Horror Express (Panico en el Transiberiano, 1972)

Spain was better-known in the 1950s and ‘60s as an amenable location for foreign film productions than for its native cinema. Spanish film generally stultified under the Franco regime, although it had some high-profile figures like Juan Antonio Bardem, Carlos Saura, and the returned prodigal Luis Bunuel. Things changed in the waning days of the regime as local filmmakers began to mimic the Italian industry, which had long been shooting on their turf, in making horror movies and westerns, and realised they were uniquely well-positioned to exploit a general hunger for raw thrills. Spanish directors started making movies fuelled by a mood of fetid repression and gruesome release, generated by a toxic stew of religious angst and political immobility reacting to new winds of social change blowing down over the Pyrenees. A glut of strikingly odd, gory, energetic horror flicks hit the film market in the period but, revealingly, trailed off quickly after Franco’s death. The great gonzo Jesús Franco forged a trail followed by the likes of Jorge Grau, José Larraz, Amando do Ossorio, Jacinto ‘Paul Naschy’ Molina, Javier Aguirre, Vincente Aranada, Narcisco Ibañez Serrador, and Eugenio Martín. 

Martín had worked with visiting productions, including serving as assistant director on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), experience that equipped him to negotiate the complex thickets of co-productions and international casting so common and necessary in that era. Martín soon graduated to directing and proved himself initially on westerns like The Bounty Killer (1967) and Bad Man’s River (1971). Horror Express, Martín’s best-known film, was concocted by entrepreneurial American Bernard Gordon, who worked with Martín on Pancho Villa (1972), and set up as a Spanish-British coproduction. Gordon and Martín took advantage of a train set built for the previous movie and carried over star Telly Savalas, who was joined by British horror stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The plot can be readily described as a mash-up of The Thing From Another World (1951) and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, unfolding on a Trans-Siberian express train in 1905. A prologue sees Lee’s stern and coldly logical Professor Saxton leading an expedition into the mountains of Szechuan, where he discovers the frozen carcass of an early hominid he takes to be a vital missing link in the story of human evolution. 

Intending to carry the discovery back to England, Saxton places it in a crate to be loaded on the train in Peking. A thief known for stealing baggage is found dead beside the crate on the station platform, his eyes turned perfectly white. Saxton finds himself thrown into the company of his friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), who travels with his wry assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinheart). Also aboard this fast ride to hell are cagey Tsarist Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud), a Polish aristocrat industrialist developing new heat-resistant metals, and his wife Irina (Silvia Tortosa). Comely spy Natasha (Helga Liné) manages to wheedle her way into Wells’ graces by posing as a damsel in distress. Inquisitive engineer Yevtushenko (Ángel del Pozo) anticipates an age of scientific exploration and discovery, whilst the Petrovskis’ pet spiritual adviser, Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, post-dubbed by Robert Rietty), extols a pure faith of worship and abasement before holy mystery.

Pujardov declares with grim conviction that Saxton’s crate contains an object of Satanic evil, as he fails to make an impression on it with a piece of chalk. Saxton dismisses him and resists the curiosity of Wells and Mirov, keeping his discovery tightly chained and padlocked. Wells bribes the train’s baggage car guard Maletero (Víctor Israel) to take a look at the crate’s contents, but the unlucky guard is killed when the creature within turns out not only alive, but possessed of fantastical power, glowing red eyes able to boil a human’s brain in its skull and extract all the information and personality traits within. 

The creature soon also kills Natasha as she tries to break into a safe in the baggage car, and is in turn gunned down by Mirov. But an entity leaves the hominid’s dying carcass and takes possession of Mirov, continuing a relentless quest, killing and absorbing the mind of anyone it gets a chance to in pursuing knowledge. Saxton and Wells attempt to puzzle out the nature of their enemy, but contend with a new threat in the form of Captain Kazan (Savalas) and his unit of soldiers, who come aboard at a remote Siberian outpost. Kazan is a vaunting, outsized personality with a love of brute force who proposes to clear up the mystery purely by dint of being “one honest Cossack.”

Horror Express is the sort of movie that feels like it was concocted by the movie gods specifically for horror fans of a certain stripe, with its vividly atmospheric situation, brazen storytelling gusto that, much like the train, races along with scarcely a sideways glance or pause for breath, and the mash-up of generic modes and filmmaking styles. It’s modish for its time in a way that appeals, complete with a soundtrack of Euro-pop sporting spaghetti western-like whistling that becomes an eerie leitmotif within the film itself, as the monster takes up the habit of whistling the mournful tune the baggage guard entertains himself with, and finally takes with it into the black reaches of space. The casting of Lee and Cushing signals intent to annex the Hammer Films brand, and Hammer’s imprint is also apparent in the blend of historical setting and interest in social context, the polarised push and pull of arcane hierarchies and systems of understanding clashing with the modern. The specific punchiness of the Spanish horror style of the period is evident in the aggressive, often hand-held camerawork and fast cutting, and enthusiasm found in scenes of violence and mayhem, traits that place Martín’s directorial approach squarely in the midst of contemporaries like De Ossorio and Grau. 

The film’s Chinese and Russian settings, concocted around Madrid, inhabit a zone reminiscent of old Hollywood adventure films and exotic melodramas, the train a zone of old-world lushness but also claustrophobic and intrinsically propulsive. Martín makes constant cutaways to chart the engine's noisy, momentous progress across vast white plains. The visions of alien monstrosity and brain-boiling horror are pleasantly nasty and low-rent, reiterated over and over by Martín in jump-cuts and close-ups that move in and out of focus, eyes turning white and blood trickling from mouth and eye sockets as gruesome tears. The script, penned by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, deploys zany ideas whenever the plot seems to be backing itself into a corner, like throwing off the initial, straightforward creature-feature aspect of the set-up by having the monster prove to be more than a defrosted menace. Horror Express readily marches into strange, near-metaphysical territory as the alien intelligence demonstrates capacity for moving from body to body, but always carrying on something of the last one with it: when the entity inhabits Mirov, the inspector’s hand becomes hairy and clawed like the hominid’s. 

Possibly inspired by De Ossorio’s popular Knights Templar series initiated by Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), the film wields a bloodcurdling late twist as the alien’s victims all rise in a zombified state and stalk the heroes. Other ideas tread the edges of silliness, as in a sequence in which Saxton, Wells, and Jones dissect the hominid’s eyeball and extract the fluid, to find stored in it images of dinosaurs and other episodes in Earth's natural history that seem to have been culled from a children’s educational book. Horror Express also offers a range of stock Russian archetypes – the Rasputin-esque priest serving the coddled, self-involved aristocrats, the urbane policeman who doesn’t hesitate to use the blunt tools of state force to further his ends, and his outsized twin, the hulking Cossack who represents a medieval hangover. There is nonetheless ingenuity in the way the film sets its various tropes, concepts, and generic filches in conflict, bouncing off one-another like a dramatic pinball machine, lending percolating subtext to Martín’s efforts portrayal in microcosm of a fraught, transformative moment in time. 

Science and religion clash, competing nations, social classes, and genders meet in the corridors, the cacophony of human life poised on the edge of forced evolution. The vitality of subtext here stems from the way the film describes the tumult of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s milieu impacting upon the ossified Franco state as much as it creates a dreamscape metaphor for the 20th century’s dawning, finding likenesses for the cultural ferment like the winds of feminism in two different eras. “For a woman he means,” Jones quips after Wells praises her to Saxton, whilst Natasha uses wiles and a tight cheongsam to dazzle Wells and steal secrets, and Irina plays the experimenter, adding Pujardov’s religious interpretation to the scientists’ stiff-necked rationalism like a youngster with a chemistry set mixing compounds just to see what will happen. Naturally, intense sexual repression underlies Pujardov’s stern morality and self-flagellating (literally) behaviour,  as he's deeply in love with the Countess, whose mind he feels obliged to corral within acceptable limits of deportment. Yevtushenko has knowledge of rocketry and the Count has a brick of new alloy in his possession, tools that could be exploited to construct a space ship. The nascent concepts and tools of twentieth century civilisation, and its rapidly shifting outlook and ambition, are scattered across the gamut of passengers, waiting to be harvested and amassed by the alien, absorbing all and transmuting all into a blank gestalt – the state of modernity, in short. 

Aptly, the alien tempts Saxton with the Faustian possibility that it can help him cure all the world’s ills, a promise that amplifies the promise of modernity but with the anxious corollary that it might also mean letting the alien assimilate all being and identity into itself. Tellingly in this framework, the two English scientists are figures of profound ambivalence, deconstructing to a certain extent the classic genre figure of the calmly rational savant who saves the day as well as the self-willed stoicism of another kind of ahistorical blankness, that of English imperialism. Saxton’s towering, haughty dismissiveness and Wells’ bleating protest, “Monsters? We’re British!” mordantly encapsulate a sense of superiority that’s both reassuring and aggravating. “You’re right,” Saxton admits to the Countess when she tries to prod his conscience over bringing the monster aboard: “I don’t care as much as I should.” Saxton and Wells also wield weapons of intellectual heft and deduction that also make them the only characters capable of battling the insidious force, and yet Pujardov’s understanding of the creature as a supernatural entity of awesome, worship-demanding power makes an equal form of sense, as it’s revealed the entity has survived its stranding on Earth by moving from life form to life form, leaving a mark on each, sparking the Promethean urge. 

Pujardov offers himself as acolyte to the entity when he discovers it’s possessing Mirov, dazzled by the first genuine force of transcendent potency he’s encountered, and finally invites it to invade him when Mirov is speared in the back by Kazan. Pujardov, whilst cast in the role of Rasputin-like Orthodox mystic, is rather more obviously Catholic in his morality, and seems to stand for the Spanish church, making deals with the Franco devil to hang on to its traditional outlook and stature. Meanwhile Martín depicts bullying authority, and its retardant effect on the capacity of the imagination to deal with urgent problems, with the sharpness of acquaintance. Mirov wields his pistol with a righteous readiness that saves Wells, but also an officious, intimidating force that’s exploited by the entity and then amplified by the arrival of Kazan. Rifle butts raised and driven into solar plexuses represent the hard edge of political authority seeking out the subversive presence, but when the two forms of strength clash one becomes the slave of the other, a dark portrait of radicalism and tyranny as partners in an eternal dance. The fervency of Martín’s imagery lingers in the imagination, the red eyes of the entity’s various shell forms that blaze with infernal power, and the icy blues and whites of the landscape without, the oft-repeated rhythmic torments of its victims and the creative use of source lighting.

Horror Express is hampered to a certain extent by its own headfirst sensibility which retards the chance for developing some of the film’s ideas and characterisations, and it chews up the delightful gallery of types with cruel verve. But it wields enough throwaway humour and asides of character to keep surprising, particularly when Savalas enters the film and takes it over briefly with his Kazan, swinging between poles of courtly attentiveness, strident harrying, and lecherous sensuality. There's a great joke when Jones, in response to Wells’ request, “I need your help,” assumes he’s talking about efforts to bed Natasha and quips, “Well at your age I’m not surprised.” Martín stages a tremendous sequence in which the entity in Pujardov battles Kazan and his men in a darkened carriage, a thunderous succession of images, soldiers with white eyes and wide screaming mouths appearing in stroboscopic visions. 

Even the mighty Kazan falls to the alien’s power, if only after a display of manful determination, attempting to skewer his enemy with a sword even as his brains fry. Saxton fares better with his realisation that strong light retards the alien’s power, literally the cold light of reason fending off the monsters in the dark. This earns Saxton the chance to save Irina from the monster’s fascinating desire to make good its host's greatest wish and claim the Countess in a more intimate and terrible way than the besotted Pujardov ever could, whilst Wells works feverishly to detach the train’s rear cars. Lee gets to work some swashbuckling moves in warming up for his role as the villain in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers the following year, whilst the film’s overall thrust anticipates not only a later generation of blood-and-thunder blends of horror and sci-fi, but also the ‘70s disaster movie craze. Horror Express is dynamic and ridiculous, smart and dumb, and never less than perfectly entertaining.

Horror Express can be viewed for free here.

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