In 1906, Saxton (Lee), a renowned British anthropologist, is returning to Europe by the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow. With him is a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid creature that he discovered in a cave in Manchuria. He hopes it is a missing link in human evolution. Doctor Wells (Peter Cushing), Saxton’s friendly rival and Royal Geological Society colleague, is also on board but travelling separately. Before the train departs Shanghai, a thief is found dead on the platform. His eyes are completely white, without irises or pupils, and a bystander initially mistakes him for a blind man. A Catholic monk named Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), the spiritual advisor to the Polish Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud) and Countess Irina Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa), who are also waiting to board the train, proclaims the contents of the crate to be evil. Saxton furiously dismisses this as superstition. Saxton’s eagerness to keep his scientific find secret arouses the suspicion of Wells, who bribes a porter to investigate the crate. The porter is killed by the defrosted humanoid (Juan Olaguivel) within. It then escapes the crate by picking the lock.
The humanoid finds more victims as it roams the moving train. Each is found with the same opaque, white eyes. Autopsies suggest that the brains of the victims are being drained of memories and knowledge. When the humanoid is gunned down by police Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña), the threat seems to have been eliminated. Saxton and Wells discover that external images are retained by a liquid found inside the corpses’ eyeballs, which reveal a prehistoric Earth and a planetary view as seen from space. They deduce that the real threat is somehow a formless extraterrestrial that inhabited the body of the humanoid and now resides inside the inspector. Pujardov, sensing the greater presence within the inspector and believing it to be that of Satan, renounces his faith, pledging allegiance to the entity.
News of the murders is wired to the Russian authorities. An intimidating Cossack officer, Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas), boards with a handful of his men. Kazan believes the train is transporting rebels; he is only convinced of the alien’s existence when Saxton switches off the lights and Mirov’s eyes glow, revealing him to be the alien’s host. It has absorbed the memories of Wells’ assistant, a train engineer, and others aboard, and now seeks the Polish count’s metallurgical knowledge in order to build a vessel to escape Earth. Kazan shoots and kills Mirov, and the alien transfers itself to the deranged Pujardov.
The passengers flee to the freight car while Pujardov murders Kazan, his men, and the count, draining all of their memories. Saxton rescues the countess and holds Pujardov at gunpoint. Saxton, having discovered that bright light prevents the alien from draining minds or transferring to another body, forces Pujardov into a brightly lit area. The alien Pujardov explains that it is a collective form of energy from another galaxy. Trapped on Earth in the distant past after being left behind in an accident, it survived for millions of years in the bodies of protozoa, fish, and other animals. It cannot live outside a living being longer than a few moments. The alien begs to be spared, tempting Saxton with its advanced knowledge of technology and cures for diseases. Distracted by the offer, the alien resurrects the count’s corpse and attacks Saxton with it.
Saxton and the countess flee, but the alien resurrects all of its victims as zombies. Battling their way through the train, Saxton and the countess eventually reach the caboose where the other survivors have taken refuge. Saxton and Wells work desperately to uncouple the caboose from the rest of the train. The Russian government sends a telegram to a dispatch station ahead, instructing them to destroy the train by sending it down a dead-end spur. Speculating that war has broken out, the station staff switch the track points.
The alien takes control of the train as it enters the spur. Saxton and Wells finally manage to separate the caboose. The alien tries to find the brakes but fails to slow down the train. It rams through the end of spur barrier and plunges down the deep cliff and is destroyed after it hits bottom. The caboose rolls precariously to the end of the track before stopping, inches away from the cliff. The survivors quickly leave, while Saxton, Wells, and the countess gaze over the ravine and witness an inferno engulfing the train and its unearthly inhabitant.
Horror Express was filmed in Madrid between 1971 and 1972 and produced on a low budget of $300,000 with the luxury of having three familiar genre actors in the lead roles. The film was co-produced by American screenwriter/producer Bernard Gordon, who had collaborated with Martin on the 1972 film Pancho Villa (which featured Savalas in the title role).
Rumors that the train sets were acquired from the production of Doctor Zhivago (or Nicholas and Alexandra) were refuted by Gordon, who said in a 2000 interview that the model had been constructed for Pancho Villa. Filmmakers used the mock-up from Pancho Villa as the interior for all train cars during production since no further room was available on stage. All scenes within each train car were shot consecutively, the set then modified and shot for the next car. The train’s departure scene was filmed in Madrid’s Delicias railway station. The locomotive which pulls the train in that scene is a RENFE 141F, but later in the film, the locomotive seems to be an unidentified RENFE locomotive whose wheel arrangement is unclear.
Securing Lee and Cushing was a coup for Gordon, since it lent an atmosphere reminiscent of Hammer Films, many of which starred both of the actors. When Cushing arrived in Madrid to begin work on the picture, however, he was still distraught over the recent death of his wife, and announced to Gordon that he could not do the film. With Gordon desperate over the idea of losing one of his important stars, Lee stepped in and put Cushing at ease simply by talking to his old friend about some of their previous work together. Cushing changed his mind and stayed on.
Like all the Italian and Spanish films of the period, Horror Express was filmed mostly without sound, with effects and voices dubbed into the film later. Lee, Cushing and Savalas all provided their own voices for the English market.
By Eugene Martin (https://archive.org/details/horror_express_ipod) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons