Color, 1972, 88m.
Directed by Eugenio Martin
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Helga Liné
Severin (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Image (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1), and dozens of terrible budget labels

Horror ExpressLensed under the title of Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express, this marvelous Spanish/British co-production kicks off with a pompous English professor, Alexander Saxton (Lee), discovering a weird, hairy creature preserved in ice during an excavation in Manchuria. Believing this may be the missing link, Saxton stashes the icy fossil into a wooden crate and boards it onto his train ride back to Europe. On the same train is one of his academic rivals, Dr. Wells (Cushing), whose nosiness gets him into trouble when he bribes one of the coachmen to drill a whole into the box and see what's inside. A sinister, Rasputin-style monk notices that ordinary chalk cannot mark the creature's wooden prison and deduces that Saxton is harboring something evil aboard the train. Meanwhile, passengers begin turning up with their eyes turned completely white and their brains wiped smooth as a baby's bottom when their memories are drained. During one of his examinations, Wells comes upon a startling discovery... one which carries implications stretching beyond the boundaries of Earth.

A personal, secret favourite of late night TV fans and devoted videophiles, Horror Express is one of the most unusual and memorable outings for frequent screen pair Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, whose friendly antagonism here makes for a memorable team indeed. The very definition of both a great popcorn movie and a "thinking man's" horror/sci-fi opus, this gem actually possesses the ability to cross over and appeal far beyond die hard fans of European horror. Directed with a skillful and stylish hand by Eugenio Martin (A Candle for the Devil), this film is pure entertainment and paced as speedily Horror Expressas the titlular vehicle crossing the icy Siberian. Apart from the two leads (both in top form), the cast includes a wonderfully game-changing third act appearance by Telly Savalas (as a Cossack!) and an all-too-brief role for beautiful Eurocult starlet Helga Liné (Black Candles). While some of the special effects are obviously dated now, it's to Martin's credit that the ferocious, scary climax still packs a wallop as the surviving passengers have to fight off both a horde of possessed zombies and a very precipitous cliff. Special mention must also be more of John Cacavas' haunting music score; once heard, that whistling theme is never forgotten.

Thanks to a legal snafu involving the American distributor, Horror Express fell into the public domain and has been available from a number of different labels in shoddy, scratchy editions, often taken from censored TV prints. One of the worst of these offenders was Simitar's DVD edition, one of the first titles to hit the market and a complete disaster from start to Horror Expressfinish. Image rectified the problem with their drastically improved (for the time) non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD, which also offers a few other tidbits: an alternate Spanish language track (with some very different studio dubbing); a most welcome isolated music and effects track, all the better to savor the film's creepy sound design; and thorough, informative liner notes detailing the production's amusing history. Several subsequent cheapo editions came out after this one as well, all of them unsatisfying.

Fans who gave up hope of ever seeing a pristine version of seeing this '70s horror gem will be overjoyed to see Severin's Blu-Ray release (also available on DVD in the same combo pack, but why not go for maximum clarity?). Transferred from the original Spanish negative, it doesn't appear to have undergone much processing or clean up; the film grain looks natural, colors are vivid and even startling inside some of the velvety train interiors, and there's only a small amount of debris (mainly during the opening credits). The framing also looks accurate throughout. Interestingly, this version contains the original Spanish opening credits (not a surprise) but also contains an onscreen shot of the train before the opening credits begin, which played out in complete darkness in the American version. Even more obvious is the restoration of the original end credits, which scroll onscreen as originally intended rather than the abrupt cut to black and long musical playout from the more widely-seen US cut. All of the gore is intact here including all the cranial sawing and eyeball puncturing, a likely attempt to compete with the increasingly graphic Hammer films of the period. Audio options include the English and Spanish tracks (the latter listed as stereo, but it sounds pretty mono until the end credits) as well as an 80-minute 1973 Peter Cushing interview with an audience in which he discusses his acting career in great detail. Topics include working with Terrence Fisher, his friendship with Christopher Lee, and an odd detour into the making of I, Monster. Video extras begin with a B&W video intro by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, followed by a new HD video interview with Martin in which he talks about the genesis of the idea for the film, his methods of creating a lush visual texture on a limited budget, and a correction to the oft-repeated story about how Cushing (whose wife had just died before filming) was enlisted to remain for the film by his friend Lee. His accent is pretty thick at times, so turn your volume up. The lengthy and very detailed next interview features the late producer Bernard Gordon, who goes through the process of blacklisting in the '50s, the making of 55 Days at Peking (which he wrote), and much more. "Telly and Me" is a fun new video interview with Cacavas, who got his big break as a film composer through Savalas, arranged two of his albums (including an inexpicably popular spoken version of "If"), and went on to become the regular composer for the TV series Kojak. He also speaks warmly of his score for this film and the positive reception it received from everyone involved. The disc rounds out with the original English-language theatrical trailer and bonus trailers for Psychomania, The House that Dripped Blood, and Nightmare Castle. It's been a long, long wait indeed for horror fans, but this one was definitely worth it.

Reviewed on 10/25/11.