Night Train Murders
Original Title: L’ultimo treno della notte
Directed by: Aldo Lado
Thriller, Rape/revenge, 94min
Distributed by: Shameless Screen Entertainment.
How could the late Ulla Isaksson ever have know that the script she based on a century old folksong, later directed by Ingmar Bergman as Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring) 1960, would end up being a prime source for exploitation films? Did she ever know? Did anyone ever inform her of this?
Wes Craven hit it off when he loosely based his Last House on the Left 1972 on the Isaksson script, and the ball was set in motion. Movies that sometimes where inspired by the plot, sometimes by the title such as Last House on Dead End Street, 1977, La settima donna (Last House on the Beach) 1978, to some extent Autostop rosso sangue (Hitch-Hike), 1977, and even Mario Bava’s Reazione a catena (Bay of Blood) was labled Last House on the Left, Part2 when it was finally released in the USA pooped up all over the place. Most of the films drew inspiration from the Craven movie and it’s spawn, and perhaps most famously Ruggero Deodato’s House at the Edge of the Park 1980. But already in 1975, Aldo Lado and Renato Izzo wrote a screenplay based on a story of Roberto Ifanascelli and Ettore Scanó (responsible for several similar stories) came up with Last Stop on the Night Train, also known as Night Train Murder.
Laura Stradi [Marina Berti] and cousin Margaret Hoffenbach [Irene Miracle later to star in Dario Argento’s Inferno 1980] are on their way home for the holidays. The two girls take the train from Munich with Laura’s hometown in Italy as the final destination. But fate has other plans for them, and they never get there... On-board the train they encounter two brutish thugs; Blackie [Flavio Bucci also seen in Argento’s Suspiria 1977] and Curly [Gianfranco De Grassi] team up with the seedy blonde know only as “the lady” [Macha Mérli, best known for her performance as the psychic Helga Ullman in Argento’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) the same year, 1975] and set a series of sordid games in motion that lead up to the death of the two young women. Following the deaths the three end up at the home of Professor Guilio Stradi [Enrico Maria Salerno – Inspector Morosini in Argento’s debut feature L’uccello dale piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) 1970] and his wife Lisa [Laura D’Angelo] who soon realize who they have encountered and take a violent revenge.
Night Train Murders could more or less be looked at as a chamber piece, as it mostly takes place in one location, apart from the last act. This startling thriller is simply fascinating from the opening titles with that dodgy vocal song, but more on that later, to the final shot. Because this is a well plotted, well-written and definitely surprising film. The movie is like a jigsaw puzzle where each part interlocks with the next brining a larger image together. As I say, this is a well-plotted, well-written gem, and now I’ll tell you why!
Already during the opening titles the threat of Blackie [Bucci] and Curly [DeGrassi] is presented as they who run around Munich, stealing, roughing people up, and even robbing a drunk Santa of his few pennies before freeloading onto a train in the station. These guys, despite being stereotypical villains for Italian genre film of the time, are definitely trouble to count on for hell raising.
Six minutes in, the set up for a later twist is presented. The overprotective parents are presented through a series of phone calls to the maid who just put Laura [Berti] and Margaret [Miracle] on the train home, and Prof. Stradi [Salerno], who obviously spends his days saving the lives of people – on his way home to his wife, he stops in the corridor as he hears two colleagues talk about the unfortunate accident victim who’s life can’t be saved. The honourable Prof. Stradi hands his briefcase to the nurse and tells them to call his wife and tell her he’ll be late… a presentation of traits that later will collide, and become of importance to the story.
The introduction of “the Lady on the Train” [Mérli] is an interesting one. Only moments after she enters the full train carriage and giving off an aura of a sophisticated lady – later enhanced when she discusses politics with the famous politician she recognizes in the newspaper to be sitting across from her in the carriage - she accidentally drops her purse as the train shakes through an intersection. The only item that gives any form of identification of her person is seen after the contents spill out, is a sordid photograph of a group sex session. Alberto Galittini’s edits of the carriage passengers looks at Mérli is magnificent, as it taints every scene between Mérli and the co-passengers in that confined space from there on. It also indicates that the posh lady is not quite what she seems behind that strict facade. Also it’s no surprise that the scene is placed directly after the carriage of priests and bishop is presented. Contrasting the passengers in this way is a metaphor of heaven and hell, good and evil, and pretty soon this comes to ring disturbingly true.
The girls are somewhat innocent kids, giddy to be away from school, smoking way to many cigarettes and exploring their sexuality – “Try leaning against the wall, you get a great feeling from all the vibration. Go on, try it!” Margaret says to Laura who answers “Yeah you are right. You think of everything.” This dialogue too is significant, as flirtation, forbidden pleasures and sexual tension is an important part of the set up. The old saying curiosity killed the cat comes to mind.
Margaret confides in Laura, her first and only sexual encounter, they pleasure themselves by the vibration of the train. Margret has a brief but daring flirt with the thugs in the train restroom, which leads to the Blackie forcing his way in with “The Lady” when she goes to the restroom, and the sexual tension between the two leads to them having intercourse… with, believe it or not, cutaways of the train entering tunnels and rail tracks. Again this is all presentation of character, Blackie is a ruthless predator who won’t take no for an answer, and with the photograph and fact that she’ll shag strange blokes in the train crapper, and we understand that “The Lady” is a lurid character.
After changing trains, the girls are confronted by Curly and Blackie again, this time The Lady comforts them with the words that she won’t let them harm them. Now if they had stayed on the other train, the one filled with businessmen, politicians and the clergy, we may have believed her, but as soon as she says this, Lado takes us on a quick tour of this new train’s passenger. Prostitutes, Peeping Tom’s and Junkies… this is a completely different ride, as mentioned above, polarization is the game, and here it’s school bock example. In it’s finest form as the girls, held captive in the seedy night train, by Curly, Blackie and The Lady try to make a run for it, when Blackie beats Margaret… as she falls into the glass of the dark carriage door, editor Gallitti rapidly inserts shots of the light happy Christmas dinner taking place at their destination. Keep an eye open for Dalia di Lazzaro, from Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein 1973, and Dario Argento’s Phenomena 1985 during this dinner party. Later Gallitti does the same when Margaret’s parents dance whilst their daughter is being raped. As mentioned earlier, contrasts play a big part in this movie, and here’s it’s presented in it’s finest form.
Within the dark confined space - superbly light and captured buy cinematographer Gábor Pogány who also shot Pink Floyd: Live at Pompei 1972 - tension builds, as Curly, Blackie and The Lady start off a series of sadistic games, sexually themed torments and rapes, that not only had the BBFC’s refuse to give the film a cinema certification in 1976, and landed the it on the list of banned video nasties back in 1983, but also arrives at a shocking climax leaving both the young girls dead. This hideous act propels us into the final act.
In accuracy with the original Isaksson source, the criminals arrive at the home of the victim’s parents, and as an audience we are now craving vengeance. It’s really not too complicated; once again we have an emotional recognition. We can’t experience what the girls or their parents do, but we want justice for the wring done to them.
This is where the subplot with the parent’s fading relationship and the new start this Christmas has brought hem, along with the previous establishment of their good character come into play. Blackie, Curly and The Lady, get off the train instead of the girls, The Lady with injuries obtained as Blackie beat her after the murders, is offered to come home to the ever gallant Prof. Stradi to have her wounds taken care of as his wife and he await the next train to arrive. Here the traits that where established early on come back into play, Stradi’s lack of to refuse tending to patients end up with him taking the trio of strangers home.
Then a streak of genius by the scriptwriters... a scene that earlier seemed to be random, falls into the jigsaw, making the fuller picture come into focus for the Stradi’s. During the opening of the movie we saw a scene where the maid who sends Lisa and Margaret to the train station on their trip home, calls Lisa, Laura’s mother, and warns her of the terrible turquoise neck scarf Lisa has bought for her father as a Christmas present. Curly steals this necktie as they toss the girls bodies and belongings off the train, and Mrs. Stradi quickly becomes suspicious of the strangers in her house. The frequent newsflashes on the radio finally reveal the identity of the two dead women found mutilated by the side of the railroad tracks, and Dr. finally snaps. To hell with moral, and common sense, emotions get the upper hand and he takes his vengeance on the thugs. The journey is complete, from respected, caring, kind-hearted man of society to cold-hearted avenger, outside the law. Just as in the Ulla Isaksson script, the question of how far would you go, what would you do, could you kill if you had the chance are posed. Harrowing questions that make the Bergman movie such a classic and poignant themes that ring true through the most of the imitations that came in it’s wake.
OK, so a few words on the soundtrack, because despite having something of a crap start with Demis Roussos garbing his way through “A Flower is All you need” – originally the theme song to a romantic themed animated film Il giro del mondo degli innamorati di peynet (Around the world of Love) from 1974 – Night Train Murders has a rather interesting soundtrack. Diegetic audio is of importance, as the sound of the train mainly plays as the movies soundtrack together with Morricone’s minimalistic score. But also non-diegetic audio is used to create effect. At times entire scenes off the train, inside the mansion of the Stradi’s are acted out without the correct audio. Instead we only hear the sound of the train rushing forth towards its destination. It keeps a tension whilst showing us the contrasts, which I talked about earlier.
Harmonica is an important part of this soundtrack, as Curly frequently plays one. It also becomes an important signifier that the “Crazy Boys” also change trains when Lisa and Margaret do so at a border check earlier on. Certain that they alone in the new coach they have snuck into, they share a Spartan Christmas dinner of sandwiches and pop – kids once again – when they suddenly hear the warble of Curly’s harmonica. It’s a disturbing moment, as they react with honest fear… the crazy boys are there.
Night Train Murders still holds up, it’s a tight, tense and fairly sleazy piece that definitely is worth enjoying if you still haven’t seen it. A enthralling ride that takes some dark turns, and forces the audience to drop their morale and find their primitive being confined deep inside. Now available in it's uncut glory, with a new superior image, remastered in 1.85:1 and presented with crisp DolbyDigital 2.0 Mono from Shameless Screen Entertainment.