Panic on the Trans-Siberian Railway – Lee & Cushing’s Horror Express

Spanish-British co-production Horror Express [Pánico en el Transiberiano] (1972) merges John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (1938) with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to create a rollicking pulp adventure hybrid of science fiction, horror and bodycount murder mystery. Probably best known as a vehicle for co-stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (horror icons and best friends), it’s a tightly directed film which makes the most of its low budget and has much to recommend it (provided you’re willing to avoid examining the script too closely).

It’s 1906 and British anthropologist Prof. Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee) believes that he has discovered an evolutionary missing link, a two-million-year-old frozen hominid discovered in a Manchurian cave. Boarding the Trans-Manchurian line of the Trans-Siberian Railway at Peking, he encounters colleague and rival Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), who is initially presented as an American but sports an English accent and later self-identifies as British. (He’s similarly confused about their location, identifying it as Shanghai – probably an artefact of a script which has had more than one set of hands fiddling with it.) Wells is naturally intrigued by what might be inside the large chained crate Saxton is transporting – as is a passing Chinese thief known as the Locksmith (Hiroshi Kitatawa), who is discovered lying on the train platform next to the crate, dead from unknown causes and sporting newly blind white eyeballs, provoking dire warnings of an evil presence from Rasputin-like monk Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza). Wells, cheerfully oblivious to any danger and intent on getting a sneak peek at the cagey Saxton’s cargo, bribes the baggage man (Víctor Israel) to drill a hole into the crate and report back to him – leading to Inspector Mirov’s (Julio Peña, dubbed by Roger Delgado during his tenure as the Master in Doctor Who) discovery of the baggage man’s corpse inside the crate in the place of the clearly-not-so-dead inhabitant.

As is traditional on extended train journeys featuring multiple fatalities, there’s an engaging collection of personalities among the supporting cast. Polish Countess Irina Petrovska (Silvia Tortosa) bores easily on extended journeys and hopes to spice up this one by seducing the exotically English Saxton. Her husband Count Maryan Petrovski (George Rigaud), who clearly enjoys hearing about his wife’s extramarital excursions, has invented a new form of manufacturing steel which becomes stronger when heated, a sample of which is concealed on board. He also employs Father Pujardov (secretly in love with the Countess) as their spiritual advisor, apparently for the sole purpose of outraging his moral sensibilities. Natasha (Helga Liné), a damsel in distress who throws herself at Wells, is actually a European spy out to steal the Count’s steel sample. Wells’ assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart) is a dab hand at an autopsy who drily comments on how capable she thinks Wells would be at handling Natasha’s advances without her “assistance”. Yevtushenko (Ángel del Pozo) is an engineer who’s largely there to provide scientific nuggets from outside of Saxton & Wells’ expertise. And Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas) is a Cossack officer who boards the train an hour into the film to throw his weight around, derail the killer’s progress before the killings get too repetitive, shove the plot into a different trajectory and generally have a scenery-chewing whale of a time.

Director Eugenio Martín honed his skills as an assistant director on two early Ray Harryhausen films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), before making swashbuckling pirate film Conqueror of Maracaibo [Il conquistatore di Maracaibo] (1961) with Helga Liné. Horror Express owes its existence in part to Martín’s previous film, comedy western flop Pancho Villa (1972), for which one of the producers bought the large-scale model train used in the historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) (featuring its own mad monk, in this case the historical Rasputin). In the “maximum return for minimum outlay” spirit of many a cash-strapped producer, a new script was commissioned to take advantage of the model. Initially assigned to Arnaud d’Usseau, it received multiple rewrites by Pancho Villa‘s Julian Zimet at the director’s behest. (Zimet & d’Usseau would go on to write contemporary British biker horror movie Psychomania the following year.) Their script here combines dry banter with gleefully ridiculous science fiction nonsense, such as the idea that sucking the knowledge out of somebody’s brain would remove all the wrinkles, or that liquid extracted from the creature’s eyeball and viewed under a microscope would allow you to see still images from its memory. Assuming you’re willing to take those ideas and run with them, the script largely makes sense, although the Moscow authorities communicating with the stations along the train’s route are much better informed about events on the train than they have any right to be, and the existence of the plot mechanism for disposing of the creature at the end of the film is both astonishingly implausible and convenient in its location and timing. The script is also a fascinating variant on John W. Campbell’s uncredited source novella Who Goes There? which is far better known as the basis of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). While these more famous iterations are solidly rooted in science fiction, Horror Express retains an element of supernatural horror thanks to the creature’s unexplained antipathy towards Christian religious iconography and the monk’s certainty that it is Satan. This mixture of science and religion/myth is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s work, whose influence would be felt more overtly in John Carpenter’s later film Prince of Darkness (1987).

Special effects artist Pablo Pérez puts in a good showing here, most notably with the sequences in which the eyes of the creature’s victims begin to bleed and turn white as their memories are extracted before their demise. As the complications mount towards the film’s conclusion, the creature reanimates its victims to shamble about as blind sword-wielding zombies. Although it may be coincidence, the first entry in Amando de Ossorio’s blind Templar zombie series – Tombs of the Blind Dead [La noche del terror ciego] (1972) – had been released earlier that year, and Pérez would go on to provide special effects for the final two films, The Ghost Galleon [El buque maldito] (1974) and Night of the Seagulls [La noche de las gaviotas] (1975).

Composer John Cacavas makes his feature film debut here thanks to his friend Telly Savalas. Beginning his career as a composer of library music albums, Cacavas was approached by Savalas (hoping to branch into a singing career) to provide feedback on his demos and beef up the arrangements. Savalas got him a job writing the theme tune for Pancho Villa, leading directly to his score for Horror Express, followed soon after by The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) (Lee & Cushing’s final appearance together in a Hammer Films production), before he settled into steady work for television, most notably for Telly Savalas’ cop show star vehicle Kojak (1973-78).

Horror author John Connolly contributed a loving tribute to Horror Express as part of the Electric Dreamhouse imprint’s Midnight Movie Monographs series, published in 2018. It’s a very well researched book with much to recommend it, although the section I found most engaging had the least to do with the film. The first part, titled “The Excavation”, begins by investigating the author’s childhood love for the film and its two stars, with side journeys into the misplaced romanticism of train journeys; the nature of nostalgia and its rehabilitation as a psychological phenomenon; the concept of hauntology in critical theory and its links to folk horror; and a consideration of the links between gothic fiction and anti-Catholic sentiment in relation to the history of Spanish cinema.

Part 2: “The Protagonists” is by far the longest section of the book, occupying nearly half its length as it provides background on the five central figures: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly Savalas, Bernard Gordon (the producer) and Eugenio Martín. The colourfully titled third part, “The Autopsy”, goes through the film in sequence, providing time codes as reference cues to discuss aspects of the film in more detail before “The Afterlife” briefly covers the film’s reception, sums up the protagonists’ lives after the film, and collects the author’s final thoughts. Although some of the details Connolly provides about the making of the film differ from other accounts I’ve encountered, the months of work he’s put into this project are more than evident in the final text. I’m grateful to Connolly for pointing out the debt the story might well owe to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a film adaptation frequently interpreted as a critique of the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1940s/50s – which would have been of particular interest to producer Gordon, a former screenwriter who was blacklisted by the HUAC and spent much of his writing career working under a pseudonym.

I also owe a debt to the wonderful hosts of Hammer House of Podcast for pointing out Roger Delgado’s involvement and for reminding me of the existence of this book, which has been sitting in a pile on my bedroom floor waiting for me to revisit the movie. They have been working their way sequentially through the horror output of Hammer Films for almost three years now, providing commentary both thoughtful and hilarious. They also cover non-Hammer movies for Patreon supporters – their most recent episode covered Horror Express and was the impetus for me to finally watch the Arrow Video release – so if you liked this post, why not give them some money and see what they have to say? They’re lovely.

Connolly wrote his book with reference to Severin’s 2011 blu ray, which presented the film in a better state than it had been seen for some time. Just four months after the book’s release, Arrow Video released their own blu ray with an exclusive new restoration and some additional features. (An image comparison is available via Cinapse.) Ported over from the original release are an introduction by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander plus interviews with director Eugenio Martín, producer Bernard Gordon (talking about his experiences during the McCarthy era) and composer John Cacavas (focusing largely on his connection with Telly Savalas but with some discussion of the score). Although a vintage interview with Peter Cushing has been dropped, the new audio commentary by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman is more than adequate compensation. Steve Haberman’s newly filmed appreciation of Horror Express doesn’t add much of significance, but Ted Newsome’s recollections of the film and of his friend Bernard Gordon provide new insights, some of which (as is so often the case when dealing with anecdotes years down the track) contradict Gordon’s own recollections as quoted in Connolly’s book. If you’re able to get your hands on a first printing of the Arrow release, you’ll also be able to read a thoughtful essay on the film by Adam Scovell (Celluloid Wicker Man) and a reprint of Fangoria‘s 1999 interview with Eugenio Martín.

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