Night Train Murders Review
This review inevitably contains a number of spoilers; however, they should be of no surprise to anyone familiar with the plot of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left.
Students Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo) are heading down from Germany to Italy to spend the Christmas holidays with Lisa's parents (Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti). Unbeknownst them, they board the same train as two petty criminals, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), on the run from the police. Blackie and Curly team up with a female passenger (Macha Méril), who quickly proves that beneath her refined exterior lies a decidedly sadistic streak. When the train is stopped in Austria due to a bomb threat, Margaret and Lisa decide to switch trains to be on the safe side, but the trio of hoodlums follow them and, over the course of the night, subject the two girls to a horrifying ordeal culminating in their death. The next morning, the unsuspecting villains pay a visit to the home of Lisa's parents, where the proverbial shit understandably hits the fan.
Sound familiar? It should. The plot of Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders (L'Ultimo Treno della Notte) is almost identical to that of The Last House on the Left; the Italian title, which translates as "The Last Train of the Night", even recalls Wes Craven's controversial 1972 rape-revenge shocker in name. This is nothing particularly new, as European and American cinema have been surreptitiously pickpocketing ideas from each other for longer than either would care to mention, especially in the horror genre, but what is interesting is how much better this Italian replica turns out to be than its source material. Don't get me wrong, I know Last House has its fans (click here for Karl Wareham's excellent defence of it), but it is not a film that impressed me one iota, featuring (in my opinion) a wholly ineffectual combination of awkward depravity and clumsy slapstick comedy, not to mention some of the worst uses of folk music I have ever heard on film.
Things don't get off to a good start, with a skin-crawling song performed by Demis Roussos opening the film and suggesting that the use of music is likely to be every bit as bad as that of Craven's shocker. Fairly quickly, however, the situation improves, as the song disappears into the background. Ennio Morricone's minimalist score, comprised mainly of diagetic mouth-organ music performed by Curly (a concept repeated in a number of Morricone-scored films), is used with restraint, generally allowing the on-screen events to speak for themselves. From then on in, Night Train Murders proves to be a hair-raising piece of work, gradually building up the tension and depravity until both reach near unbearable levels. The film's portrayal of violence and humiliation (primarily but not exclusively sexual) is both horrifying but restrained, with Lado at no point seeming to relish the horrors that he is depicting. The film has a melancholic air of inevitability, with Margaret and Lisa clearly marked as doomed from the moment they board their train, just as Blackie and Curly are doomed from the moment they meet Lisa's parents. It is also something of an oddity in that it is one of the few examples I can think of in which a European reiteration of an American film has received a significantly higher budget than its predecessor, with a glossier, more movie-like look and feel - shot on 35mm film and scored by the redoubtable Morricone, when compared to Last House with its 16mm film stock and home video-style photography.
Dario Argento fans are going to want to pick up this title even simply for the sheer spectacle of seeing a number of his main actors in one film. Flavio Bucci (blind pianist Daniel in Suspiria, and someone who looks uncannily like Argento himself did in the 1970s) turns in an impressive performance as the crafty Blackie. Clearly drawing on the influence of David Hess in Last House, he occupies a similar role but with the one key difference that he is the manipulated rather than the manipulator in Lado's version. The controlling figure is Macha Méril (psychic Helga Ulmann in Profondo Rosso)'s unnamed Lady, and her performance is excellent: sinister and sexy at the same time, and a complete bitch to boot. Other familiar faces include Enrico Maria Salerno of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage fame, whose performance is unfortunately greatly hampered by the English dubbing, and Irene Miracle, who was mesmerizing as Rose in Inferno and does a decent job here, portraying the psychological trauma of her ordeal with considerable skill. Less impressive is Laura D'Angelo, who never seems to become sufficiently distressed by her situation and again is hampered by the dubbing.
What primarily elevates Lado's film beyond Craven's, in my opinion, is his keen understanding of political and social issues - something he also showed in his directorial debut, Short Night of Glass Dolls. That particular film's tale of decadent elders retaining power by feasting on the blood of the young proves to have a timeless appeal, since its backdrop of Communist Prague could just as easily be interchanged with present-day America, and the same is true of Night Train Murders. The central message that those who appear to be the most respectable have it in them to be the most depraved is incredibly potent, and is realized here with a relatively delicate touch. It has often surprised me that Lado, working in a genre not exactly known for its subtlety, was able to infuse his films with such intelligent ideas, and in my opinion Night Train Murders' message is a good deal more effective than Craven's well-meaning but misplaced "who's the more degenerate?" game. Of course, Lado's film shares the same story structure as Craven's, so both films feature the rather clumsy resolution of parents turned avenging murderers but, thanks to Lado's careful preparation for this finale by peppering the entire film with social commentary, it seems nothing like as cartoony as Craven's efforts. Perhaps it's the fact that I am a European and not an American, but this film resonated with me a great deal more than The Last House on the Left, despite their shared plot twists and themes.
Extremely interesting is the fact that the instigator of all the debauchery is a woman and, as mentioned above, an upper-class and supposedly "respectable" woman. A lot has been made of the fact that, after Blackie attempts to rape her in a toilet cubicle, she fairly quickly submits and goes along with his actions, before seemingly undergoing a sudden change of personality. Some rather reactionary individuals have highlighted this chain of events as proof of the film's supposed misogyny, but Lado's comments in the interview featured on this DVD help to clarify that this is not the case. The basic idea is that, at the start of the film, the Lady wears a veil over her face. This is supposed to represent the mask of respectability that she uses to hide her true nature, and from the moment that she removes the veil (a substantial amount of time before the quasi-rape takes place) she is showing her true colours. (Significantly, her discussion of politics after removing her veil shows her to have a decidedly fascist philosophy.) This clarifies the notion that she is the instigator who drives Blackie and Curly to the attrocities that they finally commit - they clearly are not the nicest of fellows prior to meeting her, but there's a world of difference between mugging a Santa and forcibly penetrating a girl's vagina with a knife - and while Blackie's rape of Lady still doesn't sit particularly well with me (as it gives the impression that she was "leading him on", which is dangerous territory to get into when portraying rape), I would argue that it is justified by the film's intended social commentary.
Presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Night Train Murders looks very good but falls short or perfection due to the fact that, like all Blue Underground transfers, it has been heavily filtered and edge enhanced. The results are not quite as unpleasant as, say, Two Evil Eyes, but if Blue Underground are to ever be ranked on the same level as Criterion, a company to whom they seem (rather arrogantly, if you ask me) more than eager to compare themselves, they will have to do better. At least the colours and contrast are absolutely superb, and there are no obvious compression artefacts barring some mild mosquito noise during the opening credits.
The only included audio mix is the original English mono dub, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Truth be told, it's not a bad dub, with some reasonably well-chosen voices, particularly for the trio of villains, and Irene Miracle seems to provide her own voice, but the other characters suffer to some extent. Blue Underground should definitely have included the Italian dub as an alternative. They should also have included subtitles, which they have once again neglected to provide in any shape, way or form.
This seems like a good time to mention the on-screen credits, which are in English and very ugly. Rather than using the original Italian text, Blue Underground have clearly sourced them from an American print, hence a number of important credits (including the writers') being missing and the film being identified as Night Train Murders rather than by its international distribution title, "[Don't Ride on] Late Night Trains", or its original Italian name.
Definitely stressing quality over quantity, this is not one of Blue Underground's more lavish releases, but what is included is definitely of interest. By far the most worthwhile feature is an Aldo Lado interview, where Lado, over the course of 15 minutes, discusses the origins of the film, the casting and the political and social ideas he wanted to convey. It is certainly surprising to hear that he had never seen The Last House on the Left and was merely provided with the basic plot points by his producer, whose idea it was to make a Last House-style movie. Given the obvious similarities in respect to more than just the basic premise, this does seem a little hard to believe, but I have always been struck by Lado's remarkable frankness whenever I have seen interviews with him, so for the time being I'm going to take his word for it. It would have been nice to hear from some of the cast members, particularly Irene Miracle, who unlike many of her contemporaries has always been extremely grateful for her experiences working in the field of European horror and exploitation, but Lado is as lucid as always, so he will have to do.
The rest of the extras are less interesting, comprising the US and international Theatrical Trailers, two US Radio Spots, and various Galleries, covering publicity material, soundtracks and video releases from around the world.
I should probably make some mention of the menus, which are rather clunky, comprised of some badly rendered 3D train tracks, and suffer from overly long transitions.
With Night Train Murders, Aldo Lado's entire small but significant contribution to the horror/thriller genre is now available on DVD. A fascinating piece of work that manages to be better than its source material, it has also allowed me to put the rest of this director's work into context (you can perhaps expect a re-appraisal of Who Saw Her Die? in the future). One of Blue Underground's less lavish releases, its presentation suffers from this company's usual flaws but is comfortably the best-looking release of the film to date. Fans of exploitation movies and Euro horror in general are strongly advised to check this out.
Endnote: Try as I might, I couldn't find a James Bond connection for this film, which would signal it as being the odd one out in Lado's horror filmography when compared with Short Night of Glass Dolls (Barbara Bach) and Who Saw Her Die? (George Lazenby). If anyone finds one, please let me know!