Night Train Murders
For the screenshots and the review of the previous Blue Underground DVD, click here.
One of the reasons the 70’s were the golden age of the exploitation film probably has to do largely with the differing (and occasionally nonexistent) copyright legislation around the world. Whether Spider-man is raping and killing women in a Turkish exploitation film or the umpteenth Romero-inspired zombie gut-muncher from Italy, the differing copyright laws around the world were some of the biggest contributors to the rich tapestry of 70s exploitation cinema. If nothing else, these rip-offs were usually a decent substitute when sequels are not immediately (or never) forthcoming.
One such film inspired by a successful American movie, The Last House on the Left in this case, is Night Train Murders. Taking the “Die Hard” approach to filmmaking and recycling an old premise in a new location, this is a rare case where the film makers had a legitimate shot at improving on the source material: while undeniably effective and influential, Wes Craven’s debut feature was about as raw and unpolished as a film could be and still be considered a genuine movie. Unfortunately, Night Train takes far too long to leave the station and when it does eventually get under steam you’ll probably be ready to trade in your ticket to ride.
It’s Christmas Eve and students Lisa (Laura D’Angelo) and Margaret (Irene Miracle) are preparing for their holiday break. They’ll be taking the evening train from Germany to the home of Lisa’s parents in Italy, despite Margaret’s mother’s reservations about two young girls traveling alone by train. Her fears prove to be grimly prophetic; at the station, a couple of thugs Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfresco De Grassi) causing trouble manage to evade the station police by ducking on to the same train as the girls. They wander back to the middle class cabin, being disruptive to the high class passengers as they go. Perhaps attracted to the sense of danger they represent, the girls help them scam their way through a ticket check. When it becomes apparent that the goons want more from the girls than they are willing to give, Blackie and Curly bail setting their sights on a mysterious Blonde Woman (Macha Meril). Blackie ambushes the woman in the bathroom. At first she resists, but soon reveals that she’s every bit a depraved as the two thugs.
When the train is delayed by a bomb threat the girls sneak off and transfer to a different train, hoping to make up for lost time. The woman and the thugs have a similar idea and occupy the girl’s cabin, subjecting them to a horrible night of humiliation, sexual assault and brutalization. The assailants take it a step farther than they intended; Lisa is accidentally murdered and Margaret dies while attempting to escape. The killers clean up the cabin and dump all their victims’ belongings out the window. The train eventually arrives at its destination and, in some logical gymnastics that must have left the screenwriters panting, the killers find themselves in the home of Margaret’s parents. It isn’t long before their heinous crimes are found out and the father wreaks what has to be the most truncated rampage of revenge the silver screen has ever witnessed.
Even a brief plot synopsis reveals the similarities between Night Train and Last House. I always try to take and movie on its own terms but the very obvious lifting from Craven makes it nearly impossible in this case. While Night Train is, from a technical perspective, a far more accomplished film, it actually winds up being far less effective at what it’s trying to do. There was a sense of verisimilitude in Craven’s low budget grunginess that’s missing in Lado’s stylish lighting choices and more professionally-shot compositions. Whereas Craven constructed his screenplay so that the social commentary flowed naturally from the story, Lado and his co-writers have far too many scenes of turgid dialogue trying to pound home poorly conceived political subtexts. Lisa’s parents host a dinner party where the guests pompously expound on various political issues and the blonde woman on the train is enjoying a political debate with her cabin mates before she falls in with the thugs. There’s an attempt at commentary about how the bourgeoisies (represented by the woman) manipulate the poor (thugs) into doing their bidding. If there was ever a time that a message like that would play it’s now, in the middle of a deep recession and cultural clash between haves and have-nots. It doesn’t really work, though. The woman is first victimized, sexually, by Blackie. While she certainly pushes their behaviors from obnoxious, but relatively harmless, thuggery into full-on rape and murder, she really isn’t the instigator. From a purely narrative standpoint her actions don’t really make sense, either: she goes from polite political discussion, to being assaulted, to sexual depravity and murder with nothing to connect the disparate actions other than the filmmaker’s desire to make a point.
The structure of a revenge film like this affords filmmakers a major short cut if they’re smart enough to use it: less effort need be expended to ensure the main characters are sympathetic. When they fall victim to the inevitable torments the filmmakers have planned, our basic human empathy kicks in and we feel sorry for them regardless. Despite this “easy out,” the filmmakers aren’t able to make Lisa and Margaret very sympathetic characters. Their motivations from scene to scene seem to be whatever it takes to propel the movie forward. Compare them to Phyllis and Mari from Last House who, despite having comparatively less screen time, are far more interesting characters. We actually knew a bit about them so, when they’re abducted by Krug, we feel for them. Very basic information about Lisa and Margaret is poorly presented and then contradicted midway through, despite Lado spending far more screen time getting to the “money” scenes. The screenplay feels like a lazy hodgepodge that’s trying to burn up enough screen time to fill out a feature length run time.
Most exploitation films have their “moment,” that one over-the-top scene that sets it apart from other films in the genre. Usually it’s a particularly graphic murder or scene of depraved sexuality, but sometimes it’s simply a total WTF, head scratcher. Night Train opts for a moment of shocking gore but the moment in question, Lisa’s murder, is not nearly as shocking or graphic as it could’ve been and the way the scene is framed prevents the moment from lingering. Compare the aftermath of Lisa’s murder with the aftermath of Mari’s rape in Last House: the rape is followed by some quiet moments for the full weight of the scene to really sink in. In contrast, Night Train follows its big scene with some frantic action. It’s too soon after the fact and dulls the potential impact of the scene.
There’s not really much more to say about Night Train. Despite its pretentions to both thriller and political statement it’s not terribly effective at accomplishing either. I really would have preferred the film have the courage to simply be a sleazy thriller rather than trying to attach some deeper meaning to the carnage. In the end it’s a serviceable, but mostly forgettable, rip off of a far more effective film. Hard to believe a film where the centerpiece is a woman getting stabbed in the crotch could fail to elicit much of a reaction.
The film may not be stellar but it’s given a presentation that far exceeds the value of the film itself. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the quality of Blue Underground’s Blu-ray transfers is simply astonishing. Scenes drenched in red light display no bleeding or smearing and the deep murky blues never suffer from compression problems. There’s a fair amount of grain, but detail never suffers; distant signs in the train station were clearly legible while I was sitting on the couch. What amazes me most is not the actual transfer, which is beyond reproach, but the effort it must take to locate such pristine source materials.
The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track is not quite as revelatory as the video quality, but still leagues better than I would have expected. The only real issues with the high end, which is used mainly by the music; Ennio Morricone’s harmonica-heavy score can sound shrill as the higher notes are hit. There’s also a ridiculously upbeat song by Demis Roussos that bookends the film over the credits, and as the singer affects a falsetto pitch the audio tends towards distortion. Dialogue has the hollow, canned sound that you’d expect but dialogue is always easy to discern. The audio mix is pretty minimalist when it comes to sound effects. There are no other audio language tracks included for comparison.
Co-writer and Director Aldo Lado offers his insight into Night Train Murders in the featurette Riding the Night Train (14:57). He starts off by acknowledging the similarities between Night Train and Last House but largely dismisses them out of hand, claiming he never saw Last House. Whether he did or did not is pretty moot considering the similarities too obvious to be ignored (he also skims over the fact that the producer made reference to Last House when pitching the project). One point I do agree with is that a film that is as sickening as Night Train can’t credibly be blamed for glorifying violence.
Night Train Murders was apparently re-titled “Last Stop on the Night Train” in the US, as evidenced by the US Theatrical Trailer (2:33). It looks like the title was changed just prior to release, given the completely different font used for the first and last parts of the title. The ad shamelessly invokes Last House and Death Wish.
The longer, less sensationalistic International Trailer (3:49) actually takes time to set up the premise of the film. It’s a better trailer, by far, but I can see how it wouldn’t have sold the film to the grindhouse market in the States.
Two Radio Spots (0:30 each) from the US ad campaign hilariously make no reference to the film being set on a train. The new title, New House on the Left, and the canned doorbell sound effect punctuating the ads imply the complete opposite, in fact.
Usually I’d be pretty blasé about a Poster and Stills Gallery, but the marketing for Night Train in the various territories alternates between fascinating and outright hilarious. You have to love how it’s advertised as “Last House Part II,” complete with picture of David Hess and Godfather font rip-off, how Irene Miracle’s miraculously wearing panties during her escape scene on the German lobby cards or the Anglicizing of the cast’s names on the American ad materials.
It spends so much time invoking Last House on the Left that it’s really hard to evaluate Night Train Murders on its own merits. From a technical standpoint it’s certainly more polished than Last House, but it winds up being far less effective. Even its one big, showstopper moment doesn’t really have much impact. It’s bleak, depressing and sleazy but not particularly envelope pushing. The story’s a total mess and the movie is not particularly well paced. While its presentation is superb, this Blu-ray release is for hardcore fans only.
FINALLY, a sober review of this film. I've come upon review after review trying to claim this film is superior and you know it comes down to something like resentment over the film's tagline (I've actually heard people say I Spit on Your Grave is a good film because it doesn't feel like a film and therefore, in comparison and because of the tagline, Last House was a failure) or prefering this due to its' more polished style or being Italian.
|All times are GMT +1. The time now is 09:40 AM.|
Portal By vbPortal Version 3.8.1
Copyright ©2000 - 2015, vbPortal. All Rights Reserved.