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05 June 2010 @ 02:04 pm
Night Train Murders  
You would have thought a rather obscure film like this one wouldn’t require a massive introduction, but one of the fascinating things about Night Train Murders is where it originally came from. Its source, if you trace it back far enough, comes from Ingmar Bergman, runs directly through Wes Craven territory and finally ends up as an Italian thriller from 1975. Those of you who know your horror film history will know what I’m talking about, and will expect me to say that Night Train Murders is nothing more than a cheap rip-off of better films.

Well, yes and no.

Ingmar Bergman started the ball rolling with a film called The Virgin Spring. Set in medieval Sweden it tells the story of a normal girl who lives with her parents. One day she meets a small group of men – one of them isn’t even old enough to be called a man – and is eventually killed by them. By chance the men stumble upon the girl’s parents, who find out what’s been happening. The father, played by Max von Sydow, kills them all in revenge.

Fast forward to the early 1970’s, when the young Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham (who would go on to create Friday the 13th) got the idea to remake the story, but to make it far nastier than Bergman ever envisaged. The aim was to show violence as it really was, sordid and repellent. Alas for Craven and Cunningham, the ‘moral majority’ got exactly the wrong idea about their goals and thought it glorified violence. In the end it was even placed on the Video Nasties list, and it was only recently that it was finally released on UK DVD uncut.

(I wish I could remember who said this, but it sums up the moral majority perfectly – ‘neither moral, nor a majority’.)

This time around the story centres on two teenagers, who are older than the victim in The Virgin Spring. Mari and Phyllis are going to a concert, and decide to buy some cannabis from a young man they meet on the street. This turns out to be a hellishly bad idea, as they soon find themselves kidnapped by three psychopaths and a smackhead. Subjecting the girls to physical and sexual torture, the criminals finally kill them both. The murders occur close to Mari’s house, and the criminals decide to stop there afterwards because their car’s broken down. Mari’s parents, hospitable at first, realise who their visitors are and kill them before the police can stop them.

Last House on the Left has a fearsome reputation. Aside from Cannibal Holocaust, probably the most notorious banned film ever made, Last House is the most famous film on the Video Nasties list. The murders, according to Kerekes and Slater in See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy, ‘for sheer brutal intensity, [have] never been surpassed in any film since.’ In the eyes of most film watchers who have braved it, it’s a classic, even if it’s flawed…

… but I’m hardly one to follow the crowd. I think it says a lot that I watched Last House when I was still a fairly novice and rather squeamish film watcher, and it completely failed to make any sort of dent in my psyche. Craven isn’t responsible for the hype Last House has got over the years, but let me say it outright - Last House just isn’t very good.

The first fault is the largest. Craven wanted the film to feel like a documentary, on the basis that the documentary maker never stops filming, no matter what happens. Whatever atrocity takes place, the camera must keep rolling. But Craven stops the camera all too frequently, and for the worst possible reason. It feels as if he is actually afraid of affecting the audience too much, as whenever something grotesque happens we suddenly cut to a comic relief scene. That’s bad enough, but to make things worse the comic scenes are painfully unfunny, and completely destroy any mood generated by the tortures.

The second fault is that after the murders, the deaths of the thugs are too unrealistic, which is fatal for a film trying to portray real violence. One of the killers dies when Mari’s mother fellates him and then bites his penis off. There’s no way you can take seriously a film that includes such a scene.

Whatever Craven’s goals were, though, a wave of exploitation film makers missed the point, or more likely just ignored it. When they saw Last House on the Left what they saw was sex and violence and notoriety; in other words, everything you need to attract audiences and make a fast buck.

The film that launched a thousand rip-offs! Some were more slavish than others, but they still boiled down to the same theme – a nutjob or group of nutjobs does nasty things to innocent victims and afterwards they get what’s coming to them. You can have a group of Catholic schoolgirls (Last House on the Beach) or upper-class socialites (House on the Edge of the Park) or whatever, and stuff the films with whatever depravities you can think of. Most of these films are not worth very much, and now, at long last, we come to Night Train Murders.

Kerekes and Slater are very dismissive of Night Train Murders, regarding it as a complete rip-off of Last House on the Left and without a tenth of its power. Yes, it’s a rip-off. But philosophically it is much more, and it is a far more harrowing experience than Last House on the Left. It doesn’t matter how much it imitates its predecessor. It is by far the better film.

Margaret and Lisa are two teenagers studying in Germany. Lisa is Italian, and she has invited Margaret home for Christmas with her parents, Giulio and Laura. Giulio is a successful surgeon, and the family is wealthy enough to have a maid and live comfortably. The students are travelling by train, and encounter two young men who have boarded the train after a police chase in the station for criminal damage. They turn out to be dangerous company. One pulls a knife on a train guard and the other follows a woman into the toilet before having sex with her. The girls leave to board another train, but unfortunately the two men follow them, along with the woman. From then on, as Lisa’s parents have an enjoyable dinner party at their house, the night gets progressively worse. The three sadists engage on a campaign of ever escalating terrorisation, and in the end they accidentally kill Lisa. Margaret, in an attempt to escape, throws herself from the train, dying from her injuries.

As imitations of Last House on the Left go, yes, Night Train Murders is not exactly one of the original ones. But that’s only true so far as plot is concerned. More experienced film watchers will have noticed the director is Aldo Lado, who was also behind Who Saw Her Die? and Short Night of the Glass Dolls. In other words, it would be very surprising if Night Train Murders was just exploitation for the sake of it. The film’s themes are beautifully shown by a very short scene in which one of the thugs encounters a group of old German men singing a song. Clearly they were all in the army together and are travelling for a reunion. All of a sudden, the thug steps into the cabin and shouts ‘Heil Hitler!’, his arm raised in a Nazi salute.

Every single one of the men automatically copies him.

If any one character separates Night Train Murders from its source, it’s the never-named woman who has sex with one of the thugs in the toilet. Initially it looks like rape, and reviewers have blasted the film for portraying that horrible image, the rape victim who grows to like it. But a moment’s thought will show you how odd this is. Both Margaret and Lisa are raped later on, and they sure as hell don’t enjoy it. Is Lado simply being inconsistent, or is there something else going on?

Again, the reviewers tend to blame Lado because the lady’s personality seems to change completely after having sex. But if you watch carefully you’ll see that this isn’t the case. Before meeting the thugs, the lady has an accident with her bag and drops things out of it. She is very quick to cover up the pornographic photos that have fallen onto the floor.

There is no personality change. There is simply the fact that the lady looks respectable and talks about politics at the beginning. The lady has been able to fool reviewers just as she fools the other passengers she talks with. She’s not the only one either; remember the army veterans. In another brief scene an elderly clergyman winks at his young assistant. Another priest explains that it’s a nervous tic, but it looks very much like a come-on.

(Time and place have given an extra little kick to the film. When the lady talks about society ‘on the brink of anarchy’ and that ‘religion and philosophy don’t mean a thing these days’, it sounds almost like she’s reading from the Daily Mail. The newspaper most likely to feign a heart attack over the film!)

The degradation in Last House was confined more or less to the psychopathic criminals. Here, on this train, it’s everywhere, and more than anything else it’s what dooms the two students. Left to their own devices, the two thugs are opportunistic and aimless. They get on the train simply to escape the police. They attack people simply on whims. They would not be able to stage such a massive psychological attack on the students by themselves. The gamemaster, at almost every point, is the lady.

The lady never loses her cool and shows only what emotions she wants to show. She never physically attacks the students, and only at the very end does she even go so far as to restrain one of them. But she joins in with as much enthusiasm as the thugs, her tools. She doesn’t get her hands dirty for the simple reason that she doesn’t have to. Craven’s film tells us that you might meet a psychopath tomorrow. Lado’s film tells us that you probably met one today and didn’t realise, which I think is much more disturbing.

Lado does cut away from the train scenes occasionally so we can see the dinner party. Unlike Craven’s comic interludes, this never detracts from the horror unfolding on screen. Part of this is because Lado refuses to let us get away; in one sequence, we’re watching the dinner party but we still hear what’s happening on the train, and the juxtaposition of terror and safety is horrible to witness. In another scene, the dinner guests are wondering what society can do to stop Italy’s youth becoming criminals, and the suggested solutions are pathetically ineffective when stacked up against the thugs.

The students in Night Train Murders probably go through less of an ordeal than the teenagers in Last House on the Left, but because of the lady, because of Lado’s expertise, and because of Lisa’s death, it seems much, much worse. There is only a little blood, and only at the end, but that doesn’t matter. What we’ve seen is bad enough on its own.

Even so, the lady isn’t entirely in control. Towards the end of the torture sequence, one of the thugs pulls a knife, shocking more or less everyone in the carriage. He refuses to back down, and even presses it against his fellow thug’s throat at one point. Lisa’s death, even though legally it is murder, was never intended. The only time the lady breaks down is afterwards, when she slaps the sitting corpse’s face in frustration, crying out that she’s not really dead, that she’s only pretending.

One of the thugs blames her afterwards for everything that’s happened, and he has a point. Her response is to protest that she’s done nothing wrong, that it was just one of those things and that it was nobody’s fault. She disclaims all responsibility, showing in that moment what ‘religion and philosophy’ really mean to her.

Given how much the plot copies Last House on the Left, nothing afterwards matches the intensity of the students’ deaths. However the parents’ revenge is handled better. It’s done on the spur of the moment, it’s more realistic, and Giulio, Lisa’s father, acts entirely on his own. When he is about to shoot one thug to death, his wife pleads for him to stop. It’s more naturalistic than the orchestrated revenge in Last House, and it contains something else to give us one more kick in the teeth. The lady manages to escape retribution by convincing Giulio that she did nothing, that she was forced to remain silent and couldn’t help the students. And he believes her because she’s ‘respectable’.

Isn’t that what Lado’s been saying all along?

Lado has been more explicit in interviews, saying that the film is really about fascism. I see no reason not to believe him, but I prefer to see the film in much broader terms. Authority and ‘respectability’ don’t count for much. The worst criminal may be the one who never directly acts. Ultimately violence is uncontrollable, and the storm might even be unleashed by that upper-class lady sitting opposite you in the train carriage. Ignore the terrible pop song played during the opening credits, ignore the hackneyed dubbing. Ignore the critics, ignore the fact that the plot’s lifted wholesale from Last House on the Left. An hour into this film, and none of that will matter.

(PS – the cast list reads like a Dario Argento reunion. Giulio is played by Enrico Maria Salerno, the Inspector from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Margaret is played by Irene Miracle, who went basement swimming in Inferno. Meanwhile, one of the thugs is Flavio Bucci (the blind pianist Daniel in Suspiria) and the lady is played with unnerving relish by Macha Merill (Helga Ullman, the psychic from Profondo Rosso). For that reason alone Argentophiles should take a look.)