Night Train Murders features a series of juxtapositions that are remarkably blunt even when judged on the bell curve of 1970s Italian exploitation cinema, which is saying something. During a beautiful day in a presumably Italian city, two attractive young women stroll the streets laughing and window-shopping in a carefree manner familiar to most young college girls excited about a forthcoming holiday, while a couple of capital-T thugs harass assorted passerby. The girls board a train. The thugs, just narrowly, manage to illegally hop the same train while evading police, and, in case we should miss the intended portent of doom that hangs over the young innocents, images of various peaceful and photogenic birds blissfully going about their business are interspersed into the scene.
The sequence should be laughable, but it oddly works, as it’s so over-the-top it inspires cautious curiosity as to just what the filmmakers might be willing to do once they get to the business of providing the titular carnage. But director Aldo Lado is surprisingly discreet with the inevitable bloodshed. Night Train Murders, while nowhere near as sophisticated as the classic Italian thrillers of the era, is still a surprisingly effective thriller that relies more on suggestive mood than gore, particularly in a nightmarish rape sequence that’s bathed in gross, claustrophobic blue light.
It’s still nonsense though, trading on the cynical paranoia that sprang from the frustration with the seemingly unending war in Vietnam. The film soon reveals itself to be a reasonably polished rip-off of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, which followed a peacenik middle-class couple as they took brutal revenge upon their daughter’s sadistic tormenters. One of the most primal and disturbing films ever made, The Last House on the Left evoked the terrifying instability of 1970s America with an intensity that no film directly concerned with Vietnam ever matched—and despite, or perhaps because of its amateurishness, the film feels sickeningly and authentically dirty.
Night Train Murders is formally superior to The Last House on the Left, but it fatally lacks the latter’s righteous, nearly biblical anger. Lado cynically trades on the kind of inevitable human atrocity that Craven considered seriously for the sake of a quick buck. A common occurrence in the film business, for sure, but one that rubbed me the wrong considering the nature of this material. The recent, similarly themed The Woman was wrongheaded in a number ways, but it was always apparent that director Lucky McKee was actively trying to wrestle with the implications of his material, while Lado is a hired hand trading on cautionary fears. Night Train Murders is reasonably well-made and occasionally even legitimately scary, but it leaves a bad taste, perhaps because it’s a mere Xerox of an authentic nightmare.
The image has a nearly painterly beauty. Blues and reds are lush and gorgeous, and the exterior shots of the open daytime country fields hauntingly affirm the ironic peacefulness of the setting. The sound, while probably truthful to the presentation of the film at the time, will be a distraction for some contemporary viewers. The Italian actors have been dubbed, badly, and so the English voices, which are awkwardly performed, rarely match the faces on screen. An Italian voice track with accompanying English subtitles would, if possible, have been greatly preferred. The remainder of the sound, particularly Ennio Morricone’s eerie score, has been mixed with greater detail and clarity.
"Riding the Night Train" is an agreeably straightforward interview with Aldo Lado in which the co-writer/director briefly discusses the film’s production origins. The most interesting revelation is Lado’s admission that he’d never seen The Last House on the Left, and that it was his producer’s idea to appropriate that film’s premise, which strikes one as a little curious given the films’ ultimate overwhelming similarity to one another. The radio spots amusingly reveal a few of the other titles that Night Train Murders was released under, including Next House on the Left, which is admittedly devoid of any illusion or pretense. There’s also a poster and still gallery as well as a few trailers.
The extras are skimpy, but the gorgeous transfer should please fans of Aldo Lado’s cult oddity.