Great entertainment may not always constitute great art in the eyes of highbrow critics and scholars, but there’s no denying the lasting appeal of certain films. Some of these films are the result of intense planning and preparation; they’re guided by a sense of purpose and have the benefit of a crack team of technicians and artisans at their disposal. Others more or less just happen. It seems safe to say that Horror Express falls into this latter category.
Legend has it that producer Bernard Gordon, having just overseen the filming of Pancho Villa (1972), starring Telly Savalas, had access to some elaborate miniature train sets from that production; itching to get his moneys worth out of the investment, he decided to get another picture on the rails right away. Enlisting the services of American screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet (writing under the name Julian Halevy), Gordon gave them free reign to come up with a budget-friendly scenario that could be set aboard a train. Zimet and d’Usseau concocted a wild and wooly combination of horror, intrigue and science fiction, cribbing elements from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1951), with a touch of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, while scratching the surface of the more cerebral sci-fi fantasies of acclaimed screenwriter Nigel Kneale. The end result is something of a mishmash and it doesn’t really bear close scrutiny, but in the hands of director Eugenio Martin, it rattles along at such a fantastic pace, it really doesn’t matter much.
Key to the film’s success was the casting of horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The two actors, with their contrasting styles - Lee, cool and introverted; Cushing, warm and jittery - had become modern answer to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi thanks to the success of Hammer Films’ The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), but few of the films they acted in really gave them much of a chance to interact with each other. In a typical Hammer horror, they’d have a few terse encounters, then they’d engage in a duel to the death at the end of the picture; given that Lee was typically cast as the villain, he seldom emerged victorious, needless to say.
By the 1970s, the two actors had gone down very different career paths. Cushing, devoted to his ailing wife and content among the familiar trappings of the English countryside, tended to stick close to home; Lee, an outspoken critic of the British tax system, relocated his wife and daughter to Switzerland for a period in the 1960s, and embarked on a campaign for international stardom by appearing in as many foreign language films as possible - it was a move that made him more immediately recognizable in other countries, especially since the multi-lingual actor was able to actually perform in their own language, without the aid of a dubbing artist. Cushing’s career was in a bit of a slump, thanks to a string of less than stellar vehicles that exploited his name and offered little in return beyond the sheer joy of working; Lee’s, on the other hand, was in the ascent - he had fought long and hard to achieve mainstream recognition, and felt vindicated when he was cast in his first western (Hannie Caulder, 1970) and, most notably, when he landed a plum supporting role in Billy Wilder’s big budget The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). For Lee, fresh horizons were in evidence; for Cushing, his life was quietly crumbling about him, as his beloved wife Helen eventually succumbed to emphysema in 1971.
Cushing’s grief over her passing is legendary - his devotion to her is truly the stuff of great romance, and his only solution to shouldering the burden was to throw himself into more and more work. He literally accepted everything he could fit on his plate, sometimes to the detriment of his legacy - he may have always delivered a professional performance, but sometimes critics found themselves wondering what on earth compelled him to accept the films he agreed to appear in. On the other hand, Lee’s attempts to be choosy sometimes back fired - thus, faced with a suddenly empty slate after a string of proposed projects stalled, he would reluctantly don the cape of his most iconic role, Count Dracula; he loved the role, but hated what Hammer was doing to the bloodsucker, and he didn’t mind letting the press know it, either. Lee’s image as a prickly, opinionated man contrasts vividly with Cushing, about whom seldom a bad word is uttered. If Lee sometimes came off as arrogant and demanding, Cushing was the soul of gentility. One thing was certain, however - they had terrific chemistry (and unlike Karloff and Lugosi, they were good friends off screen) and their names together on a poster was a benefit to many low budget horror items. In preparing Horror Express, producer Gordon and director Martin were fortunate indeed to snag them both. While Lee’s presence in a Spanish horror title was nothing new (he had just recently completed several films for Spanish enfant terrible, Jess Franco), Cushing’s presence was much more unexpected.
Indeed, following Helen’s death, the once travel-shy Cushing broadened his horizons somewhat, accepting assignments in France and Greece, among other countries, though he remained fonder of working in England than anywhere else in the world. The two men had already appeared in numerous “home grown” pictures together, but Horror Express would mark their first - and last - collaboration outside of the UK. As it happens, the entire enterprise nearly fell through when Cushing attempted to bail upon arrival in Spain. As he explained to producer Gordon, the Christmas holidays (the filming took place at the end of ‘71) were nearing, and it was his first Christmas in many years without Helen at his side; a fit of melancholy ensued and he advised Gordon that he felt it best to resign from the picture in person, rather than doing so by cable. A panic-stricken Gordon turned to Lee for assistance, and as the story goes, the outwardly aloof actor managed to make his friend and colleague feel at home and all talk of abandoning ship ceased. Lee and his family would even invite Cushing to spend the holidays with them, thus creating a little slice of Britannia for the grieving actor who otherwise might have felt adrift in a strange land.
Fans of these two fine actors therefore owe a debt of gratitude to Lee, for his intervention ensured the completion of one of the most purely enjoyable films they would ever be a part of, either alone or as a team. Hammer consistently cast the two men as adversaries, thus ensuring that their screen time together was limited. It took a sojourn to Spain for their fans to finally see them carrying a film together - as equals, sharing barbs at each other’s expense and clearly enjoying the hell out of doing so.
Lee starts the film in typical stuffy fashion. He portrays the eminent anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton, who has uncovered what appears to be the fossil of a missing link while on an expedition in Manchuria. Saxton is abrassive, opinionated, imposing, intimidating - in short, very much the usual Christopher Lee we’ve grown to know and love. As the film unfolds, however, the character grows in an interesting way. His so-called fossil thaws out and goes on a killing spree. He is as incredulous as he is intrigued, but his initial iciness begins to melt, as well, and he becomes determined to fix the wrong he has unintentionally inflicted on the other passengers. Along the way he strikes a few romantic sparks with a beautiful Russian countess (Silvia Tortosa), and he presents as a dashing man of action. It’s a good part, and he’s simply delightful in it.
Cushing is also cast very much to type. He portrays the impish and devious Dr. Wells, a rival of Saxton’s who unknowingly speeds the catastrophe along by bribing a baggage attendant to open Saxton’s myserious crate and “take a peek at what’s inside.” Cushing clearly relishes deflating Lee’s pomposity, knowingly pushing his buttons and stirring the pot in a marvellously sly manner. Cushing, too, takes a romantic interest in one of the passengers - in his case, a sexy Russian spy (Helga Line, veteran of many Spanish horror items, including Paul Naschy’s Horror Rises from the Tomb, 1973). This leads to some marvellous comedic situations, notably when Saxton manages to get his own back at Wells by barging his way into the cabin when the latter is eagerly trying to console the young woman. Truth be told, the Wells character is a bit of a meddling jerk, but he, too, becomes more heroic as the action unfolds.
In addition to the wonderful central performances by Lee and Cushing, Horror Express has a grab bag of familiar “Euro cult” performers. Julio Pena (Werewolf Shadow) is excellent as the stern police inspector who becomes possessed by the alien, Jorge Rigaud (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) brings sly humor and gravitas to his role as the condescending Count, and the aforementioned Helga Line is wonderfully sly and sexy as the spy. Best of all is Alberto DeMendoza (The People Who Own the Dark), cast as a “mad monk” named Pujardov. The character is clearly modeled on that of Rasputin, and the wild-eyed DeMendoza plays the part for all it’s worth. Given that Lee had previously played the “real” Rasputin so memorably (albeit in a palid film, Hammer’s Rasputin the Mad Monk, 1965), it’s amusing to see him reacting with such disdain and contempt to Pujardov’s biblical rantings. Last but not least, let us not forget Telly Savalas, who shows up just when things are threatening to run out of steam - he isn’t the most likely Cossack ever seen on screen, but no matter… he’s a hoot in the role, and he knows it. Savalas chews the scenery with abandon, and his confrontation with stiff upper lip Brits Lee and Cushing (whom the Greek-American actor would later recall with respect and admiration) is a joy to behold.
Added to the wonderful cast, Horror Express has much to laud in the technical department as well. John Cacavas contributes a haunting, Ennio Morricone-inspired soundtrack, while ace cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa (Jess Franco’s The Diabolical Dr. Z, 1966) helps to disguise the low budget with some elegant lighting and camerawork. Director Martin, who would later helm several other (but less memorable) horror items, keeps the pace moving at breakneck speed. He also displays an appreciation of the script’s sly, tongue in cheek wit, ensuring that Horror Express is always first and foremost a fun film. It may not reinvent the wheel or aspire to make profound social comments, but this is horror entertainment at its finest, acted and directed with an incisive mixture of commitment and irony. It is also, arguably, the only Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing film that really properly exploits the tremendous chemistry these two men had on screen. On that level alone, Horror Express is essential viewing for all Lee and/or Cushing fans.
Author’s Note: I would like to acknowledge the book Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing And Horror Cinema: A Filmography, by Mark A. Miller, for providing essential background information on the making of this film.
Feature: Troy Howarth
Images: Marcus Brooks