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 similar 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.

Don’t Answer The Phone! (1980)

Single serving film director Robert Hammer left the military and began making his living as a backstage and tour photographer for musicians. Like countless other L.A. cliches, he found himself bitten by the film bug, buying the rights to a novel by an author named Michael Curtis for a mere $2500.

The book was likely unpublished, as I can’t find any printing records or surviving examples. Entitled Nightline, the story was a loose riff on the crimes of the Hillside Strangler, the trials of which were still ongoing at the time of the film’s production.

As the source material would have been too expensive to shoot as is, Hammer and producer Michael D. Curtis gave it a rewrite under the working title The Hollywood Strangler. Short on cash and not wanting to lose their timely hook, the film was shot on the fly in and around Hollywood. Start to finish, the entire production wrapped in just 18 days.

Distributor Crown International Pictures found the title to be too generic and mandated a switch, to both capitalize on the recent success of When A Stranger Calls and the flotilla of genre fare with titles advising against all manner of ordinary actions.

Keeping in mind that the likes of Don’t Open The Door and Don’t Go Near The Park were considered aspirational in this case, prepare yourselves for 1980’s Don’t Answer The Phone!:

After a brief shot of the shirtless killer (Nicholas Worth) giggling maniacally in front of a massive crucifix, the bulk of the credits roll is devoted to some slasher POV style stalking shamelessly ripped off from Halloween. This sequence, with an unsuspecting nurse having a chat with her whatever male PA had nothing to do mother is also one of the few instances anyone in the film is near a phone.

Not answering it doesn’t save her from being brutally strangled with a stocking. My money is on this opener being a concession to the retitle, given neither the visual style nor the phone has much to do with anything else that happens.

Cut to the following day, where the camo jacketed killer is cruising the streets for new victims, his car radio tuned to the ever so popular station that provides the finest of exposition. There have already been 5 rape/murders in the local area, and as the news fades out, we cut to Dr. Lindsey Gale (Flo Gerrish), who apparently likes to live dangerously in regard to workplace harassment of the news anchor before starting her pop psychology show.

The killer, having tried and failed to entice a new victim with the offer of a modeling job, decides to call in and taunt Dr. Gale. Adopting a manic grin and his best Señor Wences accent, “Ramon” calls in complaining of headaches and blackouts, and the nurse that made him feel EVER so much better.

This is apparently a regular ritual, as Dr. Gale recognizes the voice immediately, but not the signs of severe head trauma or psychological disturbance. The latest victim of the mystery killer was a nurse, but apparently Dr. Gale was a bit too busy playing footsie with the anchorman to perhaps also note that as a cause for concern.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Chris McCabe (James Westmoreland) is across town investigating the crime scene, and proving people from all walks of life can be throughly terrible at their jobs. He bickers with his partner regarding the standard number of breasts a woman has, and decides that the heavy coin inside a nylon stocking strangulation method is a hallmark of the Viet Cong (?!). The killer must be a military veteran, and given the scrap of a film box found at the scene, must own a camera.

Not to be outdone in the incompetence Olympics, Dr. Gale is having a therapy session where she blames a child molestation victim’s trauma on her lack of assertiveness.

The cops are having a laugh at the station, putting their feet up secure in their assumption that their necrophiliac serial killer couldn’t POSSIBLY strike again so soon.

Except the synthesizer noodling has already kicked in on the soundtrack and the killer has already broken into the house of Dr. Gale’s patient. Craving some wax play with a side of homicide, he begins cooing gently that “daddy would never hurt his little baby”. Randomly switching gears, he dedicates his upcoming mortal sin to the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Compounding the tragedy, he also destroys the actress’ lovely vintage slip in the process.

Six victims and a third of the film’s runtime later, the police finally start to attempt to find their “paranoid obsessive compulsive psychotic schizophrenic”. Done with all of the “mumbo jumbo psycho crap” McCabe takes over the meeting and makes it a decidedly macho task force. There’s a long montage of exasperated extras looking at files, best summed up by the expression in the still above.


Just in case this movie’s stance on women, feelings, and women who dare display feelings wasn’t abundantly clear, McCabe goes to question Dr. Gale about her murdered patient. Within 30 seconds he smugly mocks her for her adherence to patient privacy laws and general reluctance to cosign either vigilante justice or capital punishment. Without the firm guiding hand of the law, some silly lady psychologist will let the killer run free, so its best she cooperate and accept his heroic man protection.

Anyone who has ever watched a police procedural knows that this plot thread will lead to an eventual romance, no matter how nonsensical. Off screen, Flo Gerrish and James Westmoreland loathed each other, which may be why this still is Gerrish’s only genuine moment of emotion in the entire film. When tasked with acting like she thought her co star was an arrogant sexist prick, she didn’t have to do any acting at all.

Meanwhile, the killer goes for another synth warble accented cruise down Hollywood Boulevard, using his human skin of Kirk Smith, mild mannered fashion photographer. He ends luring a young hitchhiker named Sue Ellen (Playboy centerfold Pamela Jean Bryant) into his studio for a photo session.

Soon she’s just as naked and dead as pretty much every other woman in this movie. As he stares at her corpse in the mirror of his odd corner altar of candles and crucifixes, he pants “I love it….ohhhh….I love it” in the exact manner you would expect from a deranged necrophiliac that just killed a Playboy centerfold.

Having parceled out a morsel of plot, we get some awkward attempts at workplace comedy. A lounge lizard looking psychic correctly describes the most recent murder, and mumbo jumbo hating McCabe has him unjustly arrested. Dr. Gale makes a patient scream “THE DRUGS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU!” until she cries, and calls it a breakthrough. As for our killer, he receives praise for the porn photographs he provides to his boss, until a candle D.P. from one of the death scenes pops up in the pile, which is only upon reflection dismissed as too kinky.

Kirk is pleased with his paycheck and a job well done, and lures a hooker with the promise of both cash and drugs. He asks that she call in to Dr. Gale’s radio show, and ask for advice on getting out of prostitution. Unfortunately, the call girl almost reveals that Mr. Tough Guy can’t get it up. He strangles her, her final cries live on air. This tidily proves the radio staff is just as inept at their job as every other character in this film.


When Dr. Gale brings the tape of the call to the police (in addition to taped calls from “Ramon”) they interrogate her as to WHY she is so convinced the woman is dead. Despite having an audio recording of the prostitute’s last moments in their hands. Perhaps tape recorders are also useless “psycho mumbo jumbo”.

In any case, we’ve got a rising body count, more DNA than a genome mapping project, audio tapes of the killer’s voice and two thirds of the runtime gone. Yet….instead of any remotely logical or plot relevant action, the film idles away some more time with a vice bust played for comedy and casual racism. The screenwriters must’ve followed the old adage of “write what you know”, which explains the general air of incompetence.

Nicholas Worth had a long career as a character actor, and I have to appreciate his going through all of the SERIOUS ACTOR 101 motions in the course of this film, one of his few leading roles. The constant cartoonish mugging, the over the top accents, the pseudo Shakespearean lilt of the “tis a dream” chat with the doomed Sue Ellen. All of it goes way past chewing scenery and into manic chomping on the theater floor. However, in a film where the procedural elements and performances are pretty listless, exaggerated overacting is actually a refreshing change.

This insane, mostly improvised speech is the apex of an already loud performance. The Deuce does downmarket DeNiro for a few short minutes, as Worth pounds a beer, beats his beefy chest and snarls into a mirror “What do you think of me now Dad? Do I MEASURE UP?”. This is followed by a grunting ramble full of toxic macho bullshit and standard persecution complex dollops of paranoid racism. This “tough motherfucking honky” wishes his dad could see what he was capable of, because “I’m the best there is”.

…..and right on schedule, the romance hits to pad the runtime. Love (or at least lust) blooms when Dr. Gale and McCabe prevent one of her patients from committing suicide. It’s poorly lit. It’s overly long. Moving on.


Meanwhile, Kirk Smith the serial killer wastes no time in getting in some powerlifting accompanied by dying animal yowls, and dusting off his best imitation of a sane man to gain entry to a home and murder another pair of models. The only real question is how anyone could buy this refrigerator box in an ill fitting sport coat and your granddad’s chinos as a real, totally not lying, fashion photographer.

Kirk can’t even handle one girl, hence his penchant for killing them. Having to resort to double murder has made him a rather sloppy maniac. The cops trace the camera and photos left at the scene to the pornographer he’s been working for. To avoid an obscenity rap, the smut peddler hands over Kirk’s home address. The cops rush to the scene…..and break in to the wrong house, terrifying an innocent toymaker who can barely lift his briefcase, much less strangle anyone. At this rate, McCabe and partner are making the Mutt and Jeff duo from Nail Gun Massacre look like paragons of law enforcement.

The cops do locate the correct address eventually, but Kirk has already slipped out to do his standard home invasion and homicide routine over at Dr. Gale’s place. Apparently, she was always the “big prize” he had his eye on. Connecting that Kirk is the mysterious “Ramon” surprisingly quickly, Dr. Gale tries to buy herself time by engaging the killer, asking if he ever had something he cared about. Like maybe a puppy?

Given that the movie is nearly over, this would be the place for the film to give us the slightest insight into what exactly drives Kirk to kill. His obvious daddy issues? PTSD from his military service? Psychosis? The religious mania that has been alluded to (but never explained) the entire film?

As far as Kirk murdering his childhood pet, the poor creature shat on the rug. Animal abuse often being an early hallmark of serial killers, it makes sense for the character. But what’s the deal with the violent rage toward people, women in particular?

He wet the bed until he was 18, had trouble with his ass and his “crazy-otic” head, and whoever his guardians were they dared send him to the doctor for all of that. That’s the best explanation we get. That’s all, folks.

The American health care system is certainly frustrating, but I’m willing to bet good solid money that this is the only slasher in history that has ever attributed its plot driving killing spree to the lack of an adequate proctologist.

Some of the photos in Kirk’s studio tipped off the cops that he was coming for Lindsey Gale. Having managed to at least get her address right, it’s FINALLY time for the Lawful Good vs Chaotic Evil versions of festering macho bullshit to face off.

At first, it looks like Killer Kirk has the edge (and a severe size advantage) over Macho McCabe…..
Until a pistol shot and a hit over the head with a chair leave a battered, bloody Killer Kirk lying handcuffed on the dirty linoleum…..
….and leaving Macho McCabe free to rescue Dr. Gale. Yet, some VERY familiar synths kick in……
….and Killer Kirk has gone full on slasher cliche. Two bullets worth of blood loss and he’s still got the brute strength to snap the handcuffs and pop up for another tussle…..
….before another SEVEN bullets leaves Killer Kirk’s corpse floating in the pool like the piece of shit he is.

Having saved Hollywood from both a serial killer and a serious heap of that God damned touchy feely psycho mumbo jumbo once and for all, James Westmoreland got to ad lib McCabe’s final line victory lap.

Adios, creep!

…. at least until this film popped up again as a Section 3 offender in the UK’s “Video Nasties” moral panic, anyway.

Killer Nun (1979)

Exploitation film has always been a trend driven beast, with bizarre boomlets for damn near every common noun you can append -sploitation to.

Nunsploitation shared its 60s and 70s heyday with the women in prison films. Both niches were basically playing the same game, but with different variants of black and white uniforms. Fallen convent angels in habits or proud prison sinners in stripes, both subgenres were chock full of sadistic authority figures, women in isolation, and kinky (often lesbian) sex.

The subject of nuns also added the delightful bonus of jabbing a stick straight into the eye of the church, and a controversy was always good for a few extra asses in the seats. Not surprisingly, many genre standouts were produced by filmmakers in the Catholic strongholds of Spain and Italy.

Today’s film is one of the last gasps of the fading clergy craze, and is unusual for both being set in the (then) present day, and for having made the UK’s infamous “Video Nasties” list. It’s also the only nunsploitation flick starring former mainstream sex goddess Anita Ekberg (though it certainly isn’t the only Hail Mary in her late career filmography).

Originally titled “Suor Omicidi” and also released under the amazing, much snappier alternate title of “Bad Habits” let’s see just how far Ms. Ekberg has fallen from the Trevi Fountain:

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Nothing much happens in the credit sequence. Communion wafers are eaten, nuns line up in elaborate configurations, incense and chants are had. An unseen Sister is in confession trying to be absolved of her need for revenge on all men, and up pops the title card. Enter Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg), clapping her hands, chastising two of her male patients for making dirty jokes, and being a absolute ray of sunshine that no rational human being would want to to deal with first thing in the morning.

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Let that wimple enhance your dimples, Hail Mary Kay, full of grace



By comparison to the dour nuns in the opener, Sister Gertrude is absolutely the Mother Superior of the Order of the #305 False Eyelash, making her hospital rounds in full eye make up. Sadly, it isn’t all smiles and frosted eyeshadow.

Sister Gertrude has just recovered from surgery to remove a brain tumor, and she hasn’t been quite herself since. While she used to be the resident doctor’s first choice of assistant, she has been neglecting her duties of late, endangering patients and having wacky music cue filled panic attacks at the sight of blood. A younger nun named Sister Mathieu picks up the slack for Sister Gertrude’s various fuck ups.

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Hey hun! Wanna be a #bossbabe? I have a great new mascara you should try


Every doctor that has examined her has declared Sister Gertrude healthy. She insists that all of the tests are wrong, and that she would be her usual self again if she could only get some more morphine. Because those cold sweats and fainting spells couldn’t possibly be drug withdrawal rather than an invisible phantom tumor. Nope. No way.

In a landmark case of “that escalated quickly”, Sister Gertrude is reading bloody hagiography of tortured saints to the patients at breakfast, then curbstomps patient Josephine’s dentures to dust for taking them out at the table. Sister Gertrude has gone from Pollyanna levels of sunny to shrieking “DISGUSTING! DISGUSTING! DISGUSTING!” like Joan Crawford when she just saw some wire hangers.

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Because this totally happens at slumber parties. The pillow fight was just offscreen.




Sister Gertrude’s no good, very bad day just keeps on rolling.

Sister Mathieu insists on a nude fireside chat in their shared bedroom, confessing to both her forbidden love, and destroying Gertrude’s medical records. Without tangible proof, no one can deny Gertrude is sick…..which even the brain tumor survivor realizes is an utterly stupid plan.

Then that damned Josephine has to go and have a heart attack and die from the shock of the false teeth frenzy.

Then the doctor cuts off Gertrude’s supply of morphine. Cold turkey.

There’s nothing to do but sneak off into the city and pawn a dead woman’s stolen ring for drug money. As one does.

Trading one habit for another in style



Over alternating dreamy Roman cha cha music and kicky disco kerfluffle, Gertrude does her various dirty deeds and stops into a cafe for a drink, a smoke, and a man. In hilarious voiceover, she growls about liking beards, and disliking a man she deems “too Latin looking”, whatever the fuck that means in terms of a generic looking white guy. Settling on a chain smoking clams adjuster, she practically purrs and pants her way through this breathy and bizarre line reading:

Sister Gertrude (voiceover): Come on……look this way. Sister Gertrude is just DYYYYYIIING to make love to you.


While Anita Ekberg declined to appear nude, they do have weird half clothed simulated sex in a random apartment building hallway. How his gross open mouthed goldfish style make out technique would be a turn on remains a mystery. On the other hand Ms. Ekberg’s Sister Gertrude is still a stone cold fox.

Back at the charity hospital, Sister Gertrude sets a two prong plan in motion. First, get the doctor who dared deny her fired. Second, celebrate by deciding to shoot up over it. It’s a special occasion, after all. Thrashing about on the carpet, we get a surreal little hallucination sequence of sliced brains and the tentative fondling of the deceased. All set to this delightful piece of music in search of a Nancy Sinatra song to belong to.

It’s about here that the movie takes an abrupt leap towards giallo territory, and mostly lands with a thud. A patient tries to help Sister Gertrude through her overdose. No good deed goes unpunished, and he is bludgeoned to death with a lamp, then tossed out of the window to make it look like a suicide.

The ever helpful Sister Mathieu burns a bloody veil of Gertrude’s she finds in the laundry, not that it helps anyone believe the suicide story. By the following afternoon, the remaining patients point blank call Gertrude a killer during the world’s grimmest game of truth or dare.

A patient and a local girl have some noisy sex outside in the pouring rain, and while their choice of venue is questionable, being choked to death with cotton gauze seems excessive.

Took a Quaalude in Chelsea and ended up on a set in Rome. Weird.


Somewhere in the middle of all this, Factory fleshpot Joe D’Allesandro shows up as the new head doctor at the hospital. He keeps his shirt on and his wonderful, working class New York City accent is dubbed out. That tidily eliminates any conceivable purpose of his being in this film.

Asymmetry? Kinky, but I suppose I can oblige.


In a clear concession to the current non starter status of the plot, Sister Gertrude savagely humiliates a nude Sister Mathieu. Sudden dominatrix mode engaged, Gertrude threatens to beat Mathieu if she does not immediately put on silk stockings, and make good on her previous sexual invitations.

I love it when a still expresses my feelings perfectly.

Due to an excess of jumping jacks, the patients have a soup bowl clanking rebellion(none of that is a typo), and are sent to bed early. After leading evening prayers, Sister Gertrude is attacked by a mystery assailant, and the one patient who may know who did it is keeping silent. Not that it matters, as the potential snitch is acupunctured to death the following day, and hung up to bleed out in a laundry chute. Bonus points for easy clean up.

Smoking cessation goes awry


Sister Gertrude flies into hysterics at the sight of another body, and when Dr. Rough Trade gives her a sedative, her drug addiction is obvious. She has more than enough tracks to make a greatest hits album. Sister Mathieu tearfully admits covering for Gertrude’s addiction and the theft of hospital morphine.

Desperate to know what is real and what is her own hallucination, Gertrude drugs and kidnaps a handicapped patient named Peter. Dumping him at the bottom of the boiler room steps, she demands to know who is the source of the rumors blaming her for the murders. When he refuses to tell, Gertrude takes his crutches, trapping him there. She has other business to attend to……..

Which gives Peter plenty of time to drag himself up the stairs inch by inch….

Only to be kicked right back down them again by an unseen nun. Yet another killing gets Sister Gertrude sent away to the Brides Of Christ version of Bellevue……

To give us appropriate time to rush through a sloppy ending that primarily exists in service of getting this highly misleading image onto some video boxcovers.

Again, I love it when a still does the talking for me. Roll end credits, which at this stage feel like a miracle.