Since I have a soft spot for films featuring Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing simultaneously, & since the whole style of the film is purely Drive-in Movie fare from my youth, I could not help but enjoy Horror Express. I can't tell to what degree nostalgia has overcome critical objectivity. But I think viewers without my sense of nostalgia might also like this one.
A Spanish/English co-production, the director also made "spaghetti western" knock-offs for the 1970s drive-in circuit, & the soundtrack for Horror Express often sounds more like a spaghetti western than a Hammer horror film. It took some little while to stop hearing this annoying soundtrack which got in the way of the film rather than enhancing it.
The set-up is this: At the end of the Victorian age of exploration, a man-ape fossil has been discovered by Cushing in Darkest China. He believes it will revolutionize scientific understanding of the Origin of Man, but doesn't realize it is still alive. It is boxed & with some secrecy transported by train from Shanghai across Siberia. Surprise-surprise, it gets out of the box resultingin considerable mayhem all along the journey.
Even with only that much of a dumb story, it was being quite entertaining, but the set-up was only the beginning. Despite that the monster was pretty minimalist & looked like a hairy guy with bad teeth, the eventual explanation for how a fossil could be alive made him increasingly interesting as a monstrous psychic vampire.
The "science" spewed forth by the key characters, & the autopsy scene of one of the victims, was vastly more comical than convincing or scary (unless you're under ten years old, in which case it might make you shit your pants & stay awake all night). It usually seemed that the humorousness was intentional though poker-faced, & certainly didn't spoil anything.
To retell one of the script's jests, at one point Lee says to a woman (a fellow scientist) "I need your assistance," & when she sees he is with a handsome young man & a beautiful young woman, she tells him, "At your age, I'm not suprised." Pretty racy for the time, & quite a funny misunderstanding.
As the story progresses -- SPOILER ALERT -- we find out the monkey-man is a space-alien from another galaxy capable of sucking memories out of brains, & he's been trapped on the earth since the Age of One-celled Organisms. İHaving already accepted all the other improbable stuff, by the time this is revealed, it actually begins to seem kind of awesome.
There was an actor playing a monk/priest (Alberto de Mendoza) who looked either like deNiro impersonating Jesus, or Jesus impersonating Rasputin, & I really liked this strange character, convinced as he was that the fossil-creature is Satan & having a bizarre religious conversion to Satan worship.
There's also a nice performance by Telly Sevalis as Siberia's one honest Cossack. There were times it all seemed like a very fine visual representation of an extremely naive but nevertheless exciting story from a pulp adventure-magazine of the 1930s or 40s, like Blue Blook or Argosy or Adventure.
Making sense isn't what causes the film to be entertaining, because it is not even internally logical. The ending couldn't possibly have been the ending for a creature that can transfer itself through eternity in other life forms, even through bacteria. İNor were the main special effects (eyes glowing red in the dark, or turned completely white) anything to write home about. Not to give too much away, but there's a passable zombie sequence toward the end, & a sequence concocted with model trains not too laughable.
Ingredient by ingredient, it's all rather lame, but never actually dull. When all is weighed, it is entirely up to Cushing & Lee to make it work by their conviction that the story is possible. The brief moment when Lee explains why he & Cushing couldn't possibly be the monster is alone worth the whole train ride. These two actors are by & large so delightful in their performance that the film ends up working surprisingly well, & the supporting cast doesn't drag it down either.
I'd give it pretty high marks as the sort of thing anyone would enjoy if they already occasionally like 1970s Lee/Cushing films, despite that it doesn't transcend its content the way a couple of Terrence Fischer-directed examples do.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl