Horror Express / Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express (1972)

“It’s alive — it must be!”

Horror Express Poster

Synopsis:
In 1906 China, a British anthropologist (Christopher Lee) finds a frozen prehistoric body and arranges to ship it on the Transsiberian Express — but soon he and fellow passenger Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) realize the ancient creature is a living alien, capable of destroying people’s brains and able to transfer itself into a human body. As they work with an inspector (Julio Pena) to determine where the alien is residing, more and more passengers are brutally murdered.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this low-budget, Spanish-made sci-fi flick as a “horror gem that devotees of late-night television have kept to themselves” (though its recent release on Blu-Ray and DVD makes this a somewhat dated point). He argues that the “picture is exciting and surprisingly provocative”, and praises the direction (by Eugenio Martin), the “interesting characters”, and the “solid acting”. He notes that “like 2001 and Five Million Years to Earth, it challenges both fundamentalist religion and theories on evolution” — a point I can’t quite agree with, given that it’s much stronger in thrills, chills, and occasional levity than meaty exploration of such topics. While I can understand this film’s cult appeal as a gruesome mash-up of numerous cinematic genres and tropes — a death-filled train ride a la Murder on the Orient Express (1974); a resuscitated frozen alien a la The Thing (1951); brain-dead victims-turned-perpetrators a la Night of the Living Dead (1968) — its true calling card is the fortunate pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who have great fun working together against dark forces. Watch for Telly Savalas in a cameo role as a Cossack commander who naively believes he and his men can tame the alien.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective use of a claustrophobic train setting
    Horror Express Trains
  • Lurid special effects
    Horror Express Special Effects
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Horror Express Cinematography1
    Horror Express Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, once, simply as a cult favorite.

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2 Responses to “Horror Express / Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express (1972)”

  1. Must-see as a unique cult item. And I’d think it holds up well for a few repeat viewings, at least.

    I first saw this on tv in Tokyo many years ago – and I recall thinking it was just an ok film. But what a difference a different viewing experience can make (as we all probably know). If I recall correctly, the print I saw on tv was a bad one. (The film fell into public domain and, I believe, distribution of prints was chaotic for a long time.)

    Recently, I watched the film again as a blu-ray. It increased my enjoyment of the film considerably. It was, in fact, like really seeing the film for the first time – it felt that different and new.

    The Severin Films DVD release is an impressive one, with added thanks to its addition of extras. There is wonderful background info on the film (i.e., the story of Lee encouraging Cushing to follow through with making the film, even though he was recently widowed). There is also a fascinating interview with the producer Bernard Gordon – in which he talks about what it was like being blacklisted in Hollywood in the ’40s-”50s.

    It so happens that I often eat up DVD extras cause I love background info. I’m sometimes judicious about it cause there just isn’t enough time to explore everything. But it’s interesting that so much additional info is attached to the release of this low-budget film because one doesn’t expect that much care given to a work that has fallen into a bit of obscurity. But if the intent is to give the film new life, then the blu-ray may do just that. …I know I certainly plan on watching it again.

  2. I watched this on TCM when they were honoring Christopher Lee after he passed away. I read Danny Peary’s review first, so I was expecting more than what appeared on the screen. I am puzzled as to what he thought was so great about it. “Gem” is not a word that comes to mind in viewing it. I would call it more of a curio, in that it is more interesting than a movie of this ilk typically is, which makes it worth one viewing. But comparing it to the likes of 2001 under any circumstances is a bit of a stretch. If you enjoy gory 70s movies a la the likes of Mario Bava or are a huge horror film aficionado, this will no doubt be one you won’t want to miss. But while the delivery is competent, it never really transcends that level in script, optics, music, effects, or acting.

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