Thursday, October 24, 2013

NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (L'ultimo treno della notte, 1975)

Aldo Lado's horror film is notorious for being a virtual remake of Wes Craven's seminal Last House on the Left. Then again, Craven has acknowledged the influence on his film of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, so Lado's chronicle of death and cruelty is just part of the great circle of life. Certain details are constant: depraved people kill a young woman whose father avenges her. What do Lado and his writers add to the formula? The train, for one thing. Our characters actually switch trains along the way, but it may be significant that theirs is an international route, starting in West Germany and going to Italy by way of Austria. The two girls are paying passengers and the two boys are on the bum, but both groups are being carried to a destiny none can control. That the train symbolizes something may be suggested by the presence on the first train of what looks like a professional Winston Churchill impersonator, down to the cigar. There's also a fat old priest and his retinue on board. Maybe the train represents old Europe and all the horrors of its past.


One passenger in particular, an unnamed woman (Macha Meril), seems to represent a decadent aristocracy preying on youth -- an issue Lado addressed in his giallo Short Night of Glass Dolls. Bored and contemptuous initially, her interest rises when she recognizes some minor celebrity or newsmaker on board. She raises her veil as if to signal that it's now playtime for her. The play gets more serious when she encounters one of the rough boys, but arousal overwhelms outrage. This mystery woman is the most significant departure from the Bergman-Craven formula, taking the story out of the realm of blind fate and turning it, against the odds, into something more evil. She goads the boys into raping the girls, who are on their way home for Christmas, the parents of one eagerly waiting for their loved one's return. Their merry waltz is intercut with one of the girls getting deflowered with a knife and dying from a hemorrhage. Her girlfriend flees and leaps to her death out a restroom window. The boys are doomed -- that's the formula -- but the woman isn't. She may well walk away from it all at the end, after all the young folks are dead. In any event, she lowers her veil as she prepares to leave. The woman may symbolize cruel wealth, but she may also stand in for the audience whose desire for horror and cruelty presumably called this film into being.

There's something else that's less a personal touch of Aldo Lado than a quirk of Italian horror. Ennio Morricone wrote the score for Night Train Murders, and as the film takes place at Christmastime the maestro throws in a festive holiday song. The song plays as our rough boys mug a Munich Santa Claus. It's a pardigmatic juxtaposition. How often in Italian horror are the worst horrors scored to festive, sentimental or simply beautiful music from Morricone and others? The music often seems inappropriate to novice viewers used to horror movie music that's meant to scare you. But if the Italians dare you to see how cruel and vicious people can be, they use their "inappropriate" music as a point of reference. It defines an ideal of beauty and harmony to be smashed, gutted, violated. The music is the world you want to believe in, while the violence claims to be the reality. The appeal of the violence in Italian horror -- and in horrific non-genre films with beautiful music -- is that it asserts some sort of truth that the audience is brave enough to witness in defiance of the ersatz idealism of the music. When it works the music can seem crushingly sad rather than silly, and Night Train Murders is a particularly crushing film. Sometimes crude in its crosscutting and utterly predictable to anyone familiar with Last House on the Left, its dark formula still works disturbingly well.

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