Horror Express is too violent and exaggerated to provoke indifference, but the very qualities that arouse disgust in some no doubt are responsible for the film’s cult following. If you are in tune with its vivid, baroque visual style and sheer bloody violence, it is difficult to resist. If not—well, best stay away.
If nothing else, Express offers the pleasure of seeing both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing playing good guys. While Lee’s character, Sir Alexander Saxton is an arrogant SOB, at least he’s on the right side of the action. Saxton is a British archaeologist taking the fossilized remains of a prehistoric skeleton from China back to Britain. He and the other passengers on the Trans-Siberian Express, including Dr. Wells (Cushing), are quickly overwhelmed by a series of gruesome killings committed by the fossil. The characters recognize how ridiculous that proposition is, but no time is wasted trying to make it plausible, to them or us. As the train hurtles through the snowy Siberian wastes, Wells and Saxton are too busy trying to figure out what is going on as one person after another is violently dispatched even after the fossil has been “killed” to worry about the absurdity of the proposition.
The train never stops moving and the action in Horror Express never lets up. The killer survives by acquiring the knowledge of its victims through their eyes, so before long it is smarter than anyone else on the train and able to avoid discovery to inflict yet more chaos. Even when a group of Cossacks, led by Telly Savalas (in one of his cigar smoking turns), boards the train, there seems to be no stopping the horrors, and the race against the killer leads to a spectacular finale.
Shot in opulent style in Spain, the producers go the Hammer crowd one better in imaginative, lush production design and costuming. Director “Gene” (Eugenio) Martin exploits the cramped conditions of the train to make the action intensely discomfiting. If the premise is outlandish (it turns out the killer is something like a literal force of nature from another planet, trapped on Earth), and if the detection proceeds by laughable leaps of logic, you are too eager to escape the brass and crystal fixtures, the mahogany woodwork, the suffocating heat and carnage of the train to care for an instant.
In fact it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the killer, as he (it?) moves from one body to another, taking on the voice and personality of his latest victim, painfully alone. When we learn that he was abandoned on Earth by his own kind, there’s more than a shred of pathos to his situation (ably conveyed by the two actors, Julio Peña and Alberto de Mendoza, who “host” the creature for most of the film). Such surprising sophistication makes the popularity of Horror Express understandable and repeatedly enjoyable; it nonetheless is not for the squeamish.