From among the Video Nasties

L'ultmo treno della notte AKA Night Train Murders AKA Late Night Trains AKA The New House on the Left (1975, Italy)

The creators: Director Aldo Lado, a giallo maker of no real import, alongside a team of writers including minor giallo figure Ettore Sanzò, semi-important Western writer Renato Izzo, and sometime producer Roberto Infascelli. Ennio Morricone is on hand to provide the score, which makes me about as sad as it is possible to be.

The plot: Two men, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi) - we shall pretend that the movie announced character names such that I didn't have to use nicknames like "Stallone" and "Veil Lady" and "The German One" to keep individuals straight in my notes - beat up a Santa Claus in Munich, and hop a train to escape the police. It's crowded, because it's 24 December, and everybody onboard is traveling out of the city for Christmas - a gaggle of priests, a politician, a collection of Neo-Nazis, two dirty-mouthed girls, one boring girl, and a mysterious woman (Macha Méril), who looks like a cross between Gena Rowlands and Kirsten Dunst. She engages the politician and his entourage with a chat about the desirability of totalitarianism - look for that in an American slasher film, why don't you!

Also, we see a middle-aged couple buying a motorcycle for their daughter. Except we find out later that she's only the man's daughter, and also the couple is not married and that upsets the woman, who wants to be official. But we find all of that later, in scenes that are cut together with the main action horribly, and only start to make sense at the 50 minute mark.

The two muggers are generally creepy, particularly when Blackie hooks up with the mysterious woman in the train toilet; meanwhile, the rest of the passengers wander about and pass the time as the train leaves Munich for Verona. Eventually, it stops because of a hoax bomb scare, and the local police have to check out everybody to make sure they aren't terrorists. By this point, the two loud girls, Margaret (Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D'Angelo) have figured out that they're in a wildly boring movie that has been going on for 30 minutes without so much as the ghost of a plot point, so they switch trains and get into a new one. Unfortunately, the creepy muggers and the woman join them, and start to act really phenomenally creepy indeed. Rapey-creepy, though at first it's more the omnipresent threat of rape than rape itself. Just after daybreak, the girls are dead, and we figure out that the middle-aged couple is actually Lisa's dad and his girlfriend, and the rapist-killers happen to meet them at the station. What follows is a bit like The Last House on the Left, by which I mean that it is damn near indistinguishable from The Last House on the Left.

Christmas cheer: Very little. Everybody is exactly as invested in Christmas as makes sense for December 24th, which is to say that since most of the film is set on trains, we see a few decorations in a couple of shots - a Virgin Mary poster, a tree, that poor Santa at the beginning. That it is Christmas has nothing at all to do with the story in any meaningful way.

Style of horror: Sort of all in-between: not stylish or gonzo enough to count as a giallo, entirely the wrong plot for a proto-slasher, and it's too slow-moving to deserve a spot among the minor spate of torture-driven thrillers of the mid-'70s.

The good: For one thing, even if it is naught but a Last House on the Left rip-off, it is in fact better than Last House itself, lacking as it does the Worst Comic Relief Ever, and boasting in the mysterious blonde woman a character who at least gives the film a certain European flair for the stylistic-over-substantial. Other nice visual touches here and there include the eerie shot of Lisa's body being thrown from the train, and a shot of a switchblade at dawn reflecting bright red light in a room otherwise lit with a blue emergency light, and it is as beautiful as anything in a non-Argento Italian horror picture from 1975 was going to be. The scene during which Lisa is raped to death with a knife is genuinely horrible in conception if awfully delicate in conception, and while Lado does not otherwise demonstrate much of a sure hand (this is a supremely underflavored movie for that country in that period - but then, it's a Craven knock-off, not a giallo), in that one moment he manages to clock the viewer right upside the head. The film ended up on the legendary Video Nasties list for this very moment, sexualised horror being the particular bugaboo of the Department of Public Prosecutions.

There are those who find the movie a leftist attack on upper class privilege and intellectual detachment, which is true, in the same way that Citizen Kane is the story of a man's struggle to build an opera house.

Also, one of the killers plays a harmonica and is frequently identified offscreen by just a few raspy notes, so if you turn on the movie for one of those moments and then turn it off, you might think that it was Once Upon a Time in the West.

The bad: When "the scene where the girl is raped to death with a knife" is in the good column, you're in a bad way. There is, most obviously, the leaden opening 30 minutes in which Lado and his co-writers won't even pretend that there's a plot happening, which is something that, say, Michelangelo Antonioni could get away with, and if he had thought of doing a cheap horror picture, I'd have given it a close look. But this is a trashy Last House cash-in.

Even before it becomes obvious how fucking slow the thing is going to be, we've already been treated to the agonising "A Flower's All You Need", a variation on an earlier Morricone song here performed by Demis Roussos - at least, that is how the English dub starts out, and on that subject, the English dub is terrible. But the song: in this incarnation, it is basically a parody of mid-'60s American folk that thinks for all the world that it is an exemplar of an early-'70s singer-songwriter ballad, and it makes me want to kill everything and everyone, beginning with myself.

The sex scene between Blackie and the blonde woman is unbelievably poorly cut together; it is the only actively incompetent scene in the movie, but Christ, was it irritating.

And, I can't stress this enough, it opens with thirty of the most fuckawful boring minutes in Italian horror. I don't know if the absence of any particular visual artistry is a "flaw", but it surely disappointed me.

Blood: A little, and it's used effectively, implying more violence than is shown. Which is very little violence. In an Italian film. It's like a '50s MGM film where the only song is that in one scene, they hum "You Were Meant For Me" while making scrambled eggs.

Boobs: None whatsoever, which is much appreciated, given that they would have cropped up in the rape scene.

Sex=death: Well, being raped=being killed, which isn't quite what the sex=death equation in slasher movies is typically held to represent. In fact, only two people in the whole movie engage in consensual sex, and one of them does not die at any point. The single professed virgin is treated worst of the whole cast.

Body count: Four, which in case you're keeping track, is fewer than in The Last House on the Left.

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. The rape scene is undeniably dark and wrong, but this and every other moment of violence is treated so gingerly that it barely registers. Factor in the ages-long start, and this is plainly one of the many films the DPP banned on account of being afraid that it would bore impressionable children to death.

Sign it was 1975: "A Flower's All You Need" almost makes it feel more like 1968, but we'll plug that one in. Also the whole assortment of European '70s fashions. Also the fact that it is an Italian horror movie from after the giallo had started to run out of steam and most of the practitioners of the form were starting to strain for ideas.

Pithy wrap-up: There is undoubtedly going to be a moment when you're craving a less violent and far less obnoxious Last House on the Leftwhile you are also in the mood for an Italian film, but you're also more concerned with having a coherent plot than with visual pyrotechnics, which raises the question of why you want to see an Italian film, precisely. If that moment happens to fall in December, Night Train Murders will do you up right.