Color, 1975, 94m.
Directed by Aldo Lado
Starring Macha Meril, Enrico Maria Salerno, Flavio Bucci, Irene Miracle, Gianfranco De Grassi, Marina Berti, Laura D'Angelo
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Shameless (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Proving that a sturdy premise can survive translation countless times, Ingmar Bergman's 1960 Swedish classic The Virgin Spring was transformed by Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham into the notorious 1972 drive-in shocker, Last House on the Left. Noticing the strong box office receipts, Italy decided to return the premise to Europe, albeit centered around an ill-fated train ride from Germany, for a 1976 version entitled Night Train Murders. In turn the American distributor, Bryanston, brought it out under the title Last Stop on the Night Train before revamping it again with wildly misleading poster art as The New House on the Left and Last House - Part II. Adding to the confusion, another Italian horror film, Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, was also released as The Last House on the Left, Part II. Got all that? The film never quite caught on in America and bypassed the VHS era entirely outside of the bootleg market, though it was widely available in Europe despite being banned in the U.K. as a video nasty. Eventually it was released fully uncut by Blue Underground on DVD, then issued later in a complete version from Shameless in England before making its way to an inevitable eye-popping Blu-Ray release.
Lest you think this is a direct carbon copy of Last House, however, Night Train Murders has a few odd twists in store along with some unexpected sociopolitical commentary. Director Aldo Lado, who got his start with the excellent gialli Short Night of Glass Dolls and Who Saw Her Die?, was hardly your average hack, and it's obvious when the film opens with two thugs assaulting and robbing a Santa Claus in the middle of a Munich shopping square that this won't be an easy ride. Said opening is also scored with the sweet "A Flower's All You Need" theme song by Demis Roussos (originally written by this film's composer, Ennio Morricone, for the Japanese/Italian animated film, Il giro del mondo degli innamorati di Peynet), which offers a queasy counterpoint to the escalating violence to come. This time our two targeted girls are virginal Lisa (D'Angelo) and her friend Margaret (Inferno's Miracle), who are heading to the warmer climate of Italy on Christmas Eve via an overnight train ride. They pass the time by whispering about sex and discovering the thrills of leaning against a vibrating train door, but more sinister things are afoot nearby when the aforementioned two lowlifes, Blackie (Suspiria's Bucci) and Curly (De Grassi), decide to get their kicks by molesting a female passenger (Deep Red's Meril) in the bathroom. As it turns out, the unnamed female passenger is quite the perverse one herself; she not only hides porno pictures in her purse and enjoys the rough advances of Blackie, but she also goads them into terrorizing the two girls before things wind up going way too far. Upon exiting the train, fate has a nasty surprise in store when the nasty trio winds up staying with Lisa's family, surgeon Giulio (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Salerno) and wife Laura (An Angel for Satan's Berti) -- and then the fun really begins.
Most horror fans will notice that this film sports a significant quartet of actors from Dario Argento classics both past and future, and it's something of a kick to see them all bouncing off each other in this sick little number. (Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot Phenomena's Dalila Di Lazzaro in a bit part, too.) Meril definitely steals the show here as the most enigmatic and unnerving character, a bourgeois psychopath with no correlation whatsoever to the original Last House. Her increasingly depraved reactions to the antics on the train are deeply creepy, and her fate is one of the biggest surprises the film has to offer if you know the narrative model upon which it's based. Better known for high-profile action and crime films, Salerno brings the necessary gravity to his role as the avenging papa (first introduced during some truly wince-inducing surgery footage), and it's fascinating to see a very young Miracle in her film debut before she moved on to Midnight Express, underwater trauma with Argento, and Puppetmaster. Another strong asset is the Morricone score, which otherwise dispenses with the "Flower" melody (already exhausted in the film for which it was originally written) and uses a harmonica and percussion to creepily accentuate the rhythms of the train tracks.
Like many other Italian films of the period, this was shot without sound and had to be completely dubbed from scratch for both the Italian and English markets. The mixture of multinational actors is more obvious here than usual, as no one appears to be speaking the same language and neither version really synchs up at all. Therefore, Blue Underground's original DVD containing only the English dub is about as valid an option as any, and it looked and sounded fine for its digital debut. As for the transition to Blu-Ray, one never quite knows what to expect with Italian genre films these days; fortunately it's good news here as this is a very strong transfer without the peculiar watercolor blobbiness found on titles like The 10th Victim. It's very similar in appearance to Torso, actually, so gauge accordingly if you own that one already. The opening shots in Germany have always looked a little faded and beige, but once the interiors kick in, the film looks extremely sharp and vivid with rich color and detail. The spooky night scenes inside the train car get a significant boost from the stronger and more accurate color rendition, including the eerie use of blue gels. Audio is once again Dolby Digital English mono, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Extras are the same as the DVD, albeit this time in HD with appreciably better image quality: the European trailer, the much more lurid and fun American trialer (under the Last Stop title), a pair of radio spots, a gallery of promotoinal artwork and stills, and a Lado interview, "Riding the Night Train," in which he discusses the film's casting, visual style, and production logistics.
Reviewed on January 10, 2012