Horror Express Saw Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Elevate Nonsense to Greatness for the Last Time

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Horror Express Saw Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Elevate Nonsense to Greatness for the Last Time

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were both excellent actors and exceedingly elegant men who spent much of their long film careers starring in complete nonsense. In most conceivable senses, they were just too good for many of the movies in which they starred, and yet it never came across in their performances. They didn’t know how to phone it in and, as a result, they would elevate even the hokiest of hokum. And that was in their separate appearances. When the good friends appeared together, as they did more than 20 times between the 1950s and the 1980s, the effect was multiplied manyfold. Usually they’d be on opposite sides of the good/bad divide, but every so often they’d work as a team to fight whatever ridiculous monster was sent their way—this was the case with Horror Express.

It’s 1906, on a train from Shanghai to Moscow. Famed anthropologist Professor Sir Alexander Saxon (Lee) is secretly transporting his latest discovery in the baggage car. Noticing his friend’s caginess, Dr. Wells (Cushing) persuades a porter to investigate the mysterious trunk. The porter does so—and the next morning he is found dead, his eyes as white as boiled eggs and bleeding from every facial orifice. Whatever was in the case is nowhere to be seen, but soon the train is full of bodies with boiled-egg eyes and bleeding faces. Even when Saxon’s discovery is found, and the body disposed of, the carnage is far from over…

Lee and Cushing’s most famous collaborations—the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises; The Hound of The Baskervilles—had all been projects with vaunted British studio Hammer. By 1972 however, that association was winding down, and they’d been increasingly indulging in their ghoulish adventures elsewhere. Horror Express was a Spanish-British co-production engineered by American producer Bernard Gordon. Like the majority of films shot in Spain at the time, the sound was post-synced, with the two Brits dubbing themselves for the English-language version.

Horror Express is widely acknowledged (though not in the actual credit sequence) as a rather loose adaptation of the John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There?, which also provided the source material for the The Thing movies. Horror Express doesn’t actually get to its Thing-like elements until a significant way into the film, when the creature’s corporeal form has been killed and it has found a new home for itself inside the body of Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña); even then, it only makes one more leap throughout the whole duration. And we always know who’s being inhabited, which means the tension never quite hits the heights of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

So you shouldn’t be boarding Horror Express for a tense journey, but a gleefully chaotic one—although the opening act, at least, has a certain restraint. As our heroes try to ascertain what Saxon’s monster is, and why it’s killing the passengers, we’re treated to some marvelously gooey practical effects: Beyond those terrifying white eyes, a post-mortem sees Cushing slicing the top of the head off one of the victims to discover that the monster has left their brain completely smooth. Using some dubious science (The reason behind the smoothness? “This brain has been drained, the memory removed.”), Cushing and Lee steadily continue their investigation as the mayhem around them mounts.

Beyond the two horror legends, the train is packed with other intriguing guests: An international spy (Helga Liné), a renowned engineer (Ángel del Pozo), a pair of Polish aristocrats (Silvia Tortosa and Georges Rigaud) and their “spiritual advisor” (Alberto de Mendoza). The latter makes the biggest impression here; de Mendoza’s bewitchingly unhinged performance recalling Lee’s own in the 1966 Hammer film Rasputin: The Mad Monk.

Then, an hour into the 90-minute runtime, Telly Savalas appears for a spectacular—and largely improvised—extended cameo. Playing Cossack cop Captain Kazan, he storms onto the train, vodka in hand, putting on a bellicose show for the assembled passengers, and flogging the monk for good measure. He shoots Mirov—to no avail, as we’ve already learned that the creature can hop bodies—and then is promptly killed himself. While his character has no real impact on the plot, like so many of the rogue elements of this ludicrous movie, his presence is exceedingly welcome.

By the time Savalas appears, the relative coherence of the film’s earlier stages has long since vanished, and the carriages of the Horror Express have been subsumed by a chaos that barrels along up to its dramatic conclusion. This could well have been frustrating, and yet the sheer magnitude of the havoc—and the way setting the whole film on a train both condenses and literally propels the action forward—makes it easy to let the whole glorious mess pull you right along with it. In the middle of the swirl of gloopy practical effects, possessed monks and riotously drunken Kojak-Cossacks, Lee and Cushing stand tall (and just a little bit bemused), preventing things from going completely off the rails (sorry…) through the formidable strength of their combined gravitas.

They’d made 18 films together by this point, and would only make five more. Horror Express would be the last to garner significant acclaim. Since it premiered, it’s become a veritable cult classic, with late-night TV showings and a recent Arrow Blu-ray release helping grow a significant fanbase. As recently as last year, an episode of the Shudder horror anthology series Creepshow saw Justin Long and D’Arcy Carden enter the movie via a virtual reality chamber (“You’re Christopher Lee! Oh my God, you’re Christopher Lee!”). Even though Horror Express isn’t the most narratively satisfying of the Cushing/Lee films, and it never quite reaches the artistic heights of their best work with Hammer, the pure fun factor remains irresistible half a century after the original release. Cinematic nonsense, the kind the two horror titans elevated time and again, doesn’t get much more entertaining than Horror Express.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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