Or MUMMY ON THE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS.
The last couple of times I’ve seen Christopher Lee, he’s been playing Dracula – so it’s thrilling to actually watch him engaged and interested in a role. In terms of sheer charisma, in terms of simple presence, it makes a huge difference to have him invested, not just showing up to glower and collect his pay-cheque.
Cushing too, is possibly as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he was caddish, but there is a certain roguish charm to his portrayal.
The two of them made something like twenty films together, and you can see that natural chemistry in how they work. What makes HORROR EXPRESS a particular treat is that for most of the running length they’re on the same side.
The set-up is intriguing, with Lee bring a prehistoric mummy on board a train heading west from China and said mummy coming alive and committing murders.
What’s more, it’s an interesting idea that’s not just allowed to rest on its laurels – with the plot moving from horror to science-fiction, as our team of heroes realise that it is in fact a creature from outer space. Okay, if you actually step back and try to examine the scientific trail they follow, then it’s quite, quite mad. But I do appreciate they made the effort of trying to develop it and once there, tried to explain it all.
There’s some really good stuff at the start, with the opening scenes crammed full of tension.
But for a story set on a train (which SPOILER ALERT: does end with a train wreck) this goes off the rails remarkably quickly.
Firstly, as much as I like Christopher Lee in this, his character arc makes no sense. He’s the one who actually brings the mummy on, ignores all warnings and refuses to let anyone else examine it. But when the killings start, he suddenly gets to play hero and everyone lets him. Surely there should be a lot more wariness and suspicion of him.
Secondly, Telly Savalas features heavily on the poster, but doesn’t arrive in the action until late in what’s effectively a grand cameo. But the effect of this is like the reel of a whole other movie being inserted into the order. He’s American and working with the Russian police for some reason, and is allowed this big grandstanding performance – which disappointingly leaves Lee and Cushing just hanging around staring at him – but pretty much leads nowhere. It’s a character this film doesn’t need and a performance this film doesn’t need.
Finally, I did like Alice Reinhardt as Miss Jones, Cushing’s older assistant/peer – but even for a horror movie of the period, the female characters are there to be winsomely attractive and nothing else. While the murders when they come are more than a bit rote and nowhere near as interesting or as scary as the filmmakers believe.
So, all in all, it’s a bit of a mess, which is a shame as I really like both Lee and Cushing in it. Actually, it would be remiss of Alberto de Mendoza as the mad Priest, played with more than a few shades of Rasputin. They each deserve a better film around them.