy (Helga Liné), and a colourful entourage that includes Count Petrovski (George Rigaud), who’s recently invented a new, cutting-edge type of steel; his much younger wife, Irina (Silvia Tortosa); and Pujardov (de Mendoza), the suspiciously Rasputin-ish monk who travels with them.
Any long-haul train journey with this eccentric group would probably stir up some conflict, but nothing says “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” like a rampaging monster with red glowing eyes. Its neatest trick is vacuuming all the knowledge out of each victim, leaving their eyes completely white and their brains — as Dr. Wells discovers when he does a little onboard dissection — completely smooth. We eventually learn that the alien, stranded on Earth since the dinosaur days, just wants to get the hell off-planet as soon as possible. Good thing this particular Trans-Siberian Express voyage happens to contain multiple genius-level scientists and someone who invented a metal that can withstand super-high temperatures… the sort of stuff you’d need if you wanted to, say, build a spaceship.
Horror Express is fairly straightforward, all things told, but it has a few layers to it. It’s a creature feature, but it’s also very much of the intrigue-on-a-train genre, and it makes time for science vs. religion debates while playing its goofier sci-fi elements with a straight face, for the most part. Though the monster starts taking over the bodies of characters we’ve come to know — you can tell who’s “the thing” because their eyes glow red in the dark, and sometimes one human hand remains very hairy and primitive ape-like — it’s hard not to root for it to get what it needs so it can return to outer space.
The Horror Express homage in Creepshow’s season finale showcased Simon (Justin Long), a man so fond of the film he builds an immersive device that allows him to virtually step inside the movie. Though he’s thrilled to interact with Lee and Cushing, his main interest is in the beautiful Countess, played by Hannah Fierman so that Tortosa’s limited scenes in the actual movie can be expanded. As you can imagine, this causes problems in Simon’s already strained marriage, and his exasperated wife (The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden) has her own run-in with the train alien before coming up with a deliciously creative revenge strategy.
Simon’s horny quest into Horror Express ends before the movie gets to the best part, however, which comes nearly an hour in, just when you think the whole thing is gonna be posh passengers screaming and getting brain-drained as the alien slinks through each car. Though he proves utterly useless when it comes to fighting monsters, Captain Kazan (Savales) — summoned aboard by a desperate crew after it’s clear a mass murderer is in their midst — is an absolute champion at swigging vodka, barking orders, being a swaggering arsehole, and devouring every scrap of scenery in his all-too-brief screentime. Horror Express would still be a fun one without him, but the performance is so satisfyingly obnoxious it elevates a low-budget horror movie with a few cool things going for it into the realm of a bona fide cult classic.
Horror Express and Creepshow are now streaming on Shudder.