Horror Express / Pánico en el Transiberiano (1972)

This $350,000 Spanish-made film from Scotia International might be the last great pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  It’s one of my favorite horror films of the 70’s —it’s intelligent, well-acted, beautifully photographed and paced, and suspenseful. It’s different. The horror is a shape-shifting alien that could’ve been heisted straight from a John W. Campbell novel. Actually, an alternative title for the movie could’ve been The Host.  Horror Express (Pánico en el Transiberiano) benefits from two effective plot devices: 1) an alien presence is introduced and we’re not quite certain of it’s abilities, and 2) the story pits the good guys versus the monster in an isolated setting —in this case a runaway Trans-Siberian passenger train. Sound familiar?

We’ve seen this before in The Thing from Another World (1951), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Jaws (1975), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Predator (1987) and many other films.  The formula of an uneasy alliance with limited resources fighting an unknown horror in an isolated setting is also successful in Horror Express.

Recently, a new pressing of the film is available for the first time as a Blu-Ray / DVD combo pack from Severin.  The film looks and sounds terrific (no more scratches) and includes several supplements:

  • An introduction from the editor of Fangoria Chris Alexander
  • Various interviews, including director Eugenio Martín
  • 1973 audio commentary/interview with Peter Cushing
  • An interview with composer and Telly Savalas’ friend John Cacavas
  • Various trailers

The plot is simple enough. In 1906, British professor of anthropology Saxton (Christopher Lee) leads an expedition to Szechuan Province and discovers the frozen remains of a two-million year old ape-like hominid or missing link.  He carts the frozen fossil on board a Trans-Siberian passenger train bound presumably from Peking to Moscow.  Of course that’s where the fun begins.  Also on board the train is nosey Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), the mad monk  Pujardov (Alberto De Mendoza)(who’s really good in this film), a microbiologist, a metallurgist, an engineer, an inspector, a countess, a gorgeous stowaway (Helga Line) and several other characters. Later, the wacked-out Cossack General Kazan (Telly Savalas) enters into the mix.  The missing link thaws, gives a local baggageman the evil eye (more on this later), and escapes from the crate using a bent nail.  This is one smart missing link.

Seems there’s a bit more to this cave man.

Ah cooked fish eyes.  Maybe there is a connection?  After an autopsy of the above baggageman who has a brain as “smooth as a baby’s bottom”, Dr. Wells quickly surmises that the missing link has the ability to sorb memories from it’s victims.

You know you have a good film with the presence of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas.  I like the off-beat casting of Savalas as the thug General Kazan. He punches Christopher Lee!  You don’t see that often. Savalas was always charismatic whether he was playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969 -one of my favorite 007 films) or as the TV character Kojak.  He had a likeable, albeit smarmy screen presence, and he delivers in Horror Express.  The modern actor Vin Diesel reminds me a bit of Savalas.

The mad monk Pujardov hosts the alien presence and takes control of the Trans-Siberian Express.  What will happen?

Overall, the new pressing of Horror Express is a must for horror fans.  This film has a strong cult following and is on many all-time horror film lists.  It works for me from the opening chords of a dramatic score by John Cacavas and Christopher Lee discovering an iced fossil in China.  How can you go wrong here?  On a side note, Horror Express is also available as an iPhone Application.  The print isn’t bad and worth a few bucks.

Mark A. Miller, 1995. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema: A Filmography of Their 22 Collaborations, McFarland.

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