Brooding and atmospheric with an unexpectedly erotic edge about it, 'Horror Express' is a cult classic of Spanish horror filmmaking. A surprisingly gory feature for 1972, the film is an unequivocal love letter to Hammer Films, which itself was beginning to have trouble finding an audience at the time. Producers even went so far as to hire a pair of the studio's biggest draws in Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Aside from a variety of interesting characteristics, its careful balancing act of the horror and science-fiction elements — which is fantastic, by the way — with a sheer admiration for the studio's monster productions of the late 50s and 60s is quite impressive and worth admiring on its own.
From producer Bernard Gordon, the famously blacklisted writer of sci-fi classics 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' and 'The Day of the Triffids,' the movie works almost entirely on how well it imitates Hammer's gothic approach to the genre. Alejandro Ulloa's cinematography makes beautiful use of dark, penetrating shadows which add to the train car's frighteningly confining spaces. And like a true Hammer Film production, every scene and conversation, including those meant to scare audiences, are photographed with a warm palette while still showing bright primaries, like reds and greens. Set and clothing design, particularly of the train's interior, contributes to the film's emphasis on the mysterious and supernatural.
Director Eugenio Martín takes marvelous advantage of everyone doing their part, careful in nearly every scene to perfectly frame his two leading men, Cushing and Lee as academic rivals in the Royal Society. His direction and method is actually rather admirable to watch, especially since Martín has never really being a notable filmmaker. In 'Horror Express,' he demonstrates a great deal of style and a keen eye for generating a grim, chilling tone. Having just completed 'Pancho Villa,' or 'Vendetta' as it is known in the U.S., he brings a spaghetti western panache to the production, giving fans a very entertaining blend of romanticized gothic horror and the action-excitement of a western.
For those already familiar with John W. Campbell's sci-fi novella "Who Goes There?" and its two adaptations ('The Thing from Another World' and 'The Thing'), the film's plot is easy to recognize. Lee's Professor Saxton discovers a frozen primitive ape-like fossil and transports it aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. As the ice thaws, a terrifying creature is unleashed which survives by telepathically inhabiting the body of others along with their memories and knowledge. With the help of Dr. Wells (Cushing), Saxton tries to stop the monster, learning more about it through its blood. The similarities to Campbell's story are most apparent when the doctors devise an eye test of the all the passengers in order to determine who the new host is.
But in spite of whatever resemblance 'Horror Express' may have with another popular sci-fi story, Martín's film stands on its own as a wonderfully stylish and terrifically entertaining gem of Spanish horror. Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet distance their script from its clear inspiration not only in setting but also through an interesting stance against religion while openly championing science and evolution. The final confrontation between Saxton and the creature is especially intriguing as well as amusing. Along with the haunting musical score by John Cacavas, which also carries the faint finesse of a spaghetti western, the film is a creature all its own, much like the alien monster, and enjoyed as an elegantly subtle tale of gothic mystery and suspense.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Severin Films brings 'Horror Express' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack: one a Region Free, BD25 while the other a DVD-9. Both discs are housed inside the usual blue keepcase on opposing panels. At startup, the Blu-ray goes straight to a standard menu selection with a silent static screen.
The cult classic of Spanish horror arrives to Blu-ray with a terribly disappointing AVC-encoded transfer.
Although the picture does offer a noticeable improvement over the several DVD releases, the particular print used here is in fairly bad shape, and it is apparent little effort was made to give it a proper remaster. Scratches, specks and some light mosquito noise are visible in nearly every frame and after a while, they become an annoying distraction. Telecine judder is also a problem and occurs often throughout the entire runtime. Added to that, the color timing doesn't appear to be right, skewing far too much towards warmer amber yellows. This takes its toll on contrast levels and the entire color palette, which are dull and generally flat with reds being the only shade showing any accuracy. Blacks are not too terrible, but they fail to impress while dark shadows frequently obscure background info.
About the only good thing in the whole presentation is the fine object detailing, which is strong and nicely defined for its age. But even here, the high-def transfer does little to win viewers over and is quite the disappointment.
Unfortunately, things don't improve much in the audio department either.
Like the video, little was done to improve and clean up the source elements, so the Dolby Digital mono soundtrack comes with a good deal of noise and hissing. The mid-range is problematic as the track struggles with the upper frequencies, distorting ever so slightly many of the movie's high-pitched sounds, like screams or the train's whistle. On a plus side, however, the mix comes with a very attractive sense of space and presence thanks to a healthy and sometimes throaty low-end. Vocals are also crystal clear and intelligible even though the ADR work is somewhat obvious and a little distracting. For the most part, the center channel delivers good clarity.
The end result is an unimpressive and wanting legacy track for a favorite horror film that could sound much better.
Severin brings the same set of supplements shared with the DVD release.
The wonderfully atmospheric 'Horror Express' is a classic in Spanish horror, starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas. With the help of film composer John Cacavas and the cinematography of Alejandro Ulloa, director Eugenio Martín gives this stylishly moody thriller with a distinctive Spaghetti western edge an attractive romanticized gothic ambiance that serves as a love letter to the productions of Hammer Films. The Blu-ray arrives with improved audio and video, but sadly does not compare to the best high-def transfers available. Severin also offers a nice collection of supplements fans will definitely enjoy. In the end, this combo pack is well worth picking up for the price.