And… Telly Savalas?????
Yes, Telly Savalas. His role is more of a glorified cameo than a full part. It is, however, quite glorious.
Somewhere in remote China, around about 1910, Christopher Lee has dug up something that will set the scientific world back on its heels, a body that he thinks is a “missing link”. He has it crated, and is taking it, via trans-Siberian train, back to Britain. Peter Cushing is also aboard the train, a scientist of a different stripe. Also into the initial mix are a lovely female stowaway ((Or whatever the equivalent term is for a train. )), some Russian nobility, including another lovely female, and a monk who looks more than a little like a young Rasputin. The monk seems to know what’s in the crate, and declares it to be the Devil himself.
Before the crate has been loaded into the train, a thief dies trying to break into it. His corpse has white eyes (no pupils or irises), and whatever killed him is not apparent.
Then the Horror Express gets moving, leaving Shanghai or Beijing (depending on whether you believe the dialogue or the film titles) to make its way across Siberia.
It should shock you not at all to learn that the creature in the crate awakens and starts killing passengers. But it gets more interesting than that.
Because the creature is killed and gone about halfway through the movie. Sort of. It has actually possessed one of the passengers, and continues its work through that agent.
When it kills, it absorbs all of its victim’s memories (leaving their brains smooth and unwrinkled — this movie posits that the wrinkles on the brain are the way memories are recorded) and through their eyes, leaving the eyes white.
And the body the creature left behind gets examined. It kept memories in a different fashion. When Lee and Cushing examine fluid from within one of its eyes, they see images. One of (a drawing of) a dinosaur, another of the Earth “as it must appear from space”. So the creature ain’t from around here.
But then, when everyone on the train realizes that there’s something very bad aboard with them, we switch to a Siberian station, and we meet Telly Savalas. He emerges from under a fur blanket, where he was keeping a lady warm (wink wink, nudge nudge), and proceeds to talk crazy talk to the station agent:
“Tell me, little father, do you believe in the devil?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Oh, good. Send a telegram. Tell them that Captain Kazan, he knows that a horse has four legs, he knows that a murderer has two arms, but still, the devil must be afraid of one honest Kossack, hm?”
I have no idea what it means. But Savalas delivers the line with mad-eyed glee, chewing the scenery something fierce, and it’s magnificent.
He and his Kossack soldiers have the train stop, and get aboard to take care of business. At one point, he orders the monk killed:
“But what if the monk is innocent?”
“Ahh, we got lots of innocent monks!”
He’s in the movie for maybe ten minutes or so, but damn is he fun to watch. He’s got his performance cranked up to eleven for every second he’s on screen.
The whole thing is thoroughly entertaining, as you might expect just from the cast (and the fact that Lee and Cushing are, in fact, the leads, and not simply in the movie for a few minutes to add star power to the cast). It’s a Spanish production, seemingly, with no connection to Hammer Films at all. Even so, it’s a lot of fun.
Cushing gets the best line and delivery of the film, though. At one point, he and Lee are in a compartment when a Police Inspector enters:
“Two of you together? That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?”
“Monster? We’re British, you know!”
I laughed out loud.