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Monday, December 4, 2017

Retro Review: NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (1975)


NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS
aka LAST STOP ON THE NIGHT TRAIN
aka THE NEW HOUSE ON THE LEFT
aka LAST HOUSE PART II
aka XMAS MASSACRE
(Italy - 1975; US release 1976)

Directed by Aldo Lado. Written by Renato Izzo and Aldo Lado. Cast: Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, Enrico Maria Salerno, Gianfranco De Grassi, Marina Berti, Franco Fabrizi, Irene Miracle, Laura D'Angelo, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Selan Keray. (Unrated, 94 mins)

Christmas horror movies don't get much more unrelentingly grim, downbeat, and depressing than the film that's come to be known as NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS. Though it fell into relative obscurity until Blue Underground unearthed it on DVD in 2004, it existed under at least a half dozen different titles since its 1975 European release and, courtesy of three different distributors, several runs through American drive-ins and grindhouses from 1976 to 1978. On the surface, it's a pretty blatant ripoff of Wes Craven's 1972 breakthrough THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, itself a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film THE VIRGIN SPRING. Italy was home to a number of LAST HOUSE ripoffs, whether intentional or not, with LAST HOUSE star David Hess called upon to essentially reprise his Krug character in Pasquale Festa Campanile's HITCH-HIKE (1977) and Ruggero Deodato's notorious HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980). In addition to Franco Prosperi's THE LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1978), there was also Mario Bava's 1971 film BAY OF BLOOD, also known as TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE and CARNAGE but also making several stops through the US drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II.





Like the Bava film, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS was a fixture at the nation's drive-ins, re-released under so many different titles that moviegoers probably inadvertently saw it several times. Bryanston released it in the US in 1976 under its actual LAST STOP ON THE NIGHT TRAIN title (but with completely made-up cast and director credits on the poster) just before folding that same year. In 1977, it was picked up by Hallmark Releasing--the company that distributed Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, retitled the Bava film, and created the infamous "vomit bag" marketing campaign for MARK OF THE DEVIL--who re-released under the "Newport" banner as LAST HOUSE PART II (not to be confused with the BAY OF BLOOD retitling LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II). Soon after, it went out again under the Newport offshoot Central Park Films as both THE NEW HOUSE ON THE LEFT and XMAS MASSACRE. Under any title, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is one of the very few examples of a ripoff surpassing the film it's imitating. Director/co-writer Aldo Lado was already an established filmmaker, helming a pair of intriguing gialli with 1971's SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and 1972's WHO SAW HER DIE?, both unusual in the sense that they demonstrate some sociopolitical commentary that would separate Lado from most of his journeyman contemporaries in horror at the time, whether it's GLASS DOLLS' scathing critique of the bourgeois upper class or WHO SAW HER DIE?'s conspiracy of silence among a cabal of high society pedophiles in Venice, while also exploring issues of unhinged clergy that also figured into Lucio Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING the same year and in Antonio Bido's later THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (1978). NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS shares with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT the core concept of two teenage girls traveling alone and being raped, tortured, and murdered by repugnant shitbags who will eventually end up in the home of one of the girls' parents, who learn that the girls have been murdered and gradually realize their houseguests are the ones who did it.




But Lado adds another level of menace to NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS with the nightmarish situation being escalated by an upper-class, bourgeois mystery woman who turns out to be the biggest sadist of them all. She spends much of the film sexually toying with and manipulating a pair of psychotic, drug-addicted degenerates and goading them into increasingly heinous acts of violence and depravity, often getting herself off on the resulting transgressions, and eventually throwing the two of them under the bus and playing the victim by using her elite social status to shield herself from any blame. The two girls, Margaret (American actress Irene Miracle, best known as Brad Davis' girlfriend in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and for Dario Argento's INFERNO) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo), are students traveling from Germany to Italy by train to spend Christmas with Lisa's parents, Giulio (Enrico Maria Salerno) and Laura (Marina Berti). After an unpleasant encounter on the train with troublemakers Blackie (Flavio Bucci, the blind pianist in SUSPIRIA) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi), they end up switching trains at a stop, hoping for a quiet ride in a barren compartment on a sparsely-booked train only to find out that Blackie, Curly, and a nameless "lady on the train" (Macha Meril, the doomed psychic in Argento's DEEP RED) with whom Blackie had a random sexual encounter in the bathroom, have followed them. The trio barges into the girls' compartment, initially making fun of their packed lunch by candlelight before Blackie and the woman start masturbating each other. They won't let the girls leave, and Curly keeps staring at Lisa, who's eventually forced by the woman to give Curly a handjob. When a Peeping Tom (Franco Fabrizi) is seen leering through their compartment window, he's dragged inside and forced to rape Margaret. It only gets worse from there.


David Hess and others somehow figuring prominently in the
poster art for a movie none of them are even in. And there's no Marcia. 



Once the girls are dead and the trio of killers dump their bodies and luggage off the train (resulting in one major continuity gaffe that's the film's only real glaring flaw), ending up at the station and happening to meet Giulio, who generously gives them a ride, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS mostly follows the LAST HOUSE template. The ruse is up as Lisa's mother recognizes an ugly turquoise tie being worn by Curly as the same one Lisa bought in Germany for Giulio. This sends Giulio on a murderous rampage through his own house, himself egged on by the mystery woman, now pretending she was abducted by Blackie and Curly and of course, gaining the sympathy of Giulio and Laura, themselves privileged members of the upper class who see the woman as one of their own. Born in 1934 and still occasionally active (his last IMDb credit is from 2013), Lado largely became a gun-for-hire in the years to come, with his last noteworthy film being the ludicrous 1979 STAR WARS ripoff THE HUMANOID, where he hid behind the very George Lucas-like pseudonym "George B. Lewis," but NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS offers the same inherent contempt for the pillars of society that was evident in SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and WHO SAW HER DIE?  He doesn't quite share the bleeding heart feelings of a Giulio dinner guest who believes the lower class are victims made violent criminals by society, but he's certainly a misanthrope has no love for the wealthy, the privileged, and figures of authority. Almost everyone is complicit in what happens to Margaret and Lisa--including the well-dressed Peeping Tom who could've gone for help before he was seen but was too busy smacking his lips and perving out over watching Curly getting the forced handjob from Lisa. The early scenes on the train show there's reprehensible characters everywhere, from a compartment full of Nazi sympathizers to a priest winking and flirting with an altar boy as another priest tries to justify his actions and write them off as a "nervous tic." Decades before serial sexual abuse by priests became common knowledge, Lado alludes to it here and there's immediately someone there fully aware of it and all too eager to dismiss it and cover it up.





Where LAST HOUSE was gritty and grimy, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is well-made and stylishly shot by veteran cinematographer Gabor Pogany (TWO WOMEN, PINK FLOYD AT POMPEII), and he and Lado maximize the claustrophobic tension inside the cramped car that's drenched in a deep Argento blue with the sound of the tracks and Ennio Morricone's most haunting harmonica cue since ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST only adding to the overwhelming sense of dread and doom. The brutality inflicted on Margaret and Lisa is almost unbearable to watch, and the effect is so jarring simply because there's such polish and style to the way the film is shot. When Blackie and Curly get their comeuppances from a shotgun-toting Giulio, Lado doesn't even give the audience a sense of catharsis because we know Giulio and Laura have been played for fools by the lady on the train, the kind of privileged asshole who's never held accountable for their actions. The film's underlying issues of class struggle and outright sociopathy may have added prescience today, and for those who can withstand it (and get by the overwrought Demis Roussos theme song "A Flower's All You Need"), NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS is a masterpiece of its kind, a profoundly unsettling example of the rape/revenge subgenre, one that stays with you for days after and absolutely lives up to the promise of its US trailer: "Don't waste time looking for an ending you can live with."








NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS opening as LAST HOUSE PART II in
Toledo, OH on June 10, 1977, on a double bill with DON'T OPEN THE
WINDOW, aka THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE

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