Munich, a few days before Christmas. Students Margaret Hoffenbach (Irene Miracle) and Lisa Stradi (Marina Berti) are preparing to go spend the holidays with Lisa's parents in Italy.
Deciding to take the train rather than flying, they soon come to the attentions of a couple of young thugs, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi) who boarded, sans tickets, to evade the law after a petty crime spree – mugging a Santa Claus, ripping a rich woman's fur coat and so on.
Things take a more serious turn as Blackie corners another passenger (Macha Méril) in the toilet and sexually assaults her.
A bomb threat stops the train, prompting Margaret and Lisa to disembark and take another train. Unfortunately Blackie, Curly and the woman – who by this time we have realised is dangerously unbalanced, even if her exact motivations will remain indecipherable – are among the other passengers who have the same idea.
The five soon find themselves sharing a carriage. Over the course of the journey Blackie and Curly, encouraged and assisted by the woman, become increasingly abusive, culminating in the rape and murder of Lisa and the death of Margaret as she make a desperate bid to escape.
Realising that Blackie and Curly do not have tickets, but oblivious to the crimes that have just occurred, the guard throws them off the train at the next station, at which the woman also disembarks, injuring her leg in the process.
This, as it happens, is also the station at which Lisa's parents are waiting. Not yet particularly worried and thinking that his daughter and her friend will arrive on the next train, Dr Stradi (Enrico Mario Salerno) agrees to take the woman to their house to treat her wound. Blackie and Curly tag along.
Round about this point Mrs Stradi notices that one of the thugs is wearing a distinctive tie suspiciously like the one earlier described on the telephone to her as being Lisa's Christmas present for her father. Coupled with the radio announcements that two girls' bodies have been found in the vicinity, the horrible truth dawns...
First things first. Yes, Aldo Lado's L' Ultimo treno della notte is obviously inspired by Last House on the Left. But insofar as Wes Craven's film in turn was a contemporary revisioning of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring which in turn drew inspiration from a medieval Swedish legend, it can be argued that no one here can really throw the first stone as far as originality or imitation goes.
In any case, L' Ultimo treno della notte emerges as superior to Craven's film on many counts and its equal on the others, such that alternative titlings Second House on the Left and New House on the Left attest not so much to an inferior unofficial sequel but to a distinctively Italian refinement of the original which benefits from a more convincing narrative, stronger characterisation and consistent overall tone.
Whereas the means by which Krug and company end up in the Collingwood's house comes across as contrived, a deus ex machina that might work in the medieval and mythical context of Bergman's film but not in the real world of post-Manson America, there's no reason to believe here that Dr Stradi wouldn't need much convincing from the woman since it's quickly established that he's the kind of dedicated type who finds it difficult not to take his work home with him. An underling's prognosis that “I don't think there's any use in operating. He's in a deep coma.” prompts the response “You'd better change your attitude quickly if you don't want trouble. Even if the chance is remote you must operate, right?! All right, let's go. Call my wife please, tell her I'll be a little late.”
The one aspect that does remain somewhat awkward in this regard is the way the passengers are kept on the train despite the possibility that there may be a bomb on it. It just doesn't ring true, even if it also comments on the very real situation of Germany and Italy in this period with the RAF and Red Brigades. But, given that the general sense of a “legitimation crisis” of both left and right is conveyed elsewhere in the film, whether by the group of old comrades in arms on the train, singing a dubious Nazi-era song and responding in Pavlovian dog fashion to Blackie's barked “Heil Hitler,” or the various chattering class conversations about the decline and possibly immanent fall of western civilisation, it really wasn't necessary when a simple mechanical breakdown could have been used instead – especially seeing as this could also connote social breakdown, that the trains are not running on time...
The area where reworking rather than copying the material is most apparent is the positioning of Blackie and Curly compared to Krug and Weasel. In Last House on the Left the bad guys are really too much cartoon figures at times, their remorse at the slaying of the two girls somewhat inconsistent with a past history that includes slaying slain two nuns and a priest and Krug’s hooking his own son on heroin. Here, by contrast, we see two ordinary young thugs, certainly not the sort of people we'd like to meet but not beyond redemption or simply growing out of this sort of thing, who happen to fall under the influence of a psychopathic “other”.
What's more troubling, of course, is the nature of this psychopathic other, that the woman on the train – the only identification she’s ever given – also takes us in initially through the simple facts of her age, class and gender. As she is introduced saying her farewells and boarding the train, we think we know her and the situation that is about to unfold, that she is another potential victim of these young thugs, not the one who will influence them to murder. (Note here the exchange as she enters the train carriage: “What are you doing boys? Leave the girls alone!” “If you say so,” suggesting that things could have gone very differently.)
We could dismiss Lado's characterisation here as misogynistic, nothing more than another unknowable, monstrous feminine figure who confirms the necessity of male control. To do so, however, seems to me to miss the entire point, precisely because it reasserts this same control, rendering character and film more knowable and blunting their subversive challenge. For, as anyone who has also seen Lado's other horror-thrillers Who Saw Her Die and Short Night of the Glass Dolls will know, he is the kind of genre filmmaker who refuses to provide easy entertainment and instead compels you to work through the images he presents and your responses to them.
This, in turn, perhaps accounts for the film still being refused a certificate in the UK. With the possible exception of the “no means yes” encounter in the toilet between the woman and Blackie, it’s difficult to pick out any one thing as clearly unacceptable. Rather, it seems to be the whole ambiguous tone of the piece and the questions that arise thereby: Who is really in control? What does (the) woman want? What motivates her? What is the relationship between societal and individual malaise? What can and should be done about them? What if the people we’re supposed to look to for answers, those citizens above suspicion, not only don’t have answers but also contribute to the situation, whether explicitly – the woman, with her sins of commission – or implicitly – all those who look away and try to avoid getting involved? (“I was just passing through,” as one man says by way of trying to excuse himself.)
Lado’s direction is similarly intelligent, making good use of location and showing his technical flair, as with the rapid intercutting between Lisa’s moment of death and her parents’ dinner party or the stylised lighting of the carriage during the central torture sequence, without coming across as self-indulgent. (One also wonders is Argento saw his former colleague’s film prior to making Suspiria in this (blue) light, especially given the casting of Bucci in that film and Miracle in its Inferno.)
The writer-director also knows when to let the actors take the lead, drawing impressive performances from the principals, each of whom is thoroughly convincing in their respective roles. Morricone’s score, led by Curly’s diegetic harmonica wails, is simple but effective. It’s hard, however, to find anything good to say about the warbling Demis Roussos ballad that plays over the credits, which may well prove the truest moment of torture in the entire thing as far as the typical viewer is concerned...
The film is available on DVD from Blue Underground. Midnight Video had a Japanese subtitled version available, which pixellates moments of nudity.