Bite Size: Night Train Murders (1975)

Night Train Murders, on its surface, is easy to dismiss as another of the revenge fueled Last House On The Left imitators that flooded the market in the mid 70s. Originally titled Last Stop On The Night Train, its entire US release history was littered with retitlings that further emphasized that idea. New House on the Left, Second House on the Left, and other confusingly close variants that likely insured at least a few unlucky moviegoers accidentally paid to see the same film twice.

The basic plot structure is undeniably similar. Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo) are high school best friends, traveling from Germany to Italy to spent the Christmas break with Lisa’s parents.

The train is packed, and amongst the crowds the girls have an awkward run in with two ticketless young punks, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi). It quickly becomes apparent that something is very off about these two young men, who seem overly solicitous in an aggressive manner. It’s predatory disguised as playful, immediately recognizable to any woman who has traveled alone.

A bomb threat forces the girls to change their itinerary just as night falls, to a much more sparsely populated train. Initially glad they have a compartment to themselves, the girls’ joy at the additional room is short lived. The same two thugs have also switched trains, and now have a mysterious woman in tow (Macha Méril). The trio invades Margaret and Lisa’s cramped quarters.

While the unnamed woman is outwardly rather elegant and civil, her icy upper class hauteur is just a facade. She becomes the ringleader for an ever escalating series of humiliations and sadistic tortures towards the two young women. Rather than act as a buffer to insure the girls’ safety, the woman directs her thuggish companions to do her dirty work. The trip becomes a twisted game of torture, sexual assault, and eventual murder.

There is, of course, the required highly unlikely coincidence in the third act, that leads to the bloody parental vengeance you would expect. Where Night Train Murders distinguishes itself is in style, tone, and an important late in the game deviation from the established format.

Director Aldo Lado had already made several highly stylized gialli, and throughout his long career often brought a refreshing degree of technical skill to even pedestrian productions. His camera makes excellent use of the beautiful settings rolling outside the windows, before swinging in to catch the details of the passengers, the seemingly unrelated strangers that are fated to cross paths. Once the night falls and the girls are unknowingly on their doomed last ride, he soars overhead and around tight corners, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the increasingly tense situation.

Gábor Pogány’s cinematography bathes the tiny compartment in sickly yellows and dark as night indigo blue, the ugliness laid bare in its contrast to how elegantly it has been shot. A haunting Ennio Morricone music cue slinks across the soundscape, the endless rumble of the train threatening to drown out the girls frantic begging for something resembling mercy.

That was never something Macha Méril’s unnamed lady was ever willing to give. For such a morally repugnant character, its a measured, subtle performance. With a careful tilt of an eyebrow, or a casual lilt in intonation, its abundantly clear the sexual, visceral thrill she gets from both the torture of the two innocent women, and the ease of manipulating the two men. By turning Blackie’s attempted rape into a seduction, and encouraging Curly to indulge his habit, she easily turns two petty criminals into the enforcers of her sadistic fantasies. In encouraging the men to indulge in their basest impulses, she also cleverly adds another layer of plausible deniability to her own.

Last House traded in a more graphic depiction of violence, and a gritty, almost documentary style to make a seething statement on the breakdown caused by the failure of 60s idealism. Night Train Murders is more slow burning and suggestive, the concept of the events so inhuman that the brief bits of explicit detail we do see carry a heavy impact. Night Train Murders also swings broader in its choice of ideological targets with a uniquely Italian brand of dryly abrasive cynicism.

Early in the film, Blackie takes a walk through the various compartments of the crowded train, and every passenger is just as morally bankrupt as he is. From a (heavily implied) sexually abusive Catholic priest, a group of proud fascists singing Nazi marching songs, or the mysterious lady leading a philosophical discussion to further curate her refined persona, the film clearly finds very few innocents in its universe. Even Margaret and Lisa are worldlier than advertised, sharing cigarettes and tales of sexual misadventures as soon as they are safely out of authority’s earshot.

Lisa’s parents do get their vengeance, but only two out of the three torturers meet their bloody end. By denying both the characters and the audience the cheap catharsis of fully realized revenge, Night Train Murders underlines its grim ideological perspective. The film clearly takes Gualtiero Jacopetti’s and Franco Prosperi’s view of humanity being inherently a rotten lot, and combines it with Pasolini‘s utter loathing of bourgeoise hypocrisy and the authority figures who give their perverse abuses the veneer of mainstream respectability.

While the Christmas setting is more incidental than not, Night Train Murders is an incredibly downbeat entry to even skirt holiday horror. Intense joy or intense suffering, the train just keeps indifferently rolling, as the world values the performance of morality with equal faculty to the genuine article.

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