Beware of the apeman in the train – it wants to drain your brain!

That’s a great piece of practical wisdom you can learn from the 1973 Spanish horror flick Horror Express starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas (sic!). Halloween is over… but if you’re sad about it, why not watch a good horror to cheer yourself up?

It’s 1906. During the digs in Szechuan mountains in China prof Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) discovers a certain interesting “fossil” (as he likes to call it). This fossil is actually a 2 million years old apeman imprisoned in a block of ice!

Meaning to bedazzle the Royal Geological Society, Saxton packs the thing into a wooden crate, chains it all up, and brings it on a train in which he starts his long journey back to Britain. There he meets his fellow countryman doctor Wells (Peter Cushing, who will be soon doing a lot of autopsies, with special focus on the deceased’s brains), as well as an entire menagerie of characters straight out of an Agatha Christie book. So there is a Polish count and his wife, a Rasputinesque monk Pujardov, an international female spy, an inspector of Russian police and several others.  And as the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway begins, so do strange murders that leave the victims with brain damage and boiled eyeballs…

I don’t want to spoil too much, but lets just say that’s not just your regular apeman in that crate and that Horror Express offers a psychological battle of wits (with the use of some VERY questionable science) that wouldn’t happen if you would be battling a dumb, slobbering monster. The events get so much out of control that there is even a guest appearance by a brontosaurus in the film!

Convincing scenography, train-from-the-outside footage, period costumes (this is a B movie, so these are no small feats) and a haunting recurring music motive – everything works well. The tale is properly filled with twists and gore too. But perhaps the best thing about Horror Express is how well it manages to use all of its colorful characters during its short 1h28min run. Of course Peter Cushing’s sociable doctor and Christopher Lee’s coldblooded geologist are among the most important ones, but I’d say equally fascinating is the hyper-emotional, hypocritical and often downright crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), as well as the film’s mysterious main antagonist.

Of course you have to remember that in a lot of ways this is still a very cheesy movie, which is part of its appeal. You can forgive the special effects that occasionally require to hide complex contraptions under some character’s make-up, but the English dub with its over-the-top dialog lines feels borrowed from a spaghetti western (and so were literary some of the film’s actors). I must say Pujardov’s conversations are particularly fun to listen to, especially when he spits out crazy warnings (or threats) about Satan and the apocalypse: “Fool! You think evil can be killed with bullets? Satan lives!”. And I also think Inspector Mirov’s role is really priceless in an “understated” sort of way – just the constant look of worry and tiredness on his face is incredibly affecting, particularly from the point when he starts having some real problems with one of his hands.

But what about Telly Savalas?  Why nothing about him? Well, we actually don’t see any trace of him! Until…

Igor’s Score: 4 of 5 starps

Note: Horor Express is now in public domain. You can download it legally here.