All aboard the Trans-Siberian Express – non stop to the shores of hell. That’s the interpretation of the priest character on board. But he’s off-base; it’s an alien monster that’s causing all the trouble – a monster derivative of “The Thing” story, but about 10 years before John Carpenter presented his version. The creature is literally millions of years old, having passed through various forms as life evolved on Earth; then someone makes the mistake of storing it on board in a frozen apelike fossil. Next thing you know, certain individuals are behaving strangely, with glowing red eyes, and others turn up dead with eyes whited out (and brains drained). This, of course, benefits from the umpteenth pairing of Lee and Cushing; Lee is the arrogant scientist here and Cushing is again a doctor. Much of the entertaining dialogue stems from the conflict between science and religion, during the transitional phase of the early 20th century. The priest rants on about Satan; Lee calls it rubbish. Here’s a typical quote from the priest: ‘There’s the stench of death on board this train; even the dog knows it.’ The dog belongs to a couple of aristocratic Russians on board.
At the one hour mark, Savalas shows up as a power-mad Cossack with his soldiers, ready to kick everyone to hell and back. He manages to make quite an impression in the next 15 minutes as the death toll escalates. He and the two leads (British all the way) sort of ham it up, as if knowing they’re in some crackerjack cheesy horror material, but there’s also quite a bit of eeriness to the proceedings. The filmmakers managed to get the nice train set from an earlier big budget production and made good use of it. The train itself becomes nearly another character, hurtling through the dark with snow and a chill wind all around, and the interior set design is quite good. The musical score is also unusual; when one expects ominous tones during some sequences, instead we get a kind of tuneful melody. But the best thing about this is the concept itself – this thing, this form of energy, having been around forever and theoretically capable of curing all our ills, contents itself with the easy kill. Boy, does it like to drain brains.