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Home / Film / Home Video / Classic Horror on Disc: Arrow Video’s Horror Express (1972)

Classic Horror on Disc: Arrow Video’s Horror Express (1972)

Disc Details

Arrow Video, 2019. Region A (Region B disc also available).

Feature: 91 mins. Aspect ratio 1.66:1.

Previous Region A/Region 1 Disc Editions

Severin. 2011. Blu ray.  

Cinema Deluxe. 2005. DVD.

Image Entertainment, Euroshock Collection. 2000. DVD.

The Movie

Horror Express is a fast paced and highly imaginative slice of ’70s Euro horror. A Spain-UK co-production from 1972, the film pairs genre vets Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a story that begins as standard monster-on-the-loose fare and turns into something quite different. Lee stars as Alexander Saxton, an anthropologist who discovers a prehistoric apeman frozen in a cave in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Packed into a crate, the icy creature is loaded onto  the Tran Siberian Express. The creature thaws out and escapes from the crate, stalking passengers aboard the train.

But the apeman is far more than it appears. The hirsute monster’s one good eye glows red and it sucks the memories and knowledge from its victims through their eyes, blanching the pupils and leaving the brains “as smooth as a baby’s bottom” (as is revealed when Peter Cushing’s Dr. Wells performs an autopsy). This means that the apeman gets smarter with each killing and acquires new skills. Saxton and Wells team up, Victorian pulp-mystery style, to solve the puzzle of what this creature is and how to stop it.

Cushing and Lee, united so often for films for Hammer and Amicus, work beautifully together in Horror Express. Unlike most of their celluloid pairings, in this film they work cooperatively rather than as opposable forces. Though in many ways Lee emerges as the hero of the piece, swashbuckling his way through a train car of undead Cossacks at the end, Horror Express features one of Peter Cushing’s most charming performances. He plays Dr. Wells as a dignified man who is often befuddled by what’s going on around him. In one humorous moment he remarks to his female assistant that he needs her help. “At your age, I’m not surprised,” she replies dryly, glancing at Wells’ attractive dinner companion. “With an autopsy!” Cushing says, with a tone of indignant exasperation. In the last third of the film, Telly Savalas shows up and chews the scenery as a Cossack officer, considerably livening things up for his brief screen time.

The film hurtles along like the titular express with crazed genre-blending ambition, combining John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, period adventure, gothic horror, the undead, and SF in a plot that anticipates some of the storylines in Chris Carter’s The X-Files. There’s also something reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s stories in its blending of science and superstition. The priest views the creature as Satanic, even stealing the apeman’s eye as belonging to the Devil. Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) is a rather interesting character as he becomes the creature’s disciple, in essence the servant of the Devil. There’s a bizarrely incongruous moment when the priest brandishes a crucifix while he intones “Beware the wrath of Satan!” and another when he recites part of the Lord’s Prayer as “…on Earth as it is in Hell.” Telly Savalas’ Cossack captain even references his belief in God and the Devil. Saxton sits on the opposite side, stubbornly insisting on a scientific explanation and viewing the fossil hominid as clinching proof of the theory of evolution. And the ultimate reason behind the creature reveals Horror Express as a clear hybrid of horror and science fiction.

Christopher Lee’s narration at the beginning of the film sets up the story as Alexander Saxton’s report to the Royal Geographical Society, a “true and accurate account” of what befell the Society’s expedition to Manchuria. This opening partly frames the movie as a ripping adventure yarn in the British colonial tradition. Several moments emphasize this aspect, including Saxton responding to Wells’ greasing of the Manchurian wheels to get a train ticket by scathingly remarking that “in Britain we call it bribery and corruption.” It’s also amusingly hammered home with Cushing’s famous line, “Monsters? We’re British you know!” Stalwarts of the empire to the end, tackling dangers in exotic lands while keeping a stiff upper lip.

The period gothic settings of the Hammer films were hugely influential on the horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Horror Express clearly attempts to ape the Hammer look and feel in its costumes and set decoration. Much like Hammer there is an ingenious use of limited sets. In John Brosnan’s book The Horror People, Cushing remarks that the producer Bernard Gordon “bought the two model trains used in the film Nicholas and Alexandra…and then wrote a script around them. It was wonderful – all they had in the studio in Spain was a carriage on one sound stage and a carriage in another sound stage, so we worked in one which was dressed up as the guard’s van, and the other one would be dressed up as, say, the dining car, and when we were finished in the guard’s van we went and did all the scenes in the dining car.” The efficient use of set decoration and costuming give the film a modestly lavish look that helps disguise the stingy budget. In addition to containing costs, staging most of the film on a train helps add a feeling of claustrophobia as the characters cannot easily escape the horror.

To top things off composer John Cavacas contributes an exotica-tinged, quintessentially ’70s score. The title sequence begins with the eerie, whistled melody that is carried over into the entire soundtrack. It’s reminiscent of Morricone and Goblin, with a twang of electric guitar and Russian and Chinese stylings, and adds immensely to the film. Cavacas went on to write the music for Telly Savalas’ famous TV show Kojak.

All in all, it’s a reminder that sometimes cheap genre cinema can be bold and enduring. Of all the onscreen parings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Horror Express is one of the most joyously entertaining.

Transfer

A new 2K restoration was done by Arrow for this release. For the Arrow restoration an original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 2K, with one missing reel scanned from a 35mm interpositive.

The transfer is beautifully detailed and virtually blemish free. Natural film grain is present throughout. For a genre film of this vintage, this is a superb restoration.

On the Severin blu ray from 2011 the transfer has less vibrant colour and many instances of specks and blemishes on the picture (the Severin version also includes the Spanish title credit sequence). The Arrow transfer is a noticeable upgrade from the Severin disc.

Special Features

Ticket to Die (8mins) – Writer and producer Steve Haberman talks about the film. The inclusion of clips from the movie is unnecessary given the brief length of this piece, but it’s reasonably informative for its short running time.

Night Train to Nowhere (15mins) – A fascinating piece in which filmmaker Ted Newsom discusses Horror Express and the movie’s producer Bernard Gordon, with whom he was a friend. Gordon was a communist who wrote a boxing movie and a western before being called before the commie-hunting House Unamerican Activities Committee. Producer William Alland, who brought ‘50s fare like Creature from the Black Lagoon to the screen, had named Gordon to HUAC, for which he never forgave Alland. Gordon’s blacklisting ultimately led to him working as a producer in Europe, with the left-leaning Gordon ironically working in Franco’s fascist Spain.

Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express (14mins) – A great archival interview with the director of Horror Express,  Eugenio Martin, who has many interesting stories about the production. (This extra is the same as on the 2011 Severin blu ray of Horror Express.)

Notes from the Blacklist (30mins) – A 2005 interview with the producer, Bernard Gordon. Here, Gordon discusses his blacklisting from Hollywood and its effects on his career. A fascinating historical overview of an intriguing time in Hollywood, plus Gordon’s career. (This extra is the same as on the 2011 Severin blu ray.)

Telly and Me (8mins) – An interview with score composer John Cavacas, who talks briefly about the bulk of his career. Unfortunately there are only a couple of brief snippets on composing for Horror Express. (This extra was first featured on the 2011 Severin blu ray.)

Theatrical Trailer – The original trailer is in widescreen, but is in fairly rough shape, which does give an appropriate grindhouse feel.

Audio commentary – By Steven Jones (writer and editor) and Kim Newman (novelist and critic). A very lively, affectionate, and informative track. Highly recommended.

Booklet – 31 pages, colour and black and white. Features the essays Horror Express by Adam Scovell and Riding the Horror Express by Mike Hodges. The Hodges piece is a reprint from the September 1999 issue of Fangoria.

Reversible cover art – Two newly-commissioned paintings by Graham Humphreys.

Bottom Line

Horror Express is a ridiculously fun and unique horror/SF hybrid that has high ambitions rare in low budget genre fare from the ‘70s. This Arrow blu ray showcases this cult film in a gorgeous transfer, albeit with few extras unique to this edition, though the commentary is well worth listening to. A must buy for fans of the movie and highly recommended for all classic horror buffs.

Three of the extras are repeated from the Severin blu ray. One of the extras on that disc is not on the Arrow version, an audio interview with Peter Cushing from 1973.

About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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