Gianfranco De Grassi
Enrico Maria Salerno
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Night Train Murders (1976)
24th Mar 08
Two thugs and a middle class woman terrorise and kill two female students on a late night train, only to fall into the lap of a vengeful father.
Lets face it, most of us have seen Wes Craven's notorious debut, The Last House on the Left, and usually, we've been left with an awful feeling in the pit of our stomachs. It's a pretty gruelling experience to be sure, but, like me, you were probably unimpressed and feeling cheated that a movie so infamous (and hard to find for so many years) could be such a disappointment even if it had moments of promise. It was however hugely influential, prompting a number of home invasion-style movies. Of course, no-one seems to have the appetite to rip-off successful idea quite like the Italians do (and how we love them for it!), which is probably why our old mate Ruggero Deodato ripped the formula with his nasty opus, House on the Edge of the Park with original intruder David Hess in 1980.
Deodato wasn't the only Italian to jump on the home invasion bandwagon. When the highly skilled Aldo Lado was asked to direct a genre piece "inspired by" Craven's grubby blueprint, he created a work that eclipses Craven's film on every level. In this variation, our protagonists are two female students, Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo), travelling from Germany to Italy to spend Christmas with Lisa's parents. This journey is to be their last. As they board the train, two aggressive thugs, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi) randomly do the same, in an effort to escape the most unthreatening security man you could imagine. It's not long before they make their presence known throughout the narrow passageways and claustrophobic compartments of the night train.
In a bizarre and unique turn, Blackie and Curly form a twisted, perverse bond with a female passenger (Macha Méril), and after the train is held at a station for a security check, both groups board an alternative train - a seemingly deserted train where the girls are then subjected to a barrage of emotional and physical sexual humiliation by the thugs and this mysterious, bourgeois female passenger. Lisa is killed, while Margaret manages to escape, jumping off the train at high speed, resulting in her own demise, and when Lisa's parents find they don't turn up at the remote station as arranged, they simply assume a mix-up of communications is at fault.
The real fault, however, has also disembarked at this same station - the female passenger has a bad cut on her leg and because it's Christmas Day, Lisa's father - the local doctor - takes the malevolent threesome to his house to treat her wound. It is not long however before Lisa's parents discover why Lisa and Margaret didn't make the rendezvous, and her father takes the hunting rifle out of retirement while also finding an unorthodox use for some of his surgical equipment.
Sounds familiar enough, right? Right. But what makes Night Train Murders stand out is a combination of remarkable detail, convincing performances, expressionist lighting, as well as Lado's astute subtext on class divide, or rather the way in which the upper class exploit the poor for their own kicks.
Permeating the entire work however is Lado's professionalism, which leaves Craven's debut spitting dust. Lado had already garnered his reputation with the superior gialli contribution, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, a film also noted for his pitching on social / political issues, just as this one does. He builds the tension upon the train carriages gradually and with terrifying purpose here, drawing on his childhood memories of natural blue light on night trains to give a constant aesthetic hue to the hideous acts taking place.
In this twisted game, anything can happen, as we see when a middle aged male passenger stops to spy on what might appear to be some sort of kinky sex game, only to be invited into the carriage by the antagonists where he fucks one of the girls before fleeing. In an unexpected turn later in the scenes at Lisa's parents house, we learn that this dirty bastard is in fact a family friend, also en route to spend Christmas at their residence. While Lado's film may not be as graphically harsh as Last House, elements like this make it much more terrifying and horribly memorable.
The same can be said for the concept of the female passenger, a respectable (and initially likeable) thirty-ish woman with a veil over her face. As the journey progresses, the veil lifts to show her true colours, and when Blackie attempts to rape her in the toilet and she embraces it, their relationship is forged - the thugs are her playthings, obeying her every command. Fast forward to the end of the movie, and she lowers the veil once again to resume her respectable image. Anyone can be a monster.
This being an Italian horror movie, it's only fitting that the soundtrack is more than worthy of a mention. Scored by the maestro himself, Ennio Morricone (surely the most prolific film composer ever!), the film carries a signature harmonica motif repeated throughout, which is used as the basis for the rest of the brilliant score. If this sounds familiar, it's because he did it before with Once Upon a Time in the West. I guess you can tell when you've made it as a successful composer when your soundtrack concepts become a physical part of the screen action, influencing directors like Leone and Lado to incorporate a harmonica-blowing character like Charles Bronson or Gianfranco De Grassi in Night Train. By the way, Morricone had nothing to do with the title music in Night Train, so please don't let that put you off. Demis Roussos is to blame.
Genre fans are bound to delight in the who's who cast of Night Train - the cast of Argento alumni includes Enrico Maria Salerno from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Macha Méril from Deep Red, Flavio Bucci from Suspiria, and even Irene Miracle from, err... what's left... oh yeah, Inferno. Dodgy dubbing aside, the performances are tight and above average for what could easily look like just another cheap Italian revenge shocker from the surface. Believe me, it's far from that.
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