Horror Express is one of those good bad movies. The budget is low, the plot has twists and turns which serve little purpose than stretching out the running time, and a middling celebrity makes a token appearance to swipe a quick paycheck in exchange for lending some prestige to the film. Ah, Telly Savalas. During the 1970s, cheap European horror films must have been how he expensed vacations. His name is in the credits, to be sure, but the title of the film could easily be changed to Where’s Telly Savalas? Kojak takes his sweet time making his entrance, but such bliss, for Savalas plays a Cossack captain in command of soldiers in Siberia. He’s gruff and flamboyant all at once, smoking cigarillos and drinking vodka, never quite sure if he should talk with a Russian accent. It looked like his scenes were filmed in a day. Anyway, Savalas isn’t in a starring role.
Those honors go to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee plays a British scientist who discovers a two million year old frozen ape man in 1906 China. Peter Cushing is a British doctor on his way back to the home islands. Lee and Cushing make an engaging duo, in a kind of reprise of their successes in the Hammer horror films. The Horror Express of the title is a train traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Lee’s find could be of historical significance, but rather than stay dead and earn Lee some laurels before the Royal Society, the ape man instead comes to life, picks the lock on the crate it’s stowed in, murders the train’s baggage man, stuffs him inside, and locks the whole mess back up again before hiding elsewhere. I mention this because, on finding the dead baggage man, and having no clue that a monster is loose among them, that scenario is exactly the conclusion Cushing and Lee come to in a stunning bit of deduction that proves Occam was wasting his time. From this moment forward, if I ever come across a murder, whether aboard a train or in a park, I will immediately assume a fossilized monkey has reanimated itself and is out for blood. I applaud the filmmakers for recognizing it was time to get the plot moving when this scene occurred, but wow.
The monster works its way through a good deal of the passengers on the train, but not before things get overly complicated. Such marvels as smoothed brain matter, historical imagery stored in eyeballs, a Rasputin-like mad monk, and more I don’t want to spoil, all weave their way into the tapestry that is Horror Express.
Is the ape man a devilish thing? It’s certainly categorized as evil, if not outright satanic, early on, but all this is prelude to when the filmmakers reveal the monster’s true nature. It’s gimmicky and inept, but a lot more fun than something like Doom.
There’s a lot of talk in the film, much of it inane. The film never pretends to be more than it is, which is always a good thing compared to other cheap horror that has no idea where it’s going, what point it’s trying to make, and ends up overreaching or covering up weaknesses with gore. Horror Express does come close with the acrobatics the plot goes through, but it never completely goes off the rails, as it were. The best thing about Horror Express is that the entire package is exactly the type of flick that would have made for a real howler on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It can be found in a perfect mood-establishing low-quality print on hulu.com. Go on, watch it, and tear into it mercilessly while you do. Horror Express had less than a hundredth of the budget of Alien: Ressurection, but Lee, Cushing, Savalas, and a hell of a plot, make it worth watching for its camp value alone.