International Horror Film Review: Last Stop on the Night Train (dir by Aldo Lado)


This Italian film from 1975 opens with two German teenagers — Lisa Stradl (Laura D’Angelo) and Margaret Hoffenbach (Irene Miracle) — happily looking forward to the future in general and spending Christmas with Lisa’s parents in specific.  (Of course, the Stradls live in Verona so Lisa and Margaret are going to have to take a train to visit them.)  Their happiness is reflected by the song that plays over the opening credits.  A Flower’s All You Need is perhaps the most obnoxiously happy song to ever show up in an Italian horror film.  Imagine my shock when I discovered that it was apparently co-written by Ennio Morricone.

Like many Italian exploitation films, Last Stop on the Night Train has been released under many different titles.  Here’s just a few: Night Train Murders, Xmas Massacre, Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains, Torture Train, New House on the Left and Second House on the Left.  As those last two titles indicate, this film was directly inspired by the financial success of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (which, for what it’s worth, was sold as being a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring).  According to an interview with director Aldo Lado, which was included with the film’s Code Red DVD release, the film’s producers approached him and told him that they wanted him to remake Last House On The Left.  Since Lado hadn’t seen Last House on the Left, the producers hastily filmed him on what happened in Craven’s film.  Based on what the producers told him, Lado proceeded to write the script for what would become Last Stop On The Night Train.

As a result, Last Stop on the Night Train follows the general plot of Last House on the Left but with some key differences.  Lado was a protegee of director Bernardo Bertolucci so, not surprisingly, he added a Marxist political subtext to the story, one that makes Last Stop On The Night Train a bit more interesting than the usual exploitation rip-off.  (Wes Craven, it should be said, always said that Last House On The Left was meant to be political, too.  Whether that’s true or not is open to debate.)  Like Craven’s film, Last Stop On The Night Train is about two innocent travelers who are abused and murdered by a group of thugs (played, in this case, by Flavio Bucci and Gianfranco de Grassi).  By an amazing coincidence, the murderers then find themselves staying at the home of one of the girl’s parents (Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti).  When the parents discover the identity of their guests, they get revenge and prove themselves to be just as capable of violence and sadism as the murderers.

The main difference between Craven and Lado’s take on the story is that Lado adds a mysterious character who is identified as being only The Lady on the Train (played by Macha Meril, who also played the unlucky psychic in Argento’s Deep Red).  The Lady on the Train is apparently very privileged.  When we first see her, she is coolly and calmly talking to a group of other wealthy passengers.  The only hint that she’s anything other than an upper class passenger on a train comes when she reveals that she’s carrying a collection of BDSM-themed postcards with her.  Before meeting the Lady on the Train, the two criminals played by Bucci and de Grassi were portrayed as just being obnoxious and larcenous but not necessarily homicidal.  It’s the Lady on the Train who goads the two men into attacking and ultimately murdering Lisa and Margaret, largely for her own amusement.  (Disturbingly, the train’s other upper class passengers are portrayed as being aware of what’s happening but either not caring or being amused by the whole thing.  One passenger — who is later revealed to be an acquaintance of the Stradls — briefly joins in.)  Even at the end of the film, while the parents are savagely attacking the two men, the Lady on the Train watches with the confident certainty that her wealth and position will protect her from any form of retribution.

It’s a disturbing film and definitely not one for everyone.  Even if you appreciate the technical skill with which it was made, this is a film that you won’t necessarily want to rewatch.  (I rewatched it only so I could write this review.  For me, it certainly didn’t help that one of the victims was named Lisa.)  If Wes Craven’s film was ultimately about gore and the idea that violence only leads to more violence, Lado is less concerned with both of those and instead focuses on the idea that, when the privileged and the marginalized both commit the same crime, only the marginalized are punished.  Lado’s film is also far better acted (and, if we’re going to be honest, directed) than Craven’s film, which makes Last Stop On The Night Train the rare rip-off that’s better than its source material.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.