Horror Express (1972) Retrospective

In 1906, Saxton (Cristopher Lee), a renowned British anthropologist, returns to Europe in the Trans-Siberian from China to Moscow . With it he carries a box containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid creature he discovered in a cave in Manchuria. He expects it to be a missing link in human evolution. Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), Saxton’s friendly rival and his colleague at the Royal Geological Society, is also on board but traveling separately.


Before the train leaves Shanghai, a thief is found dead on the platform. His eyes are completely white, without irises or pupils, and a spectator initially confuses him with a blind man. A Catholic monk, Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), spiritual advisor to the Polish Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud) and Countess Irina Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa), who are also waiting to board the train, warns that the contents of the box that wants to move Saxton is threatened by a prophecy, something that Saxton rejects as a superstition. Saxton’s eagerness to keep his scientific discovery secret awakens the suspicion of Wells who bribes a doorman to investigate the contents of the box. The humanoid that is inside (Juan Olaguivel), the result of defrosting, wakes up and murders the goalkeeper and then escapes.

The humanoid, while traveling the train, finds more victims on its way. Each new victim has the same opaque and white eyes. Autopsies suggest that victims’ brains are draining from memories and knowledge. When the humanoid is shot 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 that is found inside the eyes of corpses that reveal a prehistoric Earth as seen from space. They deduce that the real threat is somehow an amorphous extraterrestrial being that inhabited the humanoid’s body and now resides within the inspector. Pujardov, feeling the presence within the inspector and believing that it is Satan’s, renounce your faith, promising loyalty to the entity.


Russian authorities get news of the murders. An intimidating Cossack officer, Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas), tackles the train with a handful of his men. Kazan believes that rebels are being transported on the train and is only convinced of the alien’s existence when Saxton turns off the lights and Mirov’s eyes shine, revealing that he is the alien’s host. The alien has absorbed the memories of Wells’s assistant, a train engineer and other victims on board, and now seeks the metallurgical knowledge of the Polish count to build a ship with which to escape from Earth. Kazan shoots and kills Mirov, and the alien is transferred to Father Pujardov.

Passengers flee to the freight car while Pujardov kills Kazan, his men and the count, depleting all his memories. Saxton rescues the countess and stops Pujardov at gunpoint. Saxton, after discovering that the bright light prevents the alien from draining minds or transferring to another body, forces Pujardov to enter a well-lit area. The alien Pujardov explains that it is a collective form of energy from another galaxy. Trapped on Earth in a distant past, after being left behind in an accident, he survived for millions of years in the bodies of protozoa, fish and other animals. You cannot live outside a living being for more than a few moments. The alien begs to be saved tempting Saxton with his advanced knowledge of technology and the cure of diseases.


Saxton and the Countess flee but the alien raises all their victims as zombies. Battling down the train Saxton and the countess finally arrive at the tail van where the rest of the survivors have taken refuge. Saxton and Wells work desperately to unhook the tail car from the rest of the train. The Russian government sends a telegram to an intermediate station, ordering them to destroy the train by diverting it by a cut track. Believing that the war has broken out, the station staff starts the maneuvers. The alien takes control of the locomotive. Saxton and Wells, finally, manage to separate the tail van from the rest of the train. The alien tries to stop the locomotive but fails to do so, crossing a barrier of spurs, and plunging into a deep cliff. The tail van rolls precariously at the end of the track before stopping a few inches from the cliff. The survivors leave quickly while Saxton, Wells and the countess contemplate the ravine and witness the explosion that surrounds the train and its supernatural inhabitant.

Pánico en el Transiberiano better known as Horror Express, stars British horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Greek-American Telly “Kojak” Savalas, Argentinean Jorge Rigaud and a host of well-known Spanish actors. The director, Eugenio Martin explains how his first full-blooded horror movie got off the ground: “When I made Horror Express, I was under a three-movie contract with Phil Yordan, although he had somebody else (Bernard Gordon) fronting this project, and the picture was made as an Anglo-Spanish co-production.”


The inclusion in the distribution of the two icons of the British producer ” Hammer Films “, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing , helped to give more prestige to the production. Both had a separate contract to film a movie with Yordan, so he thought it would be a good idea to put them together in a film. The duo ” Hammer ” was joined by Telly Savalas , very popular at the time for ” Kojack “, the well-known detective TV series, which he accepted without hesitation, since he was joined by a certain friendship with Eugenio Martín . “Suggested to unite the two and everything was on wheels. The script was sent to the two actors, it was also talked to Telly Savalas who had just worked with me on ‘Pancho Villa’. We got along very well and then we gathered three great stars .

Different sources variously credit the final screenplay of Horror Express to any or all of the following: Martin himself, Arnaud D’Usseau and occasionally to Julian Halevy (a pseudonym of Julian Zimet, who also cowrote Psychomania with D’Usseau). As becomes clear from the synopsis, the end result of these scribes’ efforts is a veritable patchwork of themes and styles, verging on pastiche.

Eugenio Martín Un Autor para Todos los Géneros Carlos Aguilar Anita Haas (7)

Much of the film’s technical team was Spanish. The reason for the inclusion of native professionals was purely economic. The Spanish technicians were very competent, and did not charge large sums of money for their work. They were not imposed by the director. “No, more than an imposition of mine, that was the result of an economic approach by Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon. They just had the idea to say; ‘As in Spain, the cost of filming is cheaper, there are good technicians … what does Spain need? International figures in the cast. Well, I take international stars and employ national technicians. ‘ Even as a director, he spoke with several people he knew in Spain and at that time I was well placed because he had made a film that had worked. You already know that in the cinema a director is up or down according to the last movie he made, and mine made money and my name sounded right away and also the circumstance occurred that he could speak in English, not perfectly but he defended me, and we had a meeting and we understood each other very well. By the way, Gordon spoke a little Spanish and asked me: where have you learned English Eugenio? And I told him the truth, that he had learned doing some courses at the University of Granada. And your Spanish?; In the tavern, in the tavern!  And that told me that this guy had more talent than me”

“For the opening scenes,” Martin recalls, “we used a real locomotive filmed at Madrid’s main rail terminal, dressed to resemble the Chinese station at the turn of the century. For the interior shots, we constructed a number of cars in the studio. To get the effect of movement, we built them on rocking hydraulic platforms. We’d run through the rehearsals with the carriages in static mode, and once the camera started to roll, we’d set them in motion. There was a revolving backdrop to achieve the effect of scenery flashing past the windows, and we used the usual dry ice machine to simulate steam and fog. It was all perfectly simple and straightforward. We intercut these scenes with long shots of the model train, and I think the final effect was pretty convincing.”

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“Anyhow,” Martin continues, “the producer had got a hold of this marvelous large scale model train which had been used in the movie Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), and he came up with the idea of writing a script just so he would be able to use this prop. Now at that time, Phil was in the habit of buying up loads of short stories to adapt into screenplays, and the story for Horror Express was originally based on a tale written by a little-known American scriptwriter and playwright

Beyond its first-rate technical qualities, Horror Express is superbly acted by all involved. Martin has nothing but fond memories of his three “foreign” stars. “Working with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas was an absolute delight,” he says. “Apart from being wonderful people, they were tremendously responsible and professional. I found Telly to be the more “emotional’ one as an actor, while Peter and Christopher were rather more rational, so to speak. I mean, if we occasionally strayed from what was written on the page, they seemed to be at a bit of a loss, whereas Telly was always more open to improvisation, to playing it by ear, so I’d say that from my personal point of view, Telly was more fun’ to direct in that sense. But the three of them gave perfect performances; they were magnificent.”

Pánico en el Transiberiano Eugenio Martín 1972 Making Of Escenas de Rodaje (4)

“From the beginning the casting was Telly Savalas who had just shot with us. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had a principle of agreement to shoot another film. They were sent the script, it seemed good and they accepted. Martín says that Cushing, depressed by the death of his wife, did not want to work. The grief and loneliness I felt were very strong. It was his partner Christopher Lee who had to convince him to continue in the film. ” It turned out that as Cushing did not want to work because he had an obsession that he felt very lonely, that he wanted to leave and it was Lee who told Bernard Gordon and me; Quiet and do not worry and leave it to me that tonight I talk to him at the hotel. I think it was a day or two before filming and Christopher Lee told him; ‘Well Peter, tomorrow we were to go together to the filming in the car and such’, and Cushing stared at him and did not say anything and they started the movie . ”  Despite feeling very affected by the death of his wife, Cushing, he behaved at all times with great education and professionalism. ” Exquisite. In the first place he was a man who dragged his recent pain over that death. But it is also that his way of being and behaving was so polite and helpless that we all appreciate it immediately in a unique way . “

Pánico en el Transiberiano Eugenio Martín 1972 Making Of Escenas de Rodaje (1)

“Alejandro already had a great experience when he made this movie. He was a very fast man in his work. It was a standard type of photography, but using the standard word in the best sense. I mean, it was a pretty American photograph, where you could see everything and there was always a lot of volume, many shadows, many shades between lights and shadows that gave a tone to the film very similar to the American ‘B’ series films, which is what we wanted, and in that sense he did it very well and very quickly. I am very happy with Alejandro’s photography . – Eugenio Martín on Cinematographer Alejando Ulloa

Director Eugenio Martín
Director Eugenio Martín

Horror Express is just one of your many fantastic pictures. When did you realize that you wanted to spend your life in cinema?
EUGENIO MARTIN: When I was a child. After the Spanish Civil War, we had no money to go to movies. But every time I was lucky enough to see you, I just went to the street, surrounded by other poor children, to tell you about the picture of the first. I succeeded in getting my “audience” enthralled that I supposed I was a jester, a buffoon. Telling tales suited me.

The film was produced by Bernard Gordon and written in part by Julian Zimet (as Julian Halevy) and Arnaud D’Usseau, three expatriate victims of the McCarthy witchhunts. Do you think any socialist politics ever made their way into the storythe creature’s persecution, perhaps?
EUGENIO MARTIN: Well, first of all, Arnaud D’Usseau actually did not write anything for the script at all. In order to use the train we had left Pancho Villa, D’Usseau and Gordon sent him away. The actual authors of our script were Zimet, Gordon and myself. We understood each other so well on a human level, we got so nicely, that there was no need to actually discuss any political leanings. Anyway, I have so much their situation, the exile situation. It was very difficult for them. Whether or not any of that is in the film. who’s to say? You can find many underpinnings in almost all good stories if you look hard enough. But we never did that kind of writing on purpose.

Horror Express What the first movie Peter Cushing made the death of his wife Helen, and he almost did not do it. What are your memories of him?
EUGENIO MARTIN: Peter was not only a marvelous professional, but also a very sweet person. He touched his fingers, made him feel more vulnerable, so he loved him on screen and off.

Pánico en el Transiberiano Eugenio Martín 1972 Making Of Escenas de Rodaje (5)

How about Christopher Lee?
EUGENIO MARTIN: He was very easy to direct, a perfect professional as well. He never missed a line, never made a wrong movement. As an actor and as a human being, just terrific. He was very happy making the picture, I might add, and used to sing opera arias and Russian folk songs all the time on set God

I understand the commercial need to put on an international cast in thesis sorts of films, but having a bald , Savalas in the movie was opening an eccentric touch. What is some of that performance improvised?
EUGENIO MARTIN: Oh yes, I gave more freedom to Savalas because of his having had a bit of baroque madness thrown in. It was a nice contrast with the mannered English of Cushing and Lee, and his performance is a highlight of the film , As far as the rest of the cast, the Spanish actors in the film spoke enough to manage, so it all worked well.

Jon Cacavas’ score is just great, all based on that eerie whistled refrain we hear almost as soon as the movie fades in.
EUGENIO MARTIN: You’re right-it’s a brilliant piece of work. The sinister whistle of the creature! I could not work with Cacavas did much Either in pre- or post-production, Because we were solving many production problems elsewhere, so I just entrusted the music to him, and it paid off. Actually, we ran a great risk with him. INITIALLY. He was a good musician and a good friend of Savalas, but he was new to movies. When Savalas proposes him to Gordon, he asked, “Salary?” And Savalas replied: “He does not get any money.” He is a beginner in film. This pleased Gordon, of course, who gave him the job!

Did you treat the movie as “product” while making it, or did you aspire to greater heights?
EUGENIO MARTIN: It seems to me that you use the word “product” in a sort of negative way. This film is a simple and beautiful adventure story with no pretensions, but with fantasy and subtle humor in its narrative, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s never needed to be anything else. I’m sure that if we had attempted to introduce an original theme or tried to make a movie, the result would have been false. Let’s remind you of David Mamet’s words that I think are very true: “For centuries, people have tried to change their lives, to influence them . ” I concur.

Pánico en el Transiberiano Eugenio Martín 1972 Making Of Escenas de Rodaje (2)

In charge of special FX was Pablo Pérez, who, like Martin himself, had worked on a number of movies during the heyday of Hispano-U.S. co-productions; he subsequently handled the FX on Paul Naschy’s Dracula’s Great Love in 1972 and Amando de Ossorio’s Templar opus Night of the Seagulls in 1975. “Pablo had done a lot of work on American productions, and in fact, the materials he used when we made Horror Express were stuff left behind when the Samuel Bronston outfit packed up their operations in Spain.”

The special makeup for the creature’s victims consisted basically of bright red blood flowing from eyes, mouths and noses and grotesque, bulging blank eyeballs like the eyes of boiled fish,” as one character remarks. To achieve the desired effect, chief makeup artist Julian Ruiz had special contact lenses made by Madrid opticians Óptica Collet-all white ones for the corpses and red ones for the bodies possessed by the alien.


Pablo Pérez helped with his ” FX ” to make the film’s tricks credible, and the makeup artist Julián Ruiz frightened a whole generation with his ” Zombies “”, The hominid creature found by Lee at the beginning of the film, the brain dissection of the key-keeper and the fluorescent red eyes. This effect was achieved by placing a few tiny bulbs to the red lenses of the prosthesis placed in the eyes of the actors. The bulbs were charged with a small battery powered by the actor himself. More complications brought the white lenses of the ” Living Dead “. A Madrid optician made them in exchange for the establishment’s name appearing in the credits, but the desired effect was not achieved. After two months of testing, it was possible to create white contact lenses through which nothing could be seen. The actor was totally blind.

“The most important effects were those of the contact lenses because at that time there were no means and we had to do a lot of tests before starting the shooting, we even got to establish a kind of contract with an optics house, one of the main ones in Madrid at that moment. An agreement was reached to sign the name of that company in the film. With this company we spent two months doing tests but that did not work. It was very difficult and in the end it worked on the basis that the actor was blind because with the lens he was wearing he could not see anything, then of course, the actor could not be told to perform a long or complicated scene because he did not see anything. It was the hardest thing to solve. It is good but at that time a problem that did not have to be, gave us problems to solve it.”

horror-express-monster (1)

When the actors were totally blind when the contact lenses were placed, they had to walk with great care for the decoration. ” There was always a previous test. In the trial the actor already knew what he had to do. I had to walk five steps … be careful with a small table on the left … Always with a little trial and error. It even seemed to include a bit of mystery . ”

Let’s talk about the creature created by the make-up artist Julian Ruiz and let’s uncover the mystery. Who interpreted it? ” He was played by a very big guy, very clumsy. Juan Olaguivel, was a beast. It was hard to explain things to her because it was very closed. We took it, not only because it was already a monster , but because it had this aspect “.

The American composer of Greek origin John Cacavas , recommended by Savalas himself, was the author of the famous main theme. A simple melody that takes center stage when listening to the conductor interpreted by Victor Israel while he whistles her during his chores. ” The musician brought Telly Savalas. He was a friend of his from Greece and Telly wanted to give this musician a chance. He made the proposal to me and to Philip Yordan and then he gave us to listen to some things about him and I liked them a lot. I passed a report to Yordan and he asked me, “How much does it charge?” , and since I was going to charge little I accept and in effect, it was a success. I think it was very good . “

” Panic in the Trans-Siberian ” sold very well all over the world . In the Spanish billboard had a moderate acceptance. Martín blamed the little repercussion at the box office on the political climate that Spain was experiencing in the first half of the 1970s. “In America, in England … Everywhere. It worked much better than in Spain. Here it premiered at a very bad time. It was the end of Francoism and it was a time when in Spain or you made a film that supported anti-Francoism or you were a pariah, you were nothing in the cinema. At that time, making a fantastic movie had no interest for Spanish critics. Then the time has passed and they have said … ‘Hey, well, if it turns out that this movie is okay’, but they have had to spend many years ” .

At present it is a film very appreciated in great part of the world. His director is invited to Festivals and shows to talk about the most remembered film of his entire extensive filmography. ” Yes, I notice it because sometimes they invite me to talk about her and I tell them, but do you really want to talk about something that was done so many years ago?  Sometimes I do not explain it, but in finish. Bernard Gordon has told me; ‘You cannot imagine what they asked me. I go to universities and places to talk about this film ‘and I have been amazed, really . ”

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In his autobiography, Lee recalls his dissatisfaction with conditions at what he calls the “unspeakable, ghastly studio.” Although the Studio 70 complex had only recently been inaugurated, with a mere four films being shot there prior to Horror Express, it appears that the quality of the food and dressing rooms, among other things, were far below Lee’s expectations. Fortunately, a gentle reproach from Cushing brought him down to earth, and Lee gave another fine performance despite his off screen tribulations. The old magic evident in most Lee/Cushing collaborations is clearly present here, as in the scene where the pair sets off to track down the creature’s latest human host. The wary Inspector Mirov protests, “The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?” Cushing and Lee exchange a look of indignation, and the former delivers the priceless retort, “Monster? We’re British, you know!” Horror Express proved to be a big success, both financially and critically, almost everywhere-except in Spain. “Yes, it went down really well abroad, but nobody thought much of it here,” sighs the director. “The Spanish critics reviewed it following their usual negative criteria, writing it off as nothing more than a throwaway commercial sub-product for mass consumption, and as such unworthy of serious attention. Actually, I was a bit surprised myself at the film’s popularity overseas, but it didn’t really do a great deal for my subsequent career.”

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Christopher Lee as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton
Peter Cushing as Dr. Wells
Silvia Tortosa as Countess Irina Petrovski (dubbed by Olive Gregg)
Telly Savalas as Captain Kazan
Alberto de Mendoza as Father Pujardov (dubbed by Robert Rietti)
Helga Liné as Natasha (dubbed by Olive Gregg)
Alice Reinheart as Miss Jones (dubbed by Olive Gregg)
Julio Peña as Inspector Mirov (dubbed by Roger Delgado)
Ángel del Pozo as Yevtushenko
José Jaspe as Conductor Konev
George Rigaud as Count Marion Petrovski
Víctor Israel as Maletero the baggage man
Faith Clift as American passenger (credited as Faith Swift)
Juan Olaguivel as the Creature (credited as Juan Olaguibel)
Barta Barri as First telegraphist

Production Design
Ramiro Gómez (as Gomez Ramiro)

Set Decoration by
Ramiro Gómez

Makeup Department
Rafael Berraquero assistant makeup artist
Fernando Florido makeup artist
Romana González assistant hair stylist
Julián Ruiz makeup supervisor

Special Effects
Pablo Pérez special effects
Fernando Pérez special effects (uncredited) Visual Effects by
Brian Stevens optical effects

Monsterworld No. 2 September 2007
Famous Monsters of Filmland#105
Starburst Magazine 419

One thought on “Horror Express (1972) Retrospective

  1. Back in the good old days when your local TV stations showed movies all the time, this seemingly showed up every month or so. And God knows I watched it everytime and got scared sh*tless on each occasion. Even as a tiny one, I was a huge fan of Cushing and Lee and watched all they were in. But looking back, I now see this was my first real intro into the world of Spanish Horror, which would become huge to me in later years. Wonderful film, and an all time favorite.


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