Aldo Lado's "Night Train Murders" (or "Late Night Trains" if you prefer the 'classier' alternative title on the reversible sleeve of the new DVD release from Shameless; the film's first release in the UK) is a curious beast of a film. Just as Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" was originally just an Italian-made response to the huge success of Romero's iconic splatter-fest, "Dawn of the Dead", which eventually achieved a cult status in its own right, so "Night Train ..." is essentially Italy's home-grown answer to Wes Craven's exploitation classic, "Last House on the Left" (itself a semi remake of Bergman's "The Virgin Spring"). Despite closely mimicking the structure of its predecessor to the point of (arguably) outright plagiarism, Lado's film introduces a few deft wrinkles to the stripped-down revenge plot formula which attempt to transform the disturbing material into an astute political allegory.
For while "Last House ...", like many American drive-in horror films from the '70s, is itself usually these days read as a direct response to the volatile political situation of its day (the Vietnam war and the rapid decay, at the end of the '60s, of the hippy dream of universal 'Peace & Love'), this was always more an interpretative critical gloss on the film's utter primal brutality — the sheer cynical pleasure it appears to take in the abject moral squalor of its violent characters, and the total lack of redemption offered to anyone, victims or perpetrators alike — than a response to any direct political message hidden in the film itself. Lado, meanwhile — who attempted a similar feat with his cult giallo, "House of Glass Dolls" — is trying to do something apparently contradictory with "Night Train Murders": its either a ridiculous, unworkable conceit, or a stroke of genius, depending on how able you are as a viewer to deal with the mean-spirited catalogue of atrocity the film serves up with relish while simultaneously attempting to deliver a Bunel-esque indictment of Bourgeois Italian culture and its fascistic underpinnings.
The film certainly doesn't start off as though it intends any searing political messages: As far as I'm aware, there are very few nihilist portraits of human misery (and even fewer hard-hitting political allegories) that begin with a theme tune 'crooned' by outsized Greek warbler, Demis Roussos ... but that is exactly how "Night Train Murders" kicks off. While having long since faded into a well-earned obscurity, this beardy, kaftaned star of easy-listening, was a huge star in 1975; and Lado doubtless intended lulling his audience into complacency with a sly nod to the horrendous commercial realities of the mid-'70s pop marketplace (it wasn't all David Bowie and Roxy Music, you know!), but the effect on a modern audience tends rather to induce smirks all round, and adds an unintended frisson of Camp to the proceedings.
Over this trance-inducing musical bromide, all of the main characters are introduced (which include two actresses from the Argento canon in the form of Macha Meril ["Profondo Rosso"] and Irene Miracle ["Inferno"]). Margaret Hoffenbach and Lisa Stradi (Miracle and Laura D'Angelo) are travelling from Germany to Italy, intending to spend Christmas with Lisa's parents. We glean straight away that the Christmas spirit is more than somewhat lacking here, despite the tinsel and glitter adorning the storefronts near the station. Two thugs mug a man dressed as Father Christmas (before slitting a woman traveler’s fur coat down the back) and the girls' journey has been disrupted because of a bomb scare by a terrorist group! The girls end up on a night train where their fellow passengers include an icy, veiled blonde woman (never named in the credits) played by Macha Meril, the two delinquents, and a compartment full of fascists who unthinkingly respond with an automatic "Heil Hitler!" when prompted by one of the yobs!
Lado spends some time building up tension — keeping these characters separate for the first fifteen minutes or so and giving us hints of each of their personalities — which goes a long way to seeding the emotional impact of the later scenes of distress and mayhem. Unlike "Last House ..." the girls are not portrayed as total innocents, but neither does the director resort to suggesting that they are in any way 'asking for' the awful fate that is to be meted out to them. The two thugs, Blackie and Curly, are clearly well on the road to ruin: they have no qualms about hurting people and certainly none about damaging property, although it's not yet clear that they have any murderous designs. Macha Meril's character deliberately remains an enigma, though. We sense there is something not quite right about her by the fact that this sophisticated middle-class woman carries dirty pictures around in her handbag! But other than that, she as yet appears quite normal. It is only when all five characters come together on board the train, that we begin to see that she is anything but.
This is where the film differs markedly from Wes Craven's. Macha Meril's 'veiled middle-class woman' is a symbolic character, intended as an illustration of the hypocrisy and corruption of the Italian Bourgeoisie. While fulminating against lawlessness and moral decay on the one hand, they (so Lado suggests) are surreptitiously 'getting off' on the draconian, fascistic measures they would like to have introduced, which, in reality, increase the social unrest they claim to be fighting. British director, Peter Walker made a similar point in his classic "House of Whipcord", although far less pretentiously. Lado, on the other hand, constantly cuts away from the action onboard train, back to Lisa's parents, who are having a dinner party where these very issues are being discussed around the table. Lisa's doctor father takes the pacifistic line (in theory) though we already guess that he won't stick to this position when he is given the chance for revenge later in the film.
Back on board the train, the veiled woman has a forced sexual encounter in the toilet with Blackie, and, despite its starting out as rape, she clearly ends up enjoying the experience! This is where the film's moral centre starts to get a little blurry around the edges, for me: as an allegory for the political position mentioned above, this is fine; but to be truly effective, allegory has usually to work on a basic narrative level too; this may not always be true, of course — surrealism in film is often allegoric — but in this case, Lado is using the basic story mechanics of "exploitation" to make his point, and from that angle, the above sequence looks to be promoting the most crude, right wing sexual politics one could possibly envisage! Of course, Lado is clever enough to be aware of this: the film is deploying the more dubious attitudes found in exploitation flicks for its own ends. But it seems hugely ironic that, unless you're highly attuned to the subtext of the movie, the film is actually even more problematic and offensive than most 'genuine' examples from the genre it emulates!
Once the central assault scene paralleling that of the sequence in the woods in "Last House ..." -- the girls are taunted, abused, assaulted and finally murdered by the two yobs (who, this time are encouraged to go much further than they might have done, under the influence of the perverted veiled woman) -- gets underway, Lado doesn't hold back on unpleasantness at all, despite filming it with elegant blue gel lighting effects. Rather than go for the docudrama grunginess of "Last House ..." to induce our sense of complicit voyeurism, Lado opts to make the same point by actually having a fellow passenger spying on the assault from outside the compartment. He is then dragged into the train compartment, and willingly joins in! (Later, after the bodies of the girls are discovered, the same character tries to distance himself from his own guilt by phoning the police and implicating the other three in the deaths). From the assault and death sequences onwards (with their grizzly sexual assault by knife and the casual depiction of the battered, bloodied bodies of both girls being tossed from the train), the film follows the same trajectory as its template. Turning up at the station to meet their daughter and her friend, Dr Stradi and his wife are only mildly worried to find them not on the expected train. Even when the death of their daughter is reported over the radio (as yet her identity is unknown) they don't relate it to her because the line on which the body is discovered is not the one they were expecting the girls to take. By this time they have met the veiled woman and the two thugs at the station house. Blackie, having become distressed by the escalation of the assault into a double murder, blames their Bourgeois companion and slices her leg with his knife. At the station, Dr Stradi is called upon to provide her with medical aid and, having no equipment to give her the required stitches, offers to let herself and her two "friends" travel back to the Stradi household, while they await the arrival of their daughter by a later train.
Of course, once back at the house Mrs. Stradi notices the garish turquoise tie Lisa was to have given her father as a Christmas present, wrapped round the neck of Curly (the more unhinged of the two drug addicted killers) and it is not long before realisation dawns on both parents that they have their daughter's killers in their midst. Although the revenge taken by the father is then fairly bloody (unlike "Last House ..." Mrs. Stradi does not really partake of the bloodlust), the film is far more detached than its predecessor since its main concern is to show how the mastermind behind the whole grizzly series of events (namely, the veiled, middle-class woman), now effortlessly switches sides and aids in the destruction of the hapless thugs whom she had commandeered into committing the awful crime in the first place. The film plays not so much as a nihilistic scream of rage more than a controlled, bitterly ironic stab at conservative attitudes which, in the process of getting its message across, ends up being a far more expertly rendered slice of exploitation cinema than the film it takes its main source of inspiration from!
Shameless have provided a nice looking anamorphic transfer and the film is uncut. A selection of trailers are the only extras provided.