Turnabout's fair play, I guess. The Last House on the Left lifted the core of its story about rape, murder, and revenge from Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, and Last House... in turn spawned dozens of its own imitators. Most of those knockoffs were cheap, artless, shamelessly exploitative, and quickly forgotten. Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders, on the other hand, towers above not
just that dreck but is easily superior to The Last House on the Left itself.
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Lisa (Laura D'Angelo) and Margaret (Irene Miracle) are supposed to giggle about boys, wonder with big, wide eyes what's waiting for them under the Christmas tree, and sneak a drag on a cigarette whenever they slink away from their folks. I mean, they're teenage girls, each from well-to-do and reasonably well-adjusted families; what do they have to worry about? The two of them take the night train from Germany to Italy so they can spend Christmas Day at Lisa's palatial family estate. The girls never make it, though. Isolated from the rest of the train and trapped in a tiny compartment, Lisa and Margaret are tortured, tormented, and debased in the worst ways imaginable by two brutish punks (Flavio Bucci and Gianfranco De Grassi) and the high society sex fiend egging them on (Macha Méril). Sadism soon makes way for murder. Lisa's doting parents are waiting at the station the next day, but no one steps off the train to greet them. In a cruel twist of fate, Lisa's blissfully unaware folks offer a helping hand to their daughter's three attackers and even invite them into their home. Her parents soon become aware of their daughter's fate and that these soulless monsters are to blame, and...well, you know how the rest of that vengeful, gruesome story goes.
Night Train Murders is hardly some low-rent knockoff of The Last House on the Left. Wes Craven's first film is the work of complete amateurs figuring out how to make something resembling a movie as they went along. There's something to be said for that gritty edge and raw energy, but much of Last House... is amateurish and sloppy. It allows itself to get derailed by a pointless subplot with a couple of dipshit, comic relief cops that's wildly out of sync with what is otherwise such an unrelentingly brutal film, and its final moments are howlingly, ridiculously over-the-top. One of the only Italian imitators to boast more lavish production values than the film that inspired it, Night Train Murders is the handiwork of seasoned professionals. The rough-hewn, almost documentary-like 16mm photography of Last House... makes way for the impressively cinematic and striking 35mm visuals offered here. Night Train Murders' cast is more talented and considerably more charismatic, heightening the intensity of the suffering they inflict and endure. Despite being far less overtly graphic than the film that inspired it, Night Train Murders even manages to be considerably more disturbing. Night Train Murders isn't a rip-off; it's a refinement.
Though the broad strokes of Night Train Murders are identical to The Last House on the Left, this Italian take on the premise distinguishes itself more and more every time I see it. For one, The Last House on the Left is, at least to a point, a cautionary tale. Phyllis and Mari are trying to score some weed, follow a complete stranger to a sketchy apartment, and allow themselves to be trapped. That's not to say they deserve the indescribable cruelty that's inflicted on them from there, but it still feels as if there's that familiar horror moral streak rearing its head -- that if they'd been good girls, none of this would've happened. That's not at all the case in Night Train Murders. The worst
thing Lisa and Margaret do is puff on cigarettes swiped off Pop's nightstand or something. They aren't lured into danger and in fact go out of their way to try to avoid it. That makes what happens a hell of a lot more unnerving. The impact made by the torment and degradation is heightened further by the cast, the overwhelming majority of whom ought to be familiar faces to admirers of Dario Argento's work. Even though Margaret and Lisa hail from different countries, they're very much like sisters, with Irene Miracle (in her feature film debut) playing the more worldly and alluring of the two while Laura D'Angelo looks on with awe and admiration at her big sis. Lisa looks up to Margaret as being so assertive and so in-control, and for her to see someone she idolizes become utterly shattered just digs the knife in that much deeper. I can't help but be struck by how relatively harmless Blackie and Curly are at first glance. They destroy things and they destroy themselves, but Night Train Murders gives the impression that, left to their own devices, they'd be wholly incapable of inflicting this sort of torment. The two of them are only able to unleash such cruelty at the cold, cooing commands of Macha Méril's nameless character. One of the unmistakeable messages of the film is that society is to blame for the increasingly feral, uncontrollable nature of its young, and that's certainly reflected by having a well-dressed woman of means driving these two miscreants towards rape and murder.
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Though it's true that Night Train Murders is the less overtly visceral of the two films, I think that ultimately works in its favor. The Last House on the Left takes its violence to such far extremes that it ceases to feel real. The torment in Night Train Murders has a completely different bent, propelled by a compulsion to dominate. It's not about some sadistic bastard trying to get his rocks off; it's about power. The dynamic in Last House... is violence with sex as a component, while in Night Train Murders, it's sex with violence as a component. Its approach registers as more grounded in reality and is more disturbing as a result. Much of the depravity takes place just outside of the frame or is in some way obscured. That's hardly the result of director Aldo Lado being skittish about violence, though, instead just more compelled by what's effective rather
than what's exploitative. After all, if everything is graphic, the audience quickly becomes numbed. Night Train Murders reserves the most brutal shots of what Lisa and Margaret are subjected to for when they'll have the greatest possible impact. As sickening as I always find rape to be in film, the assault on Margaret ranks among the absolute most disturbing I've seen in part because the film reveals so little. A fiftysomething, fully clothed man slowly -- almost disinterestedly -- thrusting as Margaret's dead-eyed ragdoll of a head bobs back and forth is far more unsettling than any of the more graphic rapes in The Last House on the Left. Though isolation is an integral element of both films, the claustrophobia of Night Train Murders better keys off some of my own fears.
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Though Night Train Murders is to my mind vastly superior to The Last House on the Left, it's not without its own missteps. It's riddled with clumsy philosophical musings about civilized society and crime. Dialogue isn't the film's strong suit, at least in the English soundtrack offered here, and I can't help but think that its moral messages would've been more effectively delivered as metaphors rather than expressly-spelled-out lecturing. The legendary Ennio Morricone lent his talents to the film's score, and I have to admit to finding his work here to be largely forgettable. The use of the harmonica as a harbinger of doom is very effective, though. It's also perhaps worth noting that Night Train Murders is a very deliberately paced movie, with right at a full half of its runtime devoted to setup. That you get to know these characters beforehand is essential for the torment that follows to be as unsettling as it is, but there's still a part of me that wishes things could've been tightened up at least a bit.
It's not easy to recommend a movie that's consumed by rape, torment, and vengeance. Night Train Murders is a difficult film to watch and deservedly so. I'll confess to having found it almost entirely repulsive when I first discovered Blue Underground's DVD close to eight years ago, but I've come to see more and more to appreciate with every viewing since then, and now its power, impact, and artistry are unmistakeable. Recommended.
I'm kind of floored by how phenomenal Night Train Murders looks on Blu-ray. I know there have been plenty of gnashed teeth about the issues that have plagued a number of Blue Underground's other high definition releases, but Night Train Murders minimizes virtually every last one of those problems. The bulk of the other Italian films they've brought to Blu-ray have looked soft and smeary to varying degrees, and a crisply-rendered sheen of video noise floating above have lent them a false sense of sharpness. With Night Train Murders, the levels of clarity and fine detail are undeniably substantial. Though the texture is still buzzing with video noise rather than film grain, this is only visible upon very close inspection; from any sort of reasonable viewing distance, it's imperceptible. If I pause the movie and inch closely to my TV, or if I start examining individual screenshots, some elements don't look quite right. Look at the swans in that lake or Margaret's mother's hair in the screenshots below, for example. In motion and viewed as I normally would, however, only a tiny handful of shots caught my attention, so I can't hold that against this remaster. To get a sense of just how richly detailed this new high definition transfer is compared to the 2004 DVD release, open these screenshot comparisons to full-size:
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Definition and detail easily eclipse the earlier DVD release, and none of that disc's edge enhancement has found its way to Blu-ray. The color timing is a good bit different as well, with the new transfer more heavily emphasizing blues. For instance, the first screenshot seems to shift the backdrop from sundown to afternoon, and that's obviously a pretty substantial change. I can't say for certain which one is right, exactly, but the palette on this Blu-ray disc looks terrific to my eyes. Its colors are predominantly robust, particularly the striking blue tint as the torment on the night train is underway. The drab wardrobe and production design in the third act drape Night Train Murders in dull browns, but I can't consider that a fault with this transfer, exactly. Contrast remains substantial throughout as well. The title sequence isn't in the most immaculate shape, but the remainder of the film is entirely free of any wear or damage.
I'm not going to say that this remaster of Night Train Murders is flawless, but the issues that have rubbed so many videophiles the wrong way in recent months -- myself included -- are very easily overlooked here. Night Train Murders is presented on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, although it's windowboxed, strangely enough, flanked by thin black bars on all four sides. It's also been encoded with AVC and is served up on a single-layer disc.
Night Train Murders features a perfectly adequate DTS-HD Master Audio monaural soundtrack. Dynamic range is expectedly limited, and the track feels more comfortable played at a lower-than-normal volume, but everything about it met my expectations. The looped dialogue remains reasonably clean and clear throughout, and the audio isn't marred by any pops, clicks, hiss, or distortion. Unremarkable but exactly what I was hoping to hear.
Although there are no alternate soundtracks, this Blu-ray disc does feature subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
All of the original DVD's extras have been carried over to Blu-ray.
- Riding the Night Train (11 min.; SD): The featured extra on Night Train Murders is this interview with co-writer/director
Aldo Lado. He speaks about not having seen The Last House on the Left himself, how the film took shape after being handed its skeletal structure from his producer, what violence and the color blue represent in the movie, and the extensive cutting that took place to appease the censors. The cast and composer Ennio Morricone are deservedly lavished with a fair amount of attention as well. It's a solid interview and well worth a look.
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Though "Riding the Night Train" is technically presented in 1080p, it's clearly been upconverted from a lower resolution source.
- Trailers and Radio Spots (8 min.; HD): Also included here are a pair of trailers, both served up in high definition. The domestic trailer is presented under the title Last Stop on the Night Train, while the international trailer is touted as Night Train Murders.
- Poster and Still Gallery (HD): Finally, this high-res image gallery showcases more than sixty shots of posters, video box art, lobby cards, promotional stills, and ad mats from the world over.
The Final Word
Night Train Murders is one of those rare Italian knockoffs that drastically improves upon the original: far more stylish, more intense, and more disturbing than Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. It has more than its share of flaws too -- sermonizing its messages about violence, sporting one of Morricone's blandest scores, and perhaps too slow a burn in its first half -- but I'd still consider Night Train Murders to be considerably stronger than the film that so clearly inspired it. A movie this dark, depraved, and difficult to watch clearly isn't going to appeal to all tastes, but for admirers of The Last House on the Left or even Eurohorror in general, Night Train Murders is worth seeking out. Recommended.