Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Horror Express (1972)

I bought a book at a yard sale when I was a kid. It was called Star Streak, Stories of Space and was edited by Betty M. Owen. I was probably inspired by my love of Star Wars (1977), which was pretty all-encompassing for a couple of years back then. The stories in Star Streak…, however, were not much like Star Wars. The first (and longest) one was actually Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. I knew this to be the story upon which two movies were based: The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). I had seen the former on TV, perhaps on Not Quite Classic Theatre (although I don’t think so). Oddly enough, I had not seen the “remake” by John Carpenter – in spite of the fact that I was a huge fan of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), and that the movie was playing in the theatre at a time when I was going to several movies a week. My friend Phil went to see it and became an instant super-fan – drawing artwork inspired by it, and talking about constantly. He wanted to go back and see it again – and he wanted me to come with him. For reasons that I cannot to this day explain or fathom I said no.

What the hell?!

I could go on at great length expressing the absurdity of this decision in light of all of my feelings, personal tastes – and the fact the I loved the movie beyond belief when I finally did see it. The fact remains, that I did not want to go and see The Thing at that moment – I almost can’t believe that we were ALLOWED to go and see it in the theatres. It seems like a movie that should have been rated R, but I guess it wasn’t.

I also couldn’t believe it when I found out later that the film had been a box office disappointment on its initial release. I’ve always known it to be a beloved fan favourite, and seemingly very popular (at least on video). But apparently it was not so successful during its initial theatrical run. Perhaps I was not the only fan who refused to go to it for some, inexplicable, reason.

The point that I am very slowly coming around to, is that when I finally did see The Thing, I was immediately struck by the fact that it was not a “remake” of the 1951 classic. It was actually a much more accurate adaptation of the original novella, Who Goes There?. It blew my mind to think that a “remake” could be a more accurate version of the story than the original film. And, dare I say, a better film as well (although I do love the Howard Hawks original). 

What I did not know at that time, was that there was another movie that was, in a sense, a version of Who Goes There? – and a more accurate version than The Thing from Another World (although not as accurate as John Carpenter’s film). That movie was, and is, Horror Express (1972).

I had been aware of Horror Express for quite a few years. I used to see cheapjack public domain VHS copies of the film floating around in bargain bins and on video store shelves. And, oddly enough, I never had the impulse to rent it (or buy it). In fact, I had actively avoided seeing the movie, refusing to rent it with friends if it was ever suggested. In that way, it was just like John Carpenter’s The Thing. For no reason that I could ever articulate, I just didn’t want to see Horror Express. It’s almost as if i had an allergy to movies that were (at least somewhat) accurate adaptations of Who Goes There?.

I don’t really think this can be true. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that there was anything in common between The Thing and Horror Express. I think I was just turned off by the plentiful, shoddy looking VHS boxes. But who knows?

I finally watched Horror Express when a friend of mine lent me a copy and insisted that I give it a shot. It was better than I had imagined, but it was a pretty bad print of the film, so I don’t think I was completely convinced. I watched it again a few years later, via another terrible print, and this time I decided that I needed to buy a copy – but only if it was a good, remastered print. Thanks to the Arrow Video Blu-ray, I’ve finally added it to my collection.

The thing that amazed me most about it, aside from how good it finally looks and sounds, is that it is, clearly, a version of Who Goes There?. I’m not sure that I ever quite realized that when I watched the shoddier prints of the film. If I had noticed any similarities, I probably would have written them off as simple borrowings of ideas from other films. In any case, for the first time ever, I realized what an interesting version of Who Goes There? Horror Express truly is.

I won’t bother trying to itemize the parallels, or even synopsize the plot. I’m probably the last person on Earth to catch on to how great this movie is – nobody needs me to tell them what it’s about. I will say that it has an amazing cast, including Christopher Lee as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton,  Peter Cushing as Dr. Wells, Silvia Tortosa as Countess Irina, and Telly Savalas as a Cossack military officer. The music by John Cacavas is also excellent.

I suppose it could be noted that most of the movie takes place on a train, which is a departure from all of the other versions of Who Goes There?. I seem to have a strange fondness for movies that are set on trains. This may all go back to my childhood, when I managed to watch Breakheart Pass (1975) three times on TV (in those days before home taping was possible). I’m still not sure how I did it (once on the US cable network, once on the Canadian channel and…?), but I remember distinctly seeing it three times in fairly short order. Needless to say, I thought it was pretty cool (and still do). But that’s another story…

Horror Express (1972) is an example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that would probably be a lot more revered and respected if it hadn’t spent so many years being passed around on bad public domain videotapes. I personally avoided it for a long time because of that, and I regret it (although not quite as much as I regret not going to see The Thing in the movie threatre back in ’82 – sorry about that, Phil). I am so glad that I finally have a complete and pristine print that I can screen anytime I feel like it, and what better time could there be than a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn?