A few weeks ago, one of cinema’s greatest icons, Christopher Lee, passed away at the age of 93 after having lived a more interesting and eventful life than any of us could ever dream of. Of course, after having amassed a filmography of nearly 300 titles, you just know that Lee must have acted in a few underrated gems here or there. The one actor that Lee is probably most associated with is Peter Cushing. Lee’s run in the horror genre pretty much began when he cast as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1957 Hammer Films production, The Curse of Frankenstein, with Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein. Shortly thereafter, Lee found the role he would become most associated with after he was cast in the title role in Horror of Dracula, which is regarded by many to be both the best Hammer production and Dracula film ever made. Of course, Peter Cushing played Lee’s arch-rival, Van Helsing, in Horror of Dracula, and the two actors would go on to appear in over twenty films together. Of course, not all of the Lee-Cushing projects were great movies, but the two men never failed to elevate the material with their screen presence. In 1972, Lee and Cushing teamed up for a British/Spanish production called Horror Express, which could best be described as a cross between The Thing and Murder on the Orient Express, and is one of the more underrated films of both actors’ careers.
Horror Express takes place in 1906 and opens with the frozen remains of a strange ape-like creature being discovered inside a cave in the Manchuria region of China. The leader of the expedition is an anthropologist named Professor Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), who loads the frozen creature into a crate to be transported on the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow. Lee hopes to bring the specimen to London and prove that the creature is the missing link to evolution. It turns out that one of Saxton’s scientific rivals, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also aboard the same train, but it isn’t long before the two men becomes unwitting partners. At some point during the journey, the creature thaws out and escapes its crate before proceeding to murder a few people. After the creature is gunned down, it appears that the threat is over, but it turns out that the creature’s body was merely being used as a host for a mysterious alien force. While killing its victim, the extraterrestrial drains its victims’ brains to acquire their memories and knowledge. Before the creature was killed, the alien force was transferred to another host body, so Saxton and Wells are forced to team up and stop the alien force, which continues to terrorize the train by claiming more victims and draining their brains.
There are other complications in the plot, including a Rasputin-esque monk (all the more appropriate since Christopher Lee once played Rasputin), who comes to believe that the mysterious alien force is actually Satan and decides to help it out. There’s also an eccentric Russian Cossack officer (played by Telly Savalas), who decides to board the train during the last act of the film and provide additional complications. The director of Horror Express is Eugenio Martin, who had finished completing a movie called Pancho Villa (also starring Savalas) and hilariously enough, his prime motivation for doing a horror movie set on a train was because he had a bunch of train models and sets left over from his previous film. However, the action is very well-staged and directed, and the screenplay is a lot more ambitious and clever than your average low-budget horror film, getting a lot of mileage out of its train setting. As most horror fans probably know, the 1951 horror classic, The Thing from Another World, and the John Carpenter-directed remake were both adaptations of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novel, “Who Goes There?”. Believe it or not, even though the story’s setting is totally different (taking place on a train instead of an Antarctica research station), Horror Express has enough plot similarities that it is considered to be an official adaptation of “Who Goes There?”. But of course, the familiar plot is greatly elevated by the presence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who do not hesitate to add their own brand of dry humour to the proceedings.
The production of Horror Express also has an interesting backstory. In January 1971, Cushing’s long-time wife passed away and the actor was left so devastated by the loss that on the night of her death, he hysterically ran up and down some stairs in an apparent attempt to induce a heart attack and join her in the afterlife. After agreeing to star in Horror Express, Cushing travelled to Madrid for filming, but then announced that he was still too distraught over his wife’s death to work on the film. It was Lee, one of Cushing’s closest friends, who convinced him to remain on the production. Even though Lee and Cushing did so many films together, they usually played rivals which often kept them apart onscreen. In Horror Express, it’s refreshing to see the two actors start off as rivals before becoming partners, and they probably have more screen time together here than in any of their other productions. It goes without saying that Lee and Cushing have terrific chemistry and their scenes have an unexpected level of poignancy once you know that they feature an actor helping one of his best friends overcome his immense grief and move on with his life. In spite of starring two of the horror genre’s greatest legends, Horror Express has since fallen into the public domain. It can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube and found in bargain bins everywhere. However, Horror Express is still a very well-made and entertaining horror film and remains one of the most underappreciated works in the unparalleled career of Christopher Lee.