Horror Express opens in the early 1900s with Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovering the fossilized remains of a "missing link" in a cave in China. Sensing the importance of his find, Saxton has it boxed up and loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express for a return to Europe. Trouble starts before the prize archeological discovery has left the train station. A thief attempting to get into the crate is found dead, his eyes as white as a boiled egg. On the train Saxton is joined by his scientific rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), and a multitude of other characters. There's Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), a crazed monk who claims there is something evil about the crated fossil; the monk's employer, Count Petrovski (George Rigaud), a wealthy Polish nobleman; Irina (Silvia Tortosa), the count's sexy wife; Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), who tries to puzzle out the series of strange deaths on the train; a chess playing engineer (Ángel del Pozo) who is also a burgeoning rocket scientist; and a beautiful female spy (Helga Liné,Horror Rises from the Tomb) trying to purloin the secret of a new type of steel from the Count! In short order the fossil comes back to life and kills several people, leaving the victims with white eyes and smoothed brains. From these anatomical clues Wells and Saxton surmise that the creature must be able to absorb the memories and experiences of its victims, killing them in the process.
Just when the film seems set to be a 'beast on the loose' movie, Inspector Mirov shoots the monster dead and is possessed by the alien intelligence that's hidden within the creature for two million years. Not suspecting this turn of events, Wells and Saxton are surprised when a fresh corpse turns up with telltale white eyes. Then a boorish Cossack commander (Telly Savalas, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) stops and boards the train, intent on conducting his own military investigation.
Horror Express is one of the most deliriously fun bits of sci-fi tinged horror nonsense to ever come out of Europe. It was mostly overlooked at the time of its original release and treated terribly afterwards, which is a shame. With a game cast, a lively script and an interesting setting, director Eugenio Martín creates a fast, effective fright-fest that's just smart enough to know when to distract us with another plot twist. Many critics have said that the film's script doesn't hold up if examined closely, and that is true. But who cares? Horror Express throws so many ideas and characters at the audience that it's almost impossible to nail down the logic lapses until well after the credits have run and how often can you say that about a Euro-Cult genre piece. Just as you have adjusted to one strange idea, another one pops up which inevitably dovetails into another, etc.
The film is exciting and interesting from beginning to end and almost never shows its very modest budget. Most of the characters are very well drawn with a minimum of exposition and a great deal of smart acting giving just the right amount of nuance. With a cast this large it would've been easy to lose track of one or more people but the script gives each person at least one small scene to establish themselves. Later, when the creature menaces them we aren't just watching a simple stalk and kill sequence. Since we've gotten to know a little about the characters, their peril is that much more effective. This film is a fine example of using a claustrophobic set to maximum atmospheric effect. The cramped hallways and perpetually rocking train cars start to feel smaller and more coffin-like as we speed along the tracks. By the end, the darkness of the night has become such a natural state that the sunlight on snow in the final scene brings a sigh of relief. The escape from darkness into light is the perfect image to close the film on.
Of course, any horror film that manages to cast both Cushing and Lee has gotten off to the right start — this movie makes the rare move of writing them as friends instead of enemies. It is one of the better pleasures of the film to see the two great horror stars as heroes working together trying to understand and stop the murderous beast. Even though Lee and Cushing starred in over twenty films together they were almost always antagonists, or at least kept apart for much of the running time. Here they share many scenes and take great advantage of the wit in the dialog, playing off each other wonderfully. Cushing gets some great (intentionally) funny lines which he delivers with relish; Lee becomes a bit of an action hero near the movie's climax. The only role I can think of that allowed Lee to be such a strong hero is the wonderful The Devil Rides Out and his performance here stands up very well in comparison. These actors made better films both together and separately, but few of them were as much fun as Horror Express.
If you are interested, we did a podcast covering the film a while back and it can be accessed HERE.