Made in a time where horror was arguably at one of its strongest points, Horror Express brings together several very talented actors -- two of which are justifiable horror icons -- to give life to the tale. Uniting several classic elements such as the inescapable claustrophobia of the cramped quarters, the inhospitable surroundings that make escape impossible, and the evil from the past, one would imagine going into this film that it could surely do no wrong.
Certainly the film itself does a good enough job of building tension to a suitable point, although there are periods in it that falter and flounder slightly; the inclusion of the 'mad monk' character does little to really improve this, and while the 'religion versus science' clash is a classic theme of horror, he was just too much and not well enough played. It wasn't a fault of the actor, just nothing to do with a poorly-defined token character.
The tension does rise significantly as the film continues however, and the inclusion of an adversary without a monstrous body per se does certainly make for very suspenseful viewing. Some of the tension is indeed highly effective, whereas other points may fail to evoke the expected scare, and some potentially interesting characters (and talented actors) are completely wasted in their ultimately insignificant parts.
One of these is, regrettably, Telly Savalas, whose role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. He chews up the scenery, he makes an immense impression and does an amazing job with his paltry part, and then he's unfortunately gone almost as quickly and suddenly as he arrived. His part, and indeed much of the plot, hinges on unexplained or unlikely occurrences that seem at times to come out of nowhere (and occasionally to go back there), which takes away from the film at times. I had described it as similar to a classic serial of the British science-fiction series Doctor Who, except without the titular character -- the plot moves for no discernible reason except that it is scripted, and there is no noticeable protagonist as such.
Even with all of these things to pick at, Horror Express manages to be very watchable and even absorbing at times. Lee and Cushing, naturally, do an excellent job as always, giving charm and life to their characters. Cushing's one-line retort at the possibility that one of them might be the monster is absolutely hilarious, and it is so purely because of his ever-flawless delivery. No matter what the role or the circumstances, Peter Cushing manages to make his characters charming and easy to like, just as Christopher Lee exudes charisma even when his character -- as with most he's played -- would otherwise be someone unappealing. The two simply cannot help but be interesting and likable.
The premise is somewhat dodgy and ill-defined, brought down by needless philosophical antagonism, but interesting enough to make one wish to know more. As unlikely at times as it may seem, the premise is an intriguing and horrifying one, and there are a great many more questions raised than answered. It at the very least does not condescend overly to the viewers, for which I was very grateful. Instead, it tends to address the viewer on the level of the characters, which made me feel more involved and intelligently so. It isn't just a plain 'monster movie', it's quite a fair piece more intellectual and psychological, which adds to its appeal. It is not easy to dismiss Horror Express as a mindless monster vehicle or a formulaic horror jaunt.
Overall, Horror Express is quite good for what it is, and it uses its stars and story to the best of its ability. I was disappointed that the script was not better than it turned out to be, and at the waste of several very talented actors in roles far beneath them, but overall it was an intriguingly different take on something that has been done many times before and many times since. The high degree of coincidence and other things happening arbitrarily brought it down somewhat, but losing oneself in the film is easy, so forgetting the details is possible while one is in its thrall.
Many horror fans would do well to give this one a viewing and see how, even in a less-than-perfect circumstance, truly talented actors, a good director, and a decent script can make for truly riveting viewing.
Review by moonmonday from the Internet Movie Database.