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The unexpected popularity of - and the not unexpected controversy surrounding - Wes Craven's notorious shocker, Last House on the Left, meant that in typical Italian cinematic fashion, a bandwagon was there to be jumped on. In this case director Aldo Lado took a ride on the late night train to Exploitationville and managed to craft something from the same source material as Craven (Bergman's The Virgin Spring), but was more stylish and in many ways more shocking.

Late Night Trains, a movie so very controversial: they're actually smoking on a train!

Christmas is just around the corner, and two friends, Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo), are travelling on the overnight train from Munich to Verona, unfortunately for them, also hopping aboard the train to Verona are two ungentlemanly thugs, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), not to mention a mysterious woman (Macha Meril); this trio of of social deviants will make the overnight journey a living hell for Margaret and Lisa, with the final destination being death, with a quick stopover in revenge beforehand...

There are two things in like which seldom go better together with us, those being filth and Christmas.  It all started when we got the John Waters/Divine VHS box set more years ago then we care to remember, but since then, watching Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and others of Waters’ Dreamland films just seem to spell out the spirit of Christmas in big neon letters.  Furthermore, such love of the loathsome also puts us in the category of “ Last House on the Left apologists”, whereby we defend Wes Craven’s landmark debut (in spite of its many questionable choices) to those who just won’t see the beauty of such admirable brutality at work.  It goes without saying that when we finally got around to seeing Aldo Lado’s combination of Craven, Christmas and filth, we knew that it had us from Demis Rousous’ warbling of A Flower’s All You Need.

The first few minutes in Munich set the scene through wonderfully atmospheric shots of all things Christmas on the bustling streets, with all concerned rushing around to get the last few bits for the big day. Nobody does the festive period better than the Bavarians, showcased here at its very best, to the point where you just want to climb through the screen and experience it all for yourself, and whilst this is clearly impossible, The Night Train Murders gives you the closest thing to actually being there, comprising all the joys of escorted shopping trips but without all those arsehole you have to sit with on the coach. Despite this wonderful Yuletide setting, the seeds of doom are sewn early on when the respective parents of Miracle and D’Angelo are too worried to send their little lambs across Europe by plane, compelling them to their fate by insisting on letting the train take the strain.

The introduction of the antagonists comes in the form of one of the most efficient ways seen in Euro-cinema. Where Krug & company are unveiled with a radio report detailing their deeds before bursting a child’s balloon in Craven’s film, here we get the bad boys slashing the backs of expensive fur coats in a display the rich/poor divide.  While such actions would be applauded today by the anti-fur lobby, this was the height of terrorism against the bourgeois back then.  Not stopping there, when the season to be jolly proves too much for one particular Santa, taking a belt of scotch is quickly followed by a belt in the chops as our boys go on the rampage.

"Ho, Ho...Ohhhhhh!!!!!"

A strong theme in the film is that of growing up, and the reluctance of parents to let their children do so – or the consequences of smothering them. Had the parents not been so paranoid about the safety of air travel and let them fly to Verona rather than getting them to take the “safer” train option, then they would have both still been alive. Only after unwittingly setting her death in motion does he reach the point where the life of his daughter hangs in the balance, only then does he decide that he trusts her enough to buy her the motorbike she previously wanted but thought too unsafe. The key line of dialogue from Salerno in “It’s amazing how children can change your mind, isn’t it?” comes to ferocious fruition at the movie's vengeful climax, where daddy goes out for revenge.

Many really hate the warbling central song provided by none other than the recently late Demis Rousoss, who belts out the strangely poignant theme with the kind of gusto reserved for reaching the back of football stadium. We liked the title song of Jess Franco’s Faceless, so it comes as no surprise that we take a lot more kindly to this than most others! It’s even money as to if the particular flora of the title is either used as a symbol of love or referring to the flower of virginity, but the overriding theme of purity still resonates regardless of specifics. Even those who hate it agree that it possesses an effecting power when playing over the end credits, as though the spirits of the two girls are forever entwined within the music, transcending turgid to the realm of movingly mournful.

Though the Italian acting pool is a fairly deep one, it should come as no surprise that links can be established now and again; there is a convergence of past, present and future Dario Argento stars Salerno ( Bird with the Crystal Plumage) Meril ( Profondo Rosso), Bucci ( Suspiria) and Miracle ( Inferno). Only George Romero’s The Crazies has managed such a cool feat within the genre, combining actors from all three of the (at the time incomplete) Dead Trilogy.

The introduction of Meril’s unnamed character is superbly realised, with her ultra-chic exterior hiding the soul of a decadent pervert in transparent gauze of respectability. Talking politics with a group of intellectuals on matters of society, the flow of conversation is momentarily halted when a picture drops from her purse, briefly revealing a snapshot of an orgy. Executed perfectly, the audience is now wondering why such and outwardly respectable woman would carry such a photo, and the more cluey viewers are pondering if she herself was the focal point of the image in question. Like many elements in the film, they serve as “bookends” to the fate of certain characters, and said photograph gives Merril’s secret away both on the train to Salerno.

Let's just...look at this slide for a moment...without question.  I think it speaks...FOR ITSEEEEEELF!

The handy thing for both Wes Craven and Aldo Lado about adapting Bergman's The Virgin Spring is that Bergman based his film upon a 13th century ballad - Töre's daughters in Vänge - and it had obviously been out of copyright for a while. All three films follow the same basic path, but Lado and his fellow writers were able to throw in a few nifty little ideas of their own here and there.

Late Night Trains and Last House have the same core morality at work, with the rebellious actions of the two female characters (one slightly slutty & streetwise, the other a virgin) being castigated through sexual humiliation, violent rape and murder. Be it the scoring of grass on the way to a rock concert of Craven’s movie or the mere smoking of cigarettes, the end result is just as fatal each time. Craven’s partner on the movie went on to simplify the equation even more so when Sean S Cunningham removed the sexual element which troubled censors and created the deadly-efficient Friday the 13th series.

The themes at play are perfectly illustrated by the way that Bucci and De Grassi go from goofy, anti-establishment arseholes to genuine threat. Their graduation from the petty to vicious criminals is puppeteered by the decadent, bourgeois Meril, having the lower classes literally and figuratively get their hands dirty in the quest to satiate her own pleasures. Should they have been left to their own devices, the duo might only have been guilty of fare evasion and general mischief aboard the train, but Meril’s desire to push boundaries sees them effectively brainwashed into sexual assault and manslaughter.  

Just when the molestation of two under-age girls couldn’t get any more twisted, Lado throws in the most trusty perversion among the decadent: voyeurism. A smartly-dressed passenger stands outside the door for a good few minutes as the sickness unfolds, and at this point, the audience is sure that he’s going to help the girls from their plight, but instead merely watching with unyielding lust and the inability to turn away. Spotted by the gang, he is drawn into the action but flees once the reality of what he’s doing hits home, running off like a married cottager suddenly struck with guilt after a glory-hole blow-job in a scummy toilet.

As said before The Night Train Murders isn’t solely an exercise in sexual depravity, as social and institutional corruption in the form of two national staples from Italy & Germany are expertly skewed using other passengers on the train. Paedophilia within religion is slyly speared when a senior, elderly cleric in a carriage full of priests shoots a leering wink at a teenage member of his brethren, only for such suggestiveness to be explained away as a facial tic.  The other involves a group of German businessmen singing typically patriotic Teutonic songs together, only for one of antagonists to interrupt proceedings with a yell of “Heil, Hitler” as he makes a Nazi salute. Not fast enough to realise that it’s all a joke, and that old habits die hard, the whole carriage repeats the greeting as our antagonist segues into a rebellious clenched-fist before running off. That Late Night Trains was only a mere 30 years after the war, it’s an amusing and unsettling scene which highlighted that even in the decadent, liberated seventies, there were those who believed in the Nazi ideals they embraced in their youth.

Did someone say "Bring in the perverts?"

The strong guiding force in the movie has got to be the wonderful Enrico Maria Salerno, whom we have loved ever since we first saw him in as Inspector Morosini in Dario Argento’s seminal Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The guy has an effortless charisma which gives his thankless character more depth and gravitas than most other actors would have given it.  With the fate of the girls inevitable, there is little to do but have to wait to slowly receive the news of their deaths and react accordingly, as most viewers will have had a heads-up from seeing Last House, but Salerno is able to play the material for so much more.

Some of the movie’s detractors who claim that the central theme is presented too literally, whilst others maintain that the film is merely sexual sadism purely for the sake of titillation - we like to think that both are wrong, and we are phrasing this mildly for the sake of our more delicate of readers. The premise of depravity and savagery hidden behind a veil of respectability is handled skilfully, be it Meril physically hiding her perversions behind one or Salerno figuratively doing with his life as a doctor, socialite and that of a wealthy man. These are the very people who ruminate over morality at swanky gatherings in the same way as those in Death Wish, those who buy their daughter an expensive Lambretta for Christmas then think nothing of the money spent when they - on a whim - decide to buy her cousin the very same. Such liberalism and money mean nothing when the line is crossed, and the inner beast is set free.

With all of the “nods” towards Last House, it’s worth pointing out that a central character device is lifted directly from Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, whereby one of the antagonists plays a harmonica as his own piece of leitmotif.  Charlie Bronson puffing out a few notes indicated that blood and bullets were not far behind, but Bucci blowing his harp signals that hot lead of another description will soon follow. Ennio Morricone provides a typically wonderful score for the rest of the film, and makes the whole experience a doom-laden one, instilling an almost tangible dread into the proceedings.  There is no such thing as mediocrity from the man, and this particular soundtrack is among our favourites.

Terrorism is tackled on two different levels in The Night Train Murders, with the focus put on the more immediate atrocities carried out on the innocent by the morally depraved, something which all viewers can appreciate in spite of the film now being 40 years old.  To claim the only act of  violence carried out by the gang takes place during the scene of genital mutilation is to completely miss the subtle ways it had been going on right from the first time the principle characters met on the train. Everything about  the antagonists’ actions are deliberate forms of intimidation, carefully ratcheted up to achieve their goal. Lado skilfully makes parallels to the more traditional forms of terrorism, where a bomb scare during the train journey (one assumes the work of the Brigado Rosso) causes the girls to change trains, effectively sealing their fate and whilst not actually blowing them up, the actions of the terrorists affects their routines and gets them killed in the process.

Literally lifting the veil on bourgeois decadence...

Sticking with the subject, in times where national security the world over being so tight, it comes as reassuring to see a whole squad of police officers swarming the girls’ train when a bomb-threat is suspected. Looking like a Nazi invasion, it sends out a powerfully reassuring beacon to the girls when they seize the opportunity of leaving their captors to the police. Lado really plays a trump card in this sequence, as salvation is so close at hand, yet those who need it most are too afraid to let themselves be saved, instead playing directly into the hands of the rapists again. A feeling of relief comes when the train is searched, but the cosy rug is pulled out from under your feet when you just want the girls’ suffering to be over.

At the heart of both Craven and Lado’s films is the destruction of social boundaries, combined with the trampling of accepted behaviour. To begin with, the antagonists of The Night Train Murders are doing nothing more than being loutish, disrupting the girls’ Christmas spirit along with all those around them. Once switching trains, the stakes are higher, and imprisoning them in a private carriage with them moves for atmosphere firmly into the realms of threatening. Muscling in on their minor Christmas celebrations and eating their food is soon followed by intimidation and rape. Where Craven had Krugs’ prey urinate in fear before carving up with a knife, Lado goes one further and uses the blade itself for the sexual assault. Should she have even survived, his mark would have been permanently left through a lifetime of urinary tract infections if nothing else. It is rather interesting to note that The Night Train Murders was able to use the climax Craven abandoned in his opus, one of a doctor dealing death by life-saving equipment, and it’s up for debate as to if this or a chainsaw is the more appropriate way to finish a film.

At its heart is an examination of the depths humanity can be driven to, be they through their own depravity, grief, anger or desperation - with a cross-section of society shown reaching rock-bottom before snapping. Meril finds that her perversions are no longer fun once they have caused the death of an innocent, the young hoods discover that their thirst for nihilistic thrills has limits, Miracle becomes so desperate to get away from her captors that she leaps to her death as a more preferable fate and the kids’ parents discover that the societal niceties they cherish are inconsequential in the face of revenge. The limits of all concerned are reached, with inevitable outcomes for each, and even the most base realise the point where they have gone too far. Be it trying to atone for their sins, choosing death in one form or another or - in the case of the voyeur watching the proceedings, expunging his guilt by calling the authorities. There certainly is morality in play with The Night Train Murders, but refuses to take the easy option of inverting the particular said moralities of each character: those who are “bad” are not obliged to become “good” by close of credits, nor those deemed “respectable” be bound to have their honour entirely stained.  

One of the problems with Last House on the Left was that of entirely inappropriate humour, often taking you right out of the movie and destroying the connection between audience and the protagonists, and while the humour found in The Night Train Murders is integrated nicely, there are one or two instances which threaten to derail empathy. The chief culprit is the curious choice of phrasing when one of the horny attackers tries - in vain - to penetrate the virginal Lisa, referring to her being: “…as tight as a frightened asshole”. While this always induces either nervous, quizzical or flat-out giggles from those watching, you have to wonder if the carton of drink the two girls share whilst on the train was ironically chosen, as the titular “Juice-Box” probably successfully translates into slang in most languages around the word. This unexpected sniggering is offset by the method used to remedy the situation and the consequences it has.

It takes a brave director to cross-cut between violent defloration and happiness, but Lado makes his controversial choice take flight whilst still perfectly reflecting the themes of the movie. Highly distasteful shots of the girls being raped is inter-cut with the parents dancing away with wild abandon, with no way of knowing or even caring about the possibility of such dehumanising acts being carried out on those they love most, as though some of the parents’ woes are being exorcised by the events happening within the train carriage. Most other directors would have either overcooked it or left such juxtaposition underdone, and it’s to Lado’s credit that he pulls the whole thing together with real emotional impact rather than wholesale sensationalism.

Among the obvious symbols of money and success to be found around their bourgeois home is a rather groovy radio/TV combi, with probably only the good doctor and other professionals able to afford such luxuries at the time, and having a radio incorporated into a television was probably just a way for the literati to justify having such a low-class medium in their house. Along with the rather sick zebra-skin rug adorning his living-room, you wonder how old the parents were before they started making money - clearly not long enough to become educated in taste before they made a few purchases, anyway.

The point at which the doctor hears the news of the train deaths is a tour-de-force for Salerno, sitting in his car as he pieces the girls’ fate together. Many a lazy thesp would have just gone for immediate rage or caricatured slow-burn, but there is so much more at work as the conflicting emotions surge through him.  His final thoughts of resolution and anger set the scene perfectly for the violent showdown to follow...

"The second key is hidden in the cellar..."

Video


There are a couple of odd things going on with this copy of The Night Train Murders - firstly, there are two separate copies of this film included on the disc; English language and Italian language with forced English subtitles it should be noted that it's impossible to switch between the two on the fly. Quite why they saw fit to unnecessarily put two entirely separate copies of the same film is anyone's guess, but the visuals do not seem to be unduly compromised by this.

NOTE: The images illustrating this review are from SD sources, and NOT representative of the BD.

The image quality itself is certainly comparable to the Blue Underground release, with a very clean look to the visuals and a generally pleasing appearance - it's a world away from any other medium it has been released in.  There have been some cries of DNR being applied and “fake grain” put over the top to replace the genuine stuff lost during the digital scrubbing – we can't say for certain if that is the case here, but for what it's worth, both copies presented here look good and it's VERY safe bet that a better-looking copy will emerge anywhere any time soon.  Upgrade with confidence!

Audio


As mentioned above, there are two versions of the film included, with the English language and Italian language being presented separately. Both audio tracks are LPCM mono. The soundtracks are fine, presenting a fair amount of fidelity for a film of this vintage, with Ennio Morricone's harmonica-centric score delivering a pleasing degree of fidelity; the clarity of the audio is such that  Morricone's opening rock-based instrumental theme to Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet can be heard playing in the background.

If there's something that is irksome, it's that the subtitles presented for the Italian language copy are Hard-of-Hearing subtitles, meaning that descriptions of sound effects and the like are included, which is bloody annoying and really puts you off wanting to watch the film in Italian.

Features


Strangers On A Late Night Trains America actress Irene Miracle is interviewed, explaining how she blundered her way into the film industry, which involved being in the company of several of Italy's leading directors and not recognising them. Miracle is refreshingly honest about her career, admitting that she had no real acting experience or training when she accepted the role on The Night Train Murders and accepted the part before reading the script; she relates how uncomfortable she was whilst filming the violent scenes and described the infamous knife-rape scene as “disgusting”. She speaks fondly of her co-stars and also director Aldo Lado, whom she likens to Clint Eastwood in terms of directorial method. The actress also speaks of the cultural differences in casting between Europe and America, which came as a shock to her when she wents back to the States and actually had to audition for parts. Miracle comes across as a genial and intelligent person who isn't ashamed of her early exploitation work and the 22 minutes of this featurette flies by agreeable.

Further Adventures in Italy: In what should really have been an Easter egg, this four minute piece has Irene Miracle briefly covering some of her other work whilst in Europe, describing director Lugi Cozzi as “a sweetheart” during the filming of La Portera Nuda and relating a story about being requested to “shave her pubes” on that same shoot.

English Language Trailer: The coming attraction announcement for The Night Train Murders is presented here in English. Clocking in at nearly four minutes, this is mixes cool visuals, great music and a generous amount of spoilers for your viewing pleasure. Dialogue is minimal, and there is a cool sequence near the end that has images of the main characters on-screen, with the character names below them, rather than those of the actors.

Italian Language Trailer:  The same as above, but with Italian dialogue and – strangely – English captions.

Booklet: Calum Waddell interviews director Aldo Lado and the conversation covers Lado's initial interest in film-making, through to working with Bertoluci and finally to the filming of The Night Train Murders. Waddell concludes this entertaining interview by asking the director if he was aware that his film had been banned in the UK for many years – he wasn't.

BOOTS!!! ARSE!!!  BOOTS!!! ARSE!!! BOOTS!!!  ARSE!!!

Overall


Aldo Lado's descent into madness, death and degradation trumps Wes Craven's Last House on the Left by being better acted and better directed; there are some great performances, a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone and a climax that really satisfies.

88Films are to be commended for bringing The Night Train Murders to Blu-ray in the UK; it's got very good image quality and though the extras are a little light, they are very entertaining. This is the first title in 88Films' Italian Collection, and it looks as though this series of films from them is going to be VERY interesting...


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