Night Train Murders (L’ultimo treno della notte)

Director: Aldo Lado
Screenplay: Renato Izzo & Aldo Lado (story by Roberto Infascelli & Ettore Sanzò)
Stars: Flavio Bucci (Blackie), Macha Méril (Lady on the Train), Gianfranco De Grassi (Curly), Enrico Maria Salerno (Professor Giulio Stradi), Marina Berti (Laura Stradi), Franco Fabrizi (Voyeur), Irene Miracle (Margaret Hoffenbach), Laura D’Angelo (Lisa Stradi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1975
Country: Italy
The Night Train Murders Blu-Ray
Night Train MurdersNote: This essay contains spoilers and reveals the film’s ending, so if you have not seen it already, proceed with caution.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s the lower rung of the Italian film industry was a veritable factory in the low-budget horror rip-off trade, shamelessly recycling American hits like The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), and Dawn of the Dead (1978) over and over again with increasingly diminishing results. Most of these films are artless garbage, amusing only in their ineptitude and unapologetic crassness, although every once in a while a rough gem emerged that actually found a way to improve on its source material. One of those is Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders, which despite giving no credit, is essentially a remake of Wes Craven’s notorious low-budget shocker The Last House on the Left (1972). The lack of credit is only appropriate given that Craven’s film (his writing and directing debut) was itself an uncredited rehashing of the plot from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960).

The basic structure of all three films is the same: a young girl (or girls) leaves the safety of her family and is beset by violent men who rape and kill her, who in turn seek shelter in the home of the girl’s family, who eventually realizes what has happened and enacts revenge. Despite the narrative similarities, each film has its own particular moral statement to make: Bergman’s film used the violence as an interrogation of the Christian concepts of repentance and forgiveness, while Craven used it to illustrate how cycles of violence deaden our humanity. For Lado, who co-wrote the script for Night Train Murders with Renato Izzo (from a story credited to producer Roberto Infascelli and Ettore Sanzò), the story was an opportunity to explore how evil and sadism can be successfully hidden behind a bourgeois façade. Lado’s primary contribution to the narrative is the inclusion of a character who is not outwardly repulsive, which makes her all the more insidious in her manipulation of the conventionally criminal characters. Bergman’s rapists were rough, unsophisticated goat herders, while Craven’s were escaped convicts who would look at home in the Manson Family—all easily identifiable types, which makes them, in a strange way, more comforting. Evil is easier to accept if we believe we can spot it and therefore avoid it.

Like the earlier films, the violence in Night Train Murders is perpetuated by a triumvirate, although Lado first misleads us to assume that the primary villains are a duo of street thugs, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), who we first meet during the opening credits sequence staking out potential marks on the streets of Munich and beating up a man dressed as Santa Claus for his money. Blackie and Curly are violent and antisocial in ways that are obvious and expected, which is why the film is so much more interesting in its introduction of a character known only as the Lady on the Train (Macha Méril), a well-dressed, imminently proper woman whose clear diction and well-rehearsed poise would seem to mark her as a perfectly respectable member of the European upper class. However, when her purse tips over in a train car we see that she is carrying what appear to be pornographic pictures, and any suspicion we have of her morality is confirmed when she turns the tables on Blackie and becomes the aggressor when he tries to rape her in a bathroom.

Meanwhile, we have also been following the story of Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo), teenage cousins who are leaving after a stay in Munich to spend Christmas in Italy with Margaret’s wealthy parents, Giulio (Enrico Maria Salerno), a surgeon, and Laura (Marina Berti). Temporarily free from the constraints of adult supervision while on the train, Margaret and Lisa engage in mildly rebellious behavior like sneaking cigarettes and flirting. Unfortunately, they flirt with Blackie and Curly, who are on the train illegally, and after they switch at night to a less crowded train, the two men and the lady follow, eventually trapping them in a deserted car at the rear. Any sense of fun and rebellion is lost as the two girls are psychologically and then physically tormented by the threesome, their fate sealed by the film’s title. The fates of the Lady, Blackie, and Curly are also seemingly sealed when they run into Margaret’s parents at the train station and go back to their home, unaware that they are with the family of the girl they just killed. However, Lado turns the tables on the audience in the final moments, following through with the emotionally cathartic revenge killings of Blackie and Curly while leaving the Lady on the Train unscathed. Just as Craven ended The Last House on the Left with a freeze-frame of the distraught parents following their violent frenzy, Lado ends his film on a freeze-frame of the lady lowering her veil and preparing to slip back into society, her sadism and remorseless violence still safely a secret.

While The Last House on the Left was an emotionally effective, but aesthetically and tonally clumsy film, Night Train Murders is on much more solid ground. Lado, who had already directed several memorable gialli in the early ’70s including La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (1971) and Who Saw Her Die? (1972), brings to the film a keen eye and a sense of how lighting and camera angles can enhance the discomfort and claustrophobia of the violence. Working with veteran cinematographer Gábor Pogány, who had previously worked with Vittorio de Sica (1960’s Two Women) among others, Lado finds a strong balance between artistry and a certain roughness inherent to the material. The lengthy sequence in which Margaret and Lisa are trapped in the train car is bathed in a blue light that makes the cramped confines feel even tighter and more restrictive, which allows Lado to convey an unrelenting atmosphere of menace and escalating violence while leaving virtually all of the details off-screen (Craven, on the other hand, wallowed in gruesomeness). The film is also aided by strong performances by his main actors, several of whom would go on to work with Dario Argento (Macha Méril played the medium in 1975’s Deep Red, Flavio Bucci played the blind piano player in 1977’s Suspiria, and Irene Miracle played the lead in 1980’s Inferno). Famed composer Ennio Morricone borrows heavily from his previous work on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) by building much of the score around a multi-tracked harmonica, which is diegetically played by Curly and is often used to announced their off-screen presence (Morricone’s music during the climax sounds quite a bit like his later score for 1987’s The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma).

As good as it is, Night Train Murders does have a few thunderous flaws, starting with “A Flower’s All You Need,” the awful and completely inappropriate song by the popular Greek singer Demis Roussos that plays over the opening credits and is inexplicably replayed during the end credits, thus ensuring tonal dissonance at the very beginning and the very end. Lado was daring in refusing any sense of comedic relief anywhere in the film (thus rectifying Craven’s biggest gaffe in Last House on the Left), but one has to wonder what he was thinking in starting and ending the film on such an off note (in a 2004 interview he says the song was Morricone’s idea, but never explains why he went along with it). The film’s other problem is inherent in its narrative: Simply put, the necessity of getting the three murderers back to the house of the murder victim’s family requires distractingly labored narrative gymnastics. The concept works in Bergman’s film because of its setting in sparsely populated rural, medieval Sweden. By updating the setting, Night Train Murders must explain not only why the Lady, Blackie, and Curly would want to go back to the parents’ house, but why the parents would allow them. While reason is given, it feels terribly contrived, but not so much that it saps the force out of the film’s final moments. Although certainly bereft of originality, Night Train Murders reworks familiar material with enough gusto and thematic interest to make it worth revisiting.

Night Train Murders Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • “Riding the Night Train” interview with Aldo Lado
  • U.S. trailer
  • International trailer
  • Radio spots
  • Poster & still gallery
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    Release DateJanuary 31, 2012

    Blue Underground has done another fabulous job in presenting Night Train Murders in a new 1080p high-definition transfer made from the original camera negative. The image is demonstrably brighter, sharper, and clearer than the previously available DVD, with better color presentation and detail throughout (the DVD transfer had a slightly yellowish tinge to it in comparison). The visual improvement is especially evident in the sequence in the train car that is lit entirely with blue light; strong detail comes out even with the monochromatic lighting and heavy darkness throughout the scene. The only available soundtrack is a lossless DTS-HD monaural English dub, which certainly has its limitations, but works with the material.
    All of the supplements included on this Blu-Ray were previously available on Blue Underground’s 2004 DVD. “Riding the Night Train” is an informative 15-minute interview with co-writer/director Aldo Lado, who discusses the film’s origins and production (I frankly don’t believe that he was unfamiliar with The Last House on the Left and find it convenient that he is able to lay the film’s similarities at the feet of the film’s producer). Also on the disc is the U.S. trailer, the international trailer, several radio spots, and a fantastic gallery of posters, lobby cards, production photos, and video box art (which, I believe, combines a number of separate stills galleries from the DVD).

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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