Add a police inspector, a mad monk, Telly Savalas as a Cossack, and a dash of nutmeg. Let simmer for 87 minutes.
Horror Express was referred to us by legions of horror fans on Usenet who wanted to help us in our quest for a Halloween-themed train film, to be shown at our Fall 97 Film Series. Among the many suggestions we received, Horror Express turned up again and again as an outstanding and unusual horror film with a train. (Sorry, Terror Train fans. We decided to go with this one.) It was an excellent recommendation.
The film begins in China, where Lee, as Professor Saxton, leads a scientific expedition and discovers a "fossil" that he thinks might be the missing link between apes and man. Boarding a train in Peking (today correctly called Beijing by everyone but the British), he meets the cast of characters who will accompany him on the Horror Express.
Peter Cushing plays Doctor Wells, a well-to-do British physician with a large sense of curiosity and an even larger wallet. He and his assistant, Ms. Jones (Alice Reinheart, looking like Peter Lorre in drag), greet Saxton with enthusiasm when they learn they will be traveling on the same train. The Count Petrovski and his wife arrive just in time to introduce a pointless sub-plot, and their hired mad monk arrives in time to declare Saxton's specimen as a thing of evil. To prove his point, he tries to draw a cross on the crate, and the chalk leaves no mark. "Where there is evil, there is no place for the cross," he argues.
There is also a woman of mystery on the train, who is trying to get "out of Shanghai." Seeing as how the train is leaving Peking, it would seem she has already achieved her goal, but who are we to argue? This is one of the film's many seemingly pointless sub-plots, but without them Horror Express might not be as much fun.
Suffice it to say that the specimen is still alive, even after two million years. It defrosts and kills a baggage handler, apparently by sucking the contents of his brain out through his eyeballs, which promptly turn white. Victim after victim falls prey to the monster, who eventually transfers himself into the brain of the police inspector and terrorizes the passengers further.
Inspector Mirov: The two of you [Saxon and Wells] together. That's fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Wells (with indignation): The monster? We're British, you know!
And then there's the scene where Saxon suggests that the reason that the mad monk's chalk didn't write on the crate had something to do with "yoga."
The supporting cast refrains from being too goofy, but it's hard to keep the campiness away when you have a mad monk on your train. Rasputin-boy initially warns against the presence of Satan, but soon begs the monster to take him on as a disciple. We can respect this. He sets a policy ("Satan is bad") and then promptly flip-flops. Would President Clinton do it any differently?
The piece de resistance of this film's goofiness, however, arrives in the form of Telly Savalas as the war-mongering Cossack Kazan. Kazan, along with his men, stops the train just long enough to board it and start ordering people around. It doesn't take much to see that soon Kazan will root out the monster and the slaughter will begin.
Horror Express is an unusual horror movie in that it refuses to be cast into one particular genre. Is it a prehistoric monster film? Is it a possession movie? Is it a zombie movie? It's all of those, and more. We do eventually find out what the monster is, and it turns out to be a particularly indebted to Lovecraft. Plus, it's a film of ideas as well as action, a rare thing in horror films. If you haven't yet seen it, we hope you will. Just don't turn out the lights.
Review date: 10/31/97
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