Eugenio Martino’s Horror Express (Severin) is a one of those odd duck films: a Spanish horror for an international audience with Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and American actor Telly Savalas (something of an international character actor icon of the time thanks to such films as The Dirty Dozen, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Assassination Bureau) in a small but significant supporting role. Set on the Siberian Express, it’s a mix of murder mystery, supernatural horror, mummy movie, zombie film and alien attack at the turn of the century.
While it’s a minor horror film, it’s filled with incident, paced like a speeding train and flavored with hints of late Hammer horrors and Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead. The dangerous cargo is the frozen remains found in Northern China by archeologist Christopher Lee, a “missing link” that turns out to be even more unique and tenacious than anyone anticipates. Coming back to life with burning red eyes, it starts sucking the life and the knowledge out of bystanders and then jumping bodies in its instinct for survival. Peter Cushing is a rival gentleman scientist who uses his fortune to grease the wheels of foreign diplomacy, but shifts from enemy to colleague when the “fossil” escapes and the milky-eyed corpses start to stack up, and then come back to life. This train carries plenty of promising vessels, including a beautiful spy, a Rasputin-like monk and a pair of aristocrats in a private car.
I took particular pleasure in the indignant dignity maintained by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in all the ridiculousness of the filmmaking, sparring and sniping and sabotaging one another before finally teaming up as the body count builds. And then there is the blast of personality that Telly Savalas brings as a “Cossack” feudal lord from an rural posting. Just when you wonder when he’s going to make his appearance, he rolls out of the sack shared with some nameless woman and leads his troop onto a train by order of a government that’s not sure what’s going on but knows that something wicked this way comes.