Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Hellbound Train

Night Train Murders

I took a break from new viewings last night to watch an old favorite. Here's what I wrote about Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders (1975) a decade ago. I don't really have much to add to this.

Synopsis: Lisa and Margaret are on holiday from their school in Munich. They decide to take the train to Lisa's home in Italy. Unfortunately, the train is host to a pair of young hoodlums, Blackie and Curly, on the lam from roughing up Father Christmas in the street and looking for more trouble. Blackie has the swagger; Curly has an arm full of hop. Also on the train is an upper class woman. She looks prim and proper, but the predations of Blackie and Curly unleashes something within her and she is soon their partner in crime, slowly taking control of their activities. Unfortunately for Lisa and Margaret, the trio has fixed on them as their victims. At the upper class woman's behest, Margaret is raped by a passing peeping tom and Curly deflowers Lisa with his knife. The shock kills Lisa, while Margaret flees in terror, out the window of the bathroom and onto the rocks below. The killers stuff Lisa's body out the window of the train and get off at the soonest stop, where the woman seeks medical attention for a laceration she suffered in the commotion. Unbeknownst to them, the doctor is Lisa's father, who discovers exactly who he is treating...

Riffs and Rip Offs. Okay, if you have even a cursory knowledge of the horror genre, a synopsis of the plot will ring bells. Night Train Murders takes its plot from Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. The Italian title of the movie tips its hand (The Last Night Train). But before we take the film to task for being a rip-off of a seminal genre film, there are some things to keep in mind here. Italian cinema is littered with movies that are "borrowed" from other sources. The most famous of these is probably A Fistful of Dollars, which is an unattributed, almost shot-for-shot remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Is A Fistful of Dollars a rip-off of Yojimbo? Absolutely. Is it a bad film? Not hardly. Kurosawa thought it was a terrific film, though he qualified this by noting that it was his film. No one is going to suggest that Sergio Leone wasn't a formidable talent. So being an Italian rip-off of a genre classic doesn't automatically disqualify Night Train Murders from discussion as a film unto itself. And given the source material--a problematic genre classic that is, itself, a remake/rip-off of Bergman's The Virgin Spring--we might do better to consider the film as a riff on the material. Especially since The Virgin Spring is an interpretation of an ancient ballad its ownself. The contents of that ballad filtered at fourth hand, are interesting, and I'll get to that later.

Night Train Murders

Before and After: A comparison of Night Train Murders and The Last House on the Left is inevitable. It's instructive, though, because these films approach the material from two radically different perspectives. Craven's film is crude. It's an ultra-low budget film made by amateurs. I doubt even Craven would dispute this, given that it was his first film. Last House is a blunt instrument. It intends to shock and it does so by the most brutal methods available to it. It shows everything. It withholds nothing. Night Train Murders is made by seasoned professionals. Director Aldo Lado cut his teeth working for Bernardo Bertolucci and made several films prior to this one (including the well-regarded giallo Short Night of Glass Dolls, which shares some auteurist similarities with Night Train Murders). Lado's films tend to avoid the savagery common to the Italian genre films of the period. His gialli are largely free of on-screen violence. He prefers to insinuate than to overwhelm. That characteristic informs the way Night Train Murders plays out. Place them side by side, and the two films become archetypes of two different schools of horror: explicit or implicit. Which hurts the audience more? I suppose that's a matter of taste, though the films that know the value of BOTH schools of thought often have an uncommon power to them (examples would include Eyes Without a Face and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). In the case of Night Train Murders, I suspect that less really IS more, because it is altogether nastier than its American progenitor. Lado is deadly serious. The tone of his movie is completely unleavened by humor or cathartic release. Apart from the absolutely horrid folk songs over the opening and closing credits, Lado has created a nihilist microcosm that trumps Craven's version at every turn. This, in spite of the fact that Lado humanizes his band of murderers in a way that never occurs to Craven. Even as early as Last House, Craven is interested in film as postmodern metacinema--at a very basic level, his films are abstractions about film itself. Lado is interested in context, in politics, and in the human cost of violence. The conclusions he draws are particularly misanthropic.

Night Train Murders

The main thrust of The Virgin Spring is the terrible, dehumanizing cost of vengeance. Last House takes the idea and turns it into a portrait of society devouring itself, like Saturn devouring his children or Ouroboros devouring his tail. Night Train Murders has hints of both of these themes, but it develops them in an entirely different manner. In the interview with Lado provided on the Blue Underground DVD of Night Train Murders, the director notes that the main action of the film is bracketed by the actions of the upper class woman (who is never named by the film). She wears a hat with a veil. When we first see her, the veil is drawn. It is still drawn when she discusses the merits of totalitarianism and why the common man can't be trusted to govern himself with her bourgeois acquaintances on the train. This is the first glimpse behind the veil. The second is the accident that spills her purse revealing sadomasochistic pornography, which she quickly hides again. When Blackie and Curly come on the scene, she lifts the veil, symbolically revealing her true nature. Blackie corresponds roughly to David Hess's Krug in Last House on the Left (Flavio Bucci even resembles Hess). Krug is the central villain in Last House. There is no comparable character for the upper class lady in Last House. Here, the Krug surrogate is a pawn for upperclass exploitation of the lower classes. Given that a huge chunk of Italian cinema is overtly Marxist in its orientation, one might mistake Lado's intentions as Marxist, though I would suggest that Lado is actually a left leaning democrat based on the exploration of class and power in his first film, Short Night of Glass Dolls. But I digress. At the end of Night Train Murders, after Lisa's father has done his Staw Dogs rampage (the movie presents him as a pacifist early in the movie, and a doctor sworn to "first do no harm," to boot), the upper class lady pulls the veil back down, hiding behind respectability once more. The movie hints that she will suffer no consequences. It hints that the old, rich, and corrupt will always exploit the young and disenfranchised, and dupe the middle class into unwitting participation their attrocities. There is an interesting geo-political angle to this, too: Blackie's tee-shirt bears an American Eagle. Is Lado suggesting that America--represented by Blackie--is being duped into the kind of fascism it detests by a plutocracy? There is a telling scene early in the film where Blackie tricks a group of German passengers into a "seig heil," only to pull his arm back in an attitude of "fuck you." Blackie is shown to be unwilling to go the extra mile in the lady's attrocities until he's cornered into participation when circumstances get out of hand.

This is all considerable food for thought for a film intended as a rip-off. It works because Lado pays attention to craft. He's studied Hitchcock--as evidenced by the vague reworking of the opening of Strangers on a Train, and by the appropriation of Hitch's favorite favorite visual pun of a train going into a tunnel right before a sexual act). He's also deployed considerable thought to the look and feel of the movie. In this regard, his actors are well chosen. The film is like a yearbook full of Dario Argento's favorite actors. Certainly Ennio Morricone's harmonica themes are deployed with subliminal cunning. The real key to the movie is its understanding of violence though. While the film isn't loaded with gore and violence, when violence IS depicted onscreen, Lado makes damned sure it hurts. The shot of the handle of the knife poking out from under Laura D'Angelo's miniskirt is as unpleasant a sight as one is likely to see in movies, in spite of the relative absence of blood. In part, this is because of the sexual nature of the image, but mainly it functions as a realization of our worst fears following a careful build up in menace and threat. The mood of the film is what makes the violence hurt.

Nasty piece of work, this movie.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 18

First Time Viewings: 15

Around the Web:

Alex over at Film Forager isn't doing the challenge, per se, but she's been writing about scattered horror movies all month and has a terrific summary of a Terrorthon at her local theater that features at least two films that are near and dear to your humble bloginatrix's black little heart.

Bob over at Eternal Sunshine of The Logical Mind has started sending out dispatches from Toronto After Dark. His first two films are Eega (not to be confused with Eegah!, I hope) and Motivational Growth.

Classic Becky's Brain Food isn't prolific, but she's resurfaced for October with a look at Nigel Kneale and Val Guest's The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Tim over at The Other Side finds Little Witches to be less than endearing.

The Scarecrow has a look at Torture Garden, one of Amicus's anthology films at Scarecrow's Blog from the Darkside.

Dr. AC has a look at the Chilling Visions anthology (must be something in the water today) over at Horror 101.

Behind the Couch looks a the Lovecraft-tinged Lord of Tears.

Fascination with Fear looks at famous cemeteries.

1 comment:

Jose Cruz said...

I've never paid too much mind to this film for some of the reasons you noted (its infamous bouts of violence, the resemblance to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and that type of horror isn't generally the kind to rush out and see.

Still, your review has definitely piqued my curiosity. I'm not going to seek out a copy for the weekend or anything, but your explanations of the film's depth has certainly raised it a little more in my preemptive esteem.