Chugging along the rails between the stations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Horror Express (Eugenio Martín, 1972) travels within a peculiar era in Britain’s horror film history where the classic themes of Gothic chillers, well-established production powerhouses and the recognisable cult figures of Dracula and Frankenstein were slowly fading out of popularity, gently nudged aside to pave way for a new paradigm in horror filmmaking.
The tried and tested traditions of terror in British films were becoming more and more infrequent, like the Universal-inspired tales of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969) and The Blood Beast Terror (Vernon Sewell, 1968), potboiler adaptations of Dennis Wheatley’s works like The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) and To The Devil A Daughter (Peter Sykes, 1976) and the campfire storytelling of anthology pieces The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971) and The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973). Arguably ushered in by the nihilistic pall and explicit savagery of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, a swathe of horror films that dealt with ‘harder’ material began to pepper the market, each inspirational and groundbreaking in their own way. Harsher condemnations of organised religion were featured in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) and Mark of the Devil (Michael Armstrong, 1970), while psychological paranoia of encroaching Satanism was prominent in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The gory excesses of the splatter film were becoming evident in shockers like I Drink Your Blood (David E. Durston, 1971) and A Bay of Blood (Mario Bava, 1971), while the Italian giallo movement in the aftermath of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970) began to lay the groundwork for the slasher film almost a decade later.
In a nutshell, horror was changing and changing rapidly at that. The reliable motifs and formulae of the hugely successful Hammer and Amicus paragons that dominated the worldwide film scene were no longer as lucrative as their previous content. Even the presence of the recognisable stalwart duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing did little to win over a more selective audience, who were coveting more and more graphic elements as time wore on. Horror Express was conceived originally in 1971, at the same time as these cultural changes began to have notable effects on the box office, and rather interestingly for a film featuring the acting chops of both Lee and Cushing, it begins to show a glint of the calibre of material that was about to utterly flood the market in the daring arena of the ‘70s grindhouse. To understand a little bit more about Horror Express, however, we’d have to go back to the original source material that inspired it.
The novella Who Goes There? (1938) by American novelist John. W. Campbell is probably more influential than most of us realise. Set against the unforgivable tundra of the Antarctic, the plot follows a group of researchers who unearth a mysterious craft trapped millennia ago underneath the surface of the ice. After they bring the craft to room temperature, they discover the extraterrestrial pilot is in fact an aggressive telepathic lifeform that forcefully devours living creatures and assimilates their appearance and memories into itself, forming independent identical copies. As the crew realise that any of them has the potential to not be who they say they are, a system of safeguards and procedures is immediately implemented to ensure their survival, but the burgeoning paranoia and efforts to prevent the creature from escaping the vicinity lead to devastating consequences.
Even some casual horror fans would recognise this tale, but it was notably first adapted for the screen in 1951 by director Christian Nyby as The Thing From Another World. Whilst iconic and a classic of science fiction horror, Nyby’s interpretation was not a strictly faithful adaptation and instead took elements to buttress its own version of the story. In this retelling, the alien creature is very distinctly human in appearance but is in fact botanical in nature, requiring the blood of living creatures to subsist and creating other alien plant life using internally gestated seeds. It would arguably be 1982’s beloved adaptation The Thing from John Carpenter that would popularise the story, elevating it with gooey practical effects, claustrophobic psychology and a soundtrack of indescribable tension and unease. Carpenter’s masterpiece is also much more faithful to Campbell’s source novella, retaining the alien creature’s ability to mimic other lifeforms via assimilation and featuring many of the original character’s details. This version even gained its own prequel in the form of 2011’s The Thing by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., though it was arguably received less well than its predecessor.
The legacy of Who Goes There? lives on in various forms of media, such as the similarly themed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956 / Philip Kaufman, 1978), an episode of The X-Files entitled ‘Ice’ (which changes the creature to a primordial parasite that induces untold aggression in its host) and more recently, the gaming phenomenon of Among Us which has a space crew carrying out tasks while several players are in fact inhuman imposters who can kill other players, with players holding regular meetings or reporting bodies in order to deduce which of the players is the threat. It’s quite poetic then that Horror Express technically bridges the gap between Nyby’s 1951 classic adaptation of the story and the gorier, contemporaneous shocks of Carpenter’s 1982 rendition. Featuring a classic feel of Hammer-era sensibilities, the roving excitement of an Agatha Christie paperback mystery, a refreshingly postmodern approach to science fiction themes and smatterings of sanguine violence, there’s some credible merit in likening Eugenio Martín’s film as ‘The Thing on a train’.
Similarly to the 1951 iteration, Horror Express cherry-picks a whole host of plot points and elements from the source novella and reworks the story into a different era and context. Filmed in Madrid at a modest budget of just $300,000, the setting is most obviously the biggest detraction from Campbell’s narrative, now set on a moving express train rather than at a static Antarctic research base. Regardless, the narrative and set pieces bear enough resemblance to the original flow of Who Goes There? to notice the inspiration behind it. The scientific group of explorers are replaced primarily by Professor Saxton (played by Christopher Lee), a British anthropologist who stumbles across a frozen cadaver whilst on an expedition in the icy wilderness of Northeast China. Determining it to be sufficiently ancient to warrant additional study, he decides to transport the creature back home and immediately secures it for transportation via rail.
The action immediately deviates from the merciless locale of a snowy landscape, taking the story in a more dynamic direction rather than the tense paranoia in the source material. The scientific pool of characters is further bolstered by the inclusion of Doctor Wells (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart), friendly British rivals in Saxton’s field of study, who allow for the original cast’s scientific and analytical approach to be present and develop much in the same way in the film. Mirroring the mix of crew members in the original text, the other protagonists in the film are from a variety of backgrounds, including Polish aristocracy, industry tycoons, train staff, thieves, a spiritual adviser and even a Russian Cossack garrison.
Eschewing the interpretation of Nyby’s film, the creature within Horror Express takes much more inspiration from Campbell’s original material, being a metaphysical presence that occupies a host body and can absorb another creature’s life, memories and knowledge through a fatal stare. When the host body is injured, the being can transfer to another host using the same ocular method, though it becomes clear that the creature cannot use these powers when in a brightly lit area. In a surprise twist, however, the creature is also able to reanimate corpses as telepathically controlled servants. These elements of impersonating another human, absorbing memories and using telepathic abilities are all featured in the novella, Who Goes There? in some form; even the monster’s objective of escaping the Antarctic by constructing a rudimentary craft is reflected in Horror Express in the creature’s interest in the revolutionary alloy engineered by the Count, to craft a vehicle capable of leaving the planet.
Other similarities between the book and Martín’s film include the appearance of dogs, a character who succumbs to the hysteria of the situation and is taken over as a result (Blair in Who Goes There? and Father Pujardov in Horror Express) and finally, an impromptu ‘litmus test’ scene to determine exactly who the imposter in their midst is. While John Carpenter’s unparalleled ‘blood test’ sequence is taken directly from the novella and forms one of the tensest scenes in the film, Horror Express chooses a more subtle route but by no means less dramatic, having the train under interrogation by the despotic Captain Kazan, who refuses to believe that something other than civilian rebellion is underway. Wells, having formulated a theory about the creature, decides to cut the lights in the room. This alerts everyone to the fact that Inspector Mirov’s eyes are alarmingly fluorescent, indicating the creature’s presence within him. While the biological assimilations inferred in the book wouldn’t feature graphically until John Carpenter’s classic, there is still a trace of the visceral body horror in Martín’s example, as the creature’s absorption leaves its victims bleeding from the eyes, pupils vanished entirely and their brains having undergone an acute case of lissencephaly.
Right from the very beginning of the movie, there’s a huge intercontinental feel to the production; viewers are treated to snowy plains, atmospheric caves and warrens of ice in the film’s opening. There’s a beautiful flurry of adventure and mysticism about the images like we’re travelling alongside Saxton and his entourage as they uncover the gelid Neanderthal in the ice. Almost as soon as this is established, we’re whisked off to a bustling Beijing train station, with piles of luggage, billows of steam and countless tourists all setting the scene for what feels like an adventure film. Indeed, the setting on a train with an ensemble of wildly varying characters makes the film feel similar to a Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mystery, especially when the spate of mysterious killings begin to unfold.
Thankfully, Horror Express wastes little time in getting the action going, with a sly Chinese thief trying to gain access to Saxton’s discovery right away and being struck down by the enigmatic contents. It’s rather rare for the action to start so quickly in a film like this, but combined with the adventurous connotation of the imagery, it readies the viewer for a rollercoaster experience, which it frankly delivers on. From its humble beginning unassumingly starting us off on a classic-styled adventure, the situation and urgency of the film become radically ramped up as the runtime depletes: it feels like a murder mystery initially, which then becomes a proto-slasher with a monstrous beast as the killer prowling around for victims.
After the beast’s ‘death’, it then becomes a science fiction piece with an imposter theme, before finally taking a leaf from zombie films, and having our protagonists under attack from the victims’ undead corpses. All the while, the situation on the train becomes ever more desperate; bodies are piling up, staff numbers are thinning, soldiers are getting involved and ultimately, the train itself becomes a danger to its passengers, almost derailing and plummeting from a cliff edge. This pacing is surprising because of the total unexpectedness of it, but it makes for a thoroughly entertaining watch as the dire situation only ratchets up in volume as the film chuffs on.
This refreshing tone and pace also add to the film’s preternatural, off-kilter feel. With such outlandish themes and bizarre subject matter, the film miraculously manages to stay not only quite straight-laced when dealing with abnormal issues but seems to legitimise their existence within the film world without it seeming too cheesy. As an example, there’s a diegetic usage of the film’s main theme, which is whistled by the train porter as he checks on Saxon’s suspect cargo. Not too much later, the Countess herself is playing the same sheet music on her cabin’s piano, while the creature who had escaped also in turn, whistles the tune whilst walking through the corridors. While the serendipitous chances of this happening would otherwise shatter the illusion, the fact that the tune is the film’s main soundtrack theme somehow makes it seem perfectly plausible, within the film’s universe of course.
Other moments include the random Natasha working her way into Wells’ cabin and becoming his de facto guest for the remainder of the journey. Hardly realistic, but Cushing’s performance and its presence amongst other incredulous moments help to gently nestle it into the film’s unique version of reality. Even the somewhat grisly autopsy sequences, which reveal that the creature’s attack is uniquely draining the victim of memory and experience, is certainly not rooted in fact. The condition of lacking gyri and sulci (the folds and crimps) in the brain, termed lissencephaly is nothing to do with memories or experience; rather, the folds allow for a larger surface area on the cerebrum, allowing the brain to carry out all of the cognitive functions it needs to in such a small area of the head. Still, the explanation in the film sounds fairly believable, again because of Cushing’s delivery and the non-campy nature of the proceedings.
This idea of credibility is sometimes stretched, especially during the microscope sequence where Saxton and Wells discover moving imagery in an extract of the creature’s eye fluid, revealing prehistoric sights and images from outer space and the real origin of the creature. Special effects in the 1970s are somewhat to blame for this point being a little hard to swallow, but this predates the same instances in later films like Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West (1999) which seem quite considerably more ludicrous in their respective universes. Other contrivances which just seem to work because of the film’s calibre and acting pedigree are the employment of Father Pujardov by the Petrovski passengers, whose religiously muddled ramblings and wild-eyed behaviour would have had him dismissed in a jiffy, to the legendary sassiness of Well’s assistant Miss Jones, who would certainly have had little respect from her male co-workers in the film’s supposed setting of 1906.
There’s a recurring theme throughout the film of history and its negative consequences on the present; the film even starts in reverse, with the future Saxton’s voiceover articulating a brief conclusion upon the film’s events to an investigative panel of some kind, saying they will ultimately be the judges of what has passed. Saxton also uncovers the humanoid from an ice block, indicating it was frozen countless years in the past and uncovered in the present. The Countess and Saxton’s first awkward conversations indicate that Poland and England have a negative history, with Saxton hoping that she would forgive England’s sanguine past. The thief’s death from the opening is not considered that important because of his criminal past, while Wells and Saxton also have an untold history to their relationship, resulting in a friendly rivalry.
When the creature does manage to free itself from its icy prison, it begins absorbing the memories and abilities of those it kills, literally relieving the past and learning with each consumption. When the creature infects Inspector Mirov, he begins sporting some primal fur on his arm, resembling a much earlier specimen in human evolution. When the creature gains a real mouthpiece in the deranged Pujardov, it explains that it has lived in almost every living creature in the planet’s history, waiting for the chance to go back home with its fellow beings. Even after having spent so long on Earth, the creature, too, longs for the past when it was with its own people. In a bid to convince Saxton to let it live, it offers to spill the secrets of Earth’s history with him, an offer which Saxton refuses. Implicitly, there’s a hint of religious history suggested too, considering the creature inhabits a priest who resembles an Eastern Jesus figure, which only becomes more poignant when the creature raises the dead in front of the horrified survivors. It’s also rather telling that the group have to utilise historical elements in order to work out what the creature is and how to outsmart it; not only do they perform a rudimentary form of autopsy (specifically trepanation) to adduce the cause of death, but they eventually have to cease using the electricity on the train, plunging everything into shadow to pinpoint who the imposter actually is. The creature’s ultimate fate is therefore quite fitting: it crashes back into the earth almost as it arrived on the planet all those millenia ago, cleansed with fire, one of the oldest symbols of human ingenuity.
Deeper subtext aside, Horror Express is a real rollercoaster of surprises and pleasures. It manages an almost impossible task of retaining a real air of respectability despite some dubious moments of logic, sustaining an ever-increasing tempo of dynamic action and terror, genuinely disturbing its audience with bloody shocks and frightening imagery… and actually being pretty funny as well. I’d go so far as to say that the film is the perfect bridge between the curtain call of the Hammer & Amicus era to the grimier, sexier and more exploitative ‘70s grindhouse era. Whatever you do, don’t miss this train!