{Blu-Review} Panic on the Transsiberian: Horror Express on Blu-ray

“Monster? We’re British, you know.” – Horror Express (1972)

 Art courtesy of Arrow Video

I first wrote about Horror Express for my Vault of Secrets column at Innsmouth Free Press in 2015, shortly after Christopher Lee died just ten days after his 93rd birthday. That column was later collected into my book Monsters from the Vault. It’s also still online here, so I’ll try to refrain from repeating myself too much.

I was actually a little hard on Horror Express in that column. I don’t deny my assertion that it has a “decidedly midnight movie quality,” but to say that it was “probably saved from bargain shelf oblivion largely by the fact that it has Lee and Cushing in its lead roles” is to sell the rest of this weird and wonderful movie short, even if all I meant was that it might be (unjustly) forgotten if not for those fine gentlemen.

That I went on to sing the praises of the film’s many weird scenes doesn’t really recover the fact that this oddball picture deserves more credit than I was giving it there. In that column, I said that Horror Express “sort of has everything.” That’s putting it mildly. It’s got trains, intrigue, jewel thieves, zombies, monster hands, mad monks, Telly Savales chewing scenery like a starving man, and a body-hopping, prehistoric alien monster. Not to mention Sir Chris Lee and Peter Cushing.

Over the years, a lot has been made about the similarities between Horror Express and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with some going so far as to suggest that Horror Express was essentially an unauthorized adaptation of the Joseph Campbell story “Who Goes There?” upon which The Thing was also based. That these similarities mostly only go as deep as that both stories are set in the cold and both plots are… sorta similar if you squint hard enough doesn’t stop even the back of the Arrow Video Blu-ray from making the connection.

Which is not to say that there isn’t something there. Certainly, for those on the lookout for capital-W Weird in cinema, there are much worse places to look than this bizarre Spanish/English co-production. The notion of ancient alien life on earth—something that Lovecraft and other weird fiction writers touch on often—has seldom been done more justice on the screen than in the moment when our protagonists look at the creature’s eye fluid, where its memories are stored (just go with us here), and see not only dinosaurs but earth from outer space.

The appreciation by Andy Scovell in the insert booklet of the Arrow Blu-ray makes much of the film’s walking the line between science and the supernatural, “superstition and reason,” another popular theme among Weird Tales writers.

Scovell argues that Horror Express is “stronger than other films” thanks to its “preservation of the unnerving elements more naturally fitting for supernatural foes, menaces and happenings.” He’s not wrong. Few movies walk the tightrope of cosmic and supernatural horror more deftly than Horror Express, even while that impressive tightrope act is occasionally obfuscated by the film’s assorted other plots.

Though the monster in Horror Express may be little more than a mummy-faced bigfoot with a single glowing red eye—and that for only about half the film—it is actually something much more chilling than anything we ever see. Like The Thing, which takes on innumerable horrifying forms but none of them are its “true shape,” we never see what the monster in Horror Express really looks like. It refers to itself just as “energy.”

As such, the explanation and motives of the monster owe as much to the bodiless space vampire squid from Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment as they do to The Thing from Another World. The 1967 classic Quatermass and the Pit mined some of these ancient alien ideas, as well.

Horror Express has been in the public domain for a while, which means that there are a lot of home video editions of it floating around, not to mention (often grainy) versions on YouTube and elsewhere. Fortunately, there are also a few solid releases, with the Arrow Video Blu being only the most recent.

The question isn’t whether or not you need to give Horror Express a try—by the time you’re done reading its vital statistics, you already know whether this movie is in your wheelhouse or not—but whether, if you already own the Severin Films Blu-ray, there’s reason enough to double-dip for the Arrow Video release. The answer depends a bit on how much you like this movie, and how interested you are in special features.

Both versions look and sound good—the Severin version seems a little louder, and a little brighter in the bright shots and darker in the dark ones, while the Arrow Blu presents a more uniform picture throughout, which I preferred—so the main selling point for the more recent Arrow release are the special features. It has pretty much everything that’s on the Severin disc and plenty more besides, including a new commentary track by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones and that aforementioned insert booklet with essays from Adam Scovell and Mike Hodges.

So, if you already own the Severin Blu-ray of Horror Express, the biggest reason to pick up the handsome new Arrow Video release is because you want those extra bonus features. If you don’t already own this delightfully weird movie, however, there’s no excuse not to spring for the Arrow release.