Night Train Murders (US - BD)
Gabe revisits his favorite Last House on the Left rip-off on this Blu-ray release...
Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo), are set to take the overnight train from Munich in Germany to stay with Lisa's parents in Italy for Christmas. Upon boarding they find the train is full and are forced to sit in the corridor. Meanwhile, two petty criminals, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), also board the train as it is leaving Munich to escape from a pursuing policeman. Mayhem ensues.
Last September I reviewed a Blu-ray release of Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, which I called an extremely important, but generally not very good film. Last House’s major impact is found in a series of hard-edged, cinéma vérité horror films that followed it and George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, but like any popular release its influence extended to a series of rip-offs and pseudo remakes over the decade following its release. Craven cannot be given too much credit for his innovations, as Last House is effectively a gory remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but Bergman’s film didn’t immediately birth an entire subgenre of horror -– the Rape/Revenge film. The concept of a Rape/Revenge film obviously pre-dates even Bergman’s film, and cropped up in other popular B-movie genres, including Burt Kennedy’s western Hannie Caulder, and Sam Peckinpah’s psychological thriller Straw Dogs (both released in 1971), but the surprising popularity of Last House indirectly influenced films like Michael Winner’s Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact. More importantly Craven’s film directly birthed a legion of films, including Alex Fridolinski’s Thriller – A Cruel Picture (aka: They Call Her One Eye, 1973), Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981), and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). However, in a unique exploitation rip-off history twist, these films are (arguable) uniformly better than the film they’re aping.
The Italian film market was flushed with imitations, as was the tradition, including Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park (1981) and Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch Hike (both of which starred Last House lead David Hess), Franco Prosperi’s Last House on the Beach (1978), and Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (aka: L'ultimo Treno della Notte and Late Night Trains). Lado (whose last name, you may notice, is an anagram of his first name) is best known for his post-Argento giallo films, including the interesting, but glacially paced, Short Night of Glass Dolls (aka: La Corta Notte delle Bambole di Vetro, and the brilliantly melancholy Who Saw Her Die? (aka: Chi l'ha Vista Morire?). He also made an ultra-cheesy sci-fi yarn called The Humanoid, a poliziotteschi called La Cosa Buffa, and a handful of erotic comedies I’ve never heard of, but for the most part he’s known for the gialli and this film, which is somewhat notorious for originally being banned in England as part of the BBFC’s Video Recordings Act of 1984.
Night Train Murders starts, as so many Italian thrillers of the era do, with a street scene montage set to a somewhat inappropriately poppy soundtrack. What’s interesting here is that Lado isn’t only fitting the mould, but aping the innocent world perverted by violence motifs so ham-handedly squeezed into the original Last House. Here, our protagonists are slowly revealed from the crowd, and our antagonists are introduced robbing a drunken street-side Santa Claus. Lado also gets an extra pinch of danger in before the plot even really gets going by including footage of Laura’s father performing some relatively gory surgery. I suppose ham-handedness isn’t beyond Lado’s reach, but his subtext is at least a tad more subtle than Craven’s overall. From here Lado is sure to emphasize the hell out of the claustrophobic train setting, creating more even tension despite the fact that there are obviously too many people around for the villains to cause any real damage. This, of course, is contrasted later in the film, where the entire train appears so empty that the girls might as well be on the moon for all the help the outside world can offer them.
Even at this early point in his career, Lado was a much better filmmaker than Craven, and creates a much slicker experience without losing a whole lot of menace. Besides his control of the look and tone of the film, he takes the time to let the rather threadbare plot unravel, creating tension at the same time as telling little silent side-stories. Early in the film, Macha Méril’s character is largely set up entirely through dialogue-free interactions with the other aristocratic types in her car. In general, there is very little dialogue (and even less of it is necessary to the plot), which despite the exploitative nature of the material, recalls the work of Hitchcock and Lang. Lado also follows Hitchcock’s lead by including subliminal cuts and by increasing the motion of his camera as the violence accumulates. There isn’t actually that much on-screen carnage, despite the Video Nasty pedigree, but Lado gets a lot of discomfort out of some very artfully framed, yet relatively un-graphic violence. His use of a subjective view camera is especially effective.
The comedy here, though far from prevalent, is much more cogently earned, unlike the sudden zany thuds exercised by Craven. Not surprisingly, the comedy is almost exclusively partitioned to the first act and includes some genuinely funny bits like a Catholic priest ‘come hithering’ a young man (the man next to him assures the boy it’s just a ‘nervous tick’), and Blackie and Curly inciting a private car of Germans to accidentally heil Hitler. Lado and Craven both tend to fail when cutting back to Laura’s family in the midst of the build-up, but even here Lado manages to gain a minor edge thanks to better, classier casting (period Italian exploitation almost always has an edge on period American exploitation in this regard, it seems), and disturbing, artistic juxtapositions. The philosophical Christmas dinner discussion is awkward, but there is one genuinely beautiful shot from outside the house, where the camera moves as if the house itself is a moving train. Later Lisa’s parents dance as she’s raped and killed, and Lado cuts rapidly between her fading point of view, and their spinning point of view.
The overall subtext and social themes are similar between Night Train Murders and Last House, but there are key differences as well, differences that speak to the characteristics of American and Italian pop politics in the early 1970s. Craven’s film, among other things, explores the effect of working class violence on upper class, liberal intellectuals. He antagonistically plays with the prevalent anti-war conventions at the time, and arrives at the most nihilistic conclusion (something he’d repeat for his next film, The Hills Have Eyes). Lado seems less interested in the final effect of working class violence on the liberal upper class’ sensibilities and more interested in the highest of the bourgeoisie’s effect on the lower class violence in the first place. Méril’s unnamed intellectual aristocrat is, for the most part, the one that presses the relatively innocuous thugs into more increasingly violent acts and she does it for the sake of her own perverse entertainment. Then, at the end of the film she Spoiler gets away with it by hiding behind her social status. The metaphor would probably be even better served had she supplied Curly with the unnamed drug he injects himself with before going full-on crazy, but the addition of the voyeur rapist, another seemingly bourgeoisie type that appears basically out of nowhere to participate in the rape, seems to fill that particular void.
The cast is swimming with Italian horror/thriller mainstays, and despite from less than perfect dubbing issues, the performances are above the customary expectations. As stated, Lado’s parent figures are better cast than Craven’s, chiefly Enrico Maria Salerno (who’s best known among fans for playing Inspector Morosini in Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and dubbing Clint Eastwood for the Man with No Name series). The Argento connections extend to Flavio Bucci, who portrayed the blind piano player in Suspiria, Irene Miracle, who swam through a flooded ballroom in Inferno, and, of course, Macha Méril, who played doomed psychic Helga Ulmann. The one area Lado falls short of Craven’s watermark is in the threat of his bad guys. These bad guys are plenty frightening, but there isn’t ever a sense of them being honest to god psychopaths rather than actors. Aldo compensates for his lack of David Hess and Fred Lincoln by making his villains far less predictable. Outside of this, Lado does lose some points for his final act, which follows Craven’s original so closely (I believe more closely than any other Last House rip-off I’ve ever seen) it’s impossible not to be struck with a sense of déjà vu.
Has it really been almost three months since the last Blue Underground Blu-ray release? I knew something was missing from my life. Night Train Murders is another quintessential Blue Underground release, featuring a generally quite impressive 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer that suffers from digital artefacts, most of which appear to be the effect of telecine scanning. As stated in other Blue Underground Blu-ray reviews: these appear as rough, dancing edges. In still these still frames it’s similar to the look of a minor Photoshop ‘spatter’ effect. This leads to some pretty distracting shimmering and moiré effects, and at its worst this particular transfer also shows the effects of digital noise reduction. The general lack of film grain is also a bit disconcerting. Other artefacts include some minor warping and burn effects, usually at what appears to be reel changeovers. On the much more overwhelming plus side are incredibly sharp details and vibrant colours. The detail levels are easily higher grade than those of the original Blue Underground DVD release, which features definitely muddier edges and flattened backgrounds. Close-up textures, like skin, hair, and clothing material are quite lifelike, and backgrounds remain discernable even in low light. Colours and blacks are sharper and more elegantly separated, though the DVD already did a fine job making the darkest, blue tinted sequences distinctive, rather than turning them into the blue blobs old VHS releases did. Like the company’s Deep Red release, the overall tint appears to skew more towards yellow than intended (though other shots appear warmer and redder) and there is a tendency for the lightest hues to be blown out a tad. The wide background shots of dismal, grey skies do feature some haloes around the darkest edges.
Night Train Murders has distinctly fewer audio option than the average Blue Underground release, but this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English dubbed track is about as good as we can expect from the material (though I’m sure the purists out there would love an Italian dub track). The train setting offers continuous ambient rumble that can be increased or decreased depending on the intensity of the goings on. This always sounds like what it is, a single channel sound effect, but rarely features any noticeable distortion. During the climax, the train rumble is exchanged for an eerie wind ambience. The major reason to celebrate an uncompressed version of the track is Ennio Morricone’s fabulous score. The opening title track features some minor problems with high end distortion, but I seriously doubt this could’ve been avoided based on assumptions about the original material. Morricone and Lado cleverly avoids overrunning the naturalistic film with music by giving the villain Curly a harmonica, which he plays with rising menace, much like Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. Even when Curly isn’t playing, the harmonica motifs (usually accompanied by piano) create the appropriate sense of dread. Generally speaking Morricone’s music usually sounds better in stereo, but a full-on revamping of the original mono film track seems unnecessary.
The sparse extras begin with Riding the Night Train (15:00, SD), an interview with co-writer/director Aldo Lado, which was available with the original DVD release as well. Here Lado recalls the film’s inception, vaguely admits to ripping off Last House on the Left (but also claims to have never seen it), the film’s social subtext, filming, casting, Morricone’s soundtrack, and the film’s banned status. The disc also features the original US trailer (HD), the international trailer (HD), two radio spots, and a poster and still gallery.
Night Train Murders is far from a top of the line Italian thriller, and certainly shouldn’t top any novice’s ‘must see list’, but it is an extremely well made entry in the crowded rape/revenge subgenre, and I believe a better overall film than Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, which it apes shamelessly. It’s good to have Blue Underground back in the game after a few months away and this is a generally fine looking disc, but there are continuing issues with digital artefacts. The DTS-HD Mono soundtrack is limited, but solid, and extras are brief, but entertaining.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 31st January 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Riding the Night Train, Trailers, Raido Spots, Image Galleries
Easter Egg: No
Director: Aldo Lado
Cast: Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, Marina Berti, Irene Miracle
Genre: Crime, Horror and Thriller
Length: 94 minutes