If you’re a hor­ror fan of a cer­tain age then the idea of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing team­ing up in a movie togeth­er is the kind of thing that gets your pulse rac­ing.  They were two of the finest actors the gen­re has ever had and their real-life friend­ship ensured that they had great on-screen chem­istry.  That said, the pres­ence of both men in a film’s cast doesn’t mean there is always a lot of chance for them to let their genius-actor sparks fly: even in gems like Horror Of Dracula or Scream And Scream Again, their onscreen time togeth­er was often lim­it­ed to lit­tle or none.

However, fans of the­se actors can take com­fort in an endur­ing clas­sic that allows them to show what they could do as a team: Horror Express.  This vet­er­an of the bar­gain bins has wowed many a hor­ror buff over the years, serv­ing up a tale that deliv­ers comic-book fun and intel­li­gent sur­pris­es in a sharply-paced lit­tle pack­age.  The fact that it offers a great set of roles for Cushing and Lee is the cher­ry atop the sun­dae.

The plot of Horror Express feels like it sprang direct­ly from one of the old hor­ror pulps, right down to its 1906 set­ting.  Anthlopogist Alexander Saxton (Lee) finds what he con­sid­ers to be the miss­ing link in the chain of human evo­lu­tion in Manchuria and has it hauled to the Transiberian Express so he can bring it home to England.  In the process, he runs into Dr. Wells (Cushing), a com­pet­i­tive sci­en­tist who is curi­ous about his dis­cov­ery — and who also has a world­ly way about him that annoys Saxton.

However, pro­fes­sion­al rival­ry turns out to be the least of this duo’s prob­lems.  It turns out the spec­i­men that Saxton picked up is not dead and it might not be human.  To make mat­ters worse, it the abil­i­ty to mur­der through psy­chic means and a desire to assert its author­i­ty over the humans.  Saxton and Wells must team up to stop the creature’s reign of ter­ror before it can go glob­al, a chal­lenge that inten­si­fies when the crea­ture uses its oth­er­world­ly skills to “inhab­it” the oth­er pas­sen­gers.  To add fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion, they also have to con­tend with Cossack army cap­tain Kazan (Telly Savalas!)…

Simply put, Horror Express is exact­ly the kind of crack­ing yarn you hope for when you check out a hor­ror flick of this vin­tage.  The script is wild but also skill­ful­ly-craft­ed: imag­ine Alistair MacLain writ­ing a train-set remake of The Thing From Another World that also throws in ele­ments of Chariots Of The Gods and the Irwin Allen-style dis­as­ter flick — that’ll give you an idea of the fun on dis­play here.  Better yet, the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are sur­pris­ing­ly sharp and the lat­ter half of the film has some inter­est­ing com­men­tary to offer on reli­gion.

Better yet, Horror Express is direct­ed in an appro­pri­ate­ly full-throt­tle style by Eugenio Martin, who main­tains a white-knuck­le pace that deploys both adven­ture movie tac­tics and hor­ror atmos­phere with con­fi­dence.  Some sce­nes mix both, the best being a scene where the crea­ture takes on a bunch of sol­diers in a dark­ened train car.  Martin’s not shy about spilling a lit­tle blood either, as a sur­pris­ing­ly grue­some-for-the-time brain surgery scene shows.  Even the man-in-a-suit crea­ture sce­nes work bet­ter than they might have oth­er­wise because of his intense, kinet­ic approach to them (great use of dis­solves and hand-held cam­er­a­work here).

However, the ele­ment of the film that real­ly sells the wild sto­ry­line is the per­for­mances.  Cushing and Lee are typ­i­cal­ly pro­fes­sion­al, effort­less­ly sell­ing the most fan­tas­tic of plots as they always did, but they show extra inspi­ra­tion here since they have a chance to bounce off each oth­er.  Lee does the impe­ri­ous, snob­by arche­type to chilly per­fec­tion while Cushing off­sets him nice­ly as a more charm­ing and low-key but amus­ing­ly devi­ous exam­ple of the “smooth oper­a­tor” vari­ety.

The duo’s work is nice­ly sup­port­ed by a vari­ety of capa­ble sup­port­ing per­for­mances.  For instance, Julio Pena offers an effec­tive, sub­tle turn as a police­man who faces unex­pect­ed chal­lenges from the crea­ture and Eurocult reg­u­lar Helga Line is fetch­ing as an exam­ple of local roy­al­ty.  However, the scene-steal­ing per­for­mances come from Alberto De Mendoza as a Rasputin-ish priest whose con­cept of reli­gion is chal­lenged by the story’s turns and Savalas as the bois­ter­ous Cossack cap­tain.  In fact, you could say Savalas takes over the film for a reel with his free­wheel­ing, campy turn — but it’s unde­ni­ably enter­tain­ing and adds an extra boost of ener­gy late in the film.

In short, Horror Express is the kind of smart, mid-lev­el hor­ror flick that proves b-movies could as inven­tive and grip­ping as their bet­ter-bud­get­ed coun­ter­parts — and best of all, it’s home to the defin­i­tive Lee/Cushing pair­ing.  If you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to your pre­ferred cult video empo­ri­um, post-haste.