All aboard the overnight sleaze express...
Where do all the other passengers go once the action gets underway?
Our passenger list includes:
A man and his wife, who is seriously, even terminally, ill.
An outwardly respectable father and husband who has incestuous desires towards his 16-year-old daughter; you may recognise the actor playing the father, Roberto Caporali, from Zombie: Nights of Terror.
A cigar-chomping businessman and his put upon minion, whose first task is buying “all the porno magazines you have” for his boss from the station kiosk.
A bickering couple, Anna and Mike, played by the suitably mismatched pairing of Zora Kerowa and Venantino Venantini.
A by-the-book policeman escorting a prisoner across the border from Italy into Germany; said prisoner is played by another Gabriele Crisanti alumnus, Gianluigi Chirizzi.
A prostitute, played by top-billed Silvia Dioniso, who works the train in exchange for paying the guard for his services as procurer.
And, last but by no means least as catalysts for this Twentieth Century meets Late Night Trains meets Assault on Precinct 13, three young thugs looking for kicks, two of them played by Werner Pochath and Carlo De Mejo.
The guard and the gang
The attraction between Kerova and De Mejo's characters is immediately apparent.
Let's sit back and enjoy the ride...
Objectively, Terror Express! / La Ragazza del vagone letto (i.e. The Girl in the Sleeping Car; a reference to Dioniso's character) is not a very good film.
As is Dioniso's effect on the other passengers
The contrast between the exterior images of the train which repeatedly punctuate the action, and the studio interior recreation of a small subsection of it is somewhat jarring: how come no-one from any of the other carriages ever steps in or wonders where the guard has got to over the course of the entire night?
Late Night Trains worked a lot better in this regard because the second train, the one on which the rape and murder occur, was established as empty save for the smaller central group of five characters who board it, whilst also generally making a more convincing use of the possibilities of the train space.
The obligatory softcore sex and nude scenes are also awkward. Not so much in the sense that they make for uncomfortable viewing – porno rape and a father's incestuous desires towards his adolescent daughter should certainly be awkward viewing – but more because this awkwardness comes through director Ferdinando Baldi's unfortunate tendency to present everything throughout in what he appears to intend as the same an arousing way, complete with dramatic angles and inappropriate music.
The issue is most apparent in the scene where Anna goes off with one of the thugs, Ernie. She's clearly attracted to what he represents in contrast with her older, clearly conservative minded or even reactionary husband. As such, it's appropriate to have that sense of illicit thrill in the mise en scène, as something which is between the two characters: as they fuck, they are also fucking with the system, the man, as represented by the likes of Anna's older husband. But when another thug, Phil, sneaks in to the compartment and joins in, the power dynamics of the encounter change: Anna did not consent to this. Unfortunately Baldi's direction doesn't successfully convey this.
Still on the consensual side of things...
Nor do the violent action scenes quite convince, although the problem here is perhaps as much to with the difficulty of believing in De Mejo and Pochath as anything more than obnoxious bullies. They don't give off the same psychopathic aura as David Hess in Hitch-Hike or House on the Edge of the Park, where you genuinely believe he can back up his threats as and when the need arises.
But, then again, perhaps this actually works in terms of Terror Express!'s own dynamics. Specifically, it might be argued that what we have are three bad boys – emphasis on the boy – out to see how far they can push things, who then don't get pushed back until it is too late and things have gone far further than they had anticipated.
Beyond this, the characterisation is often unsatisfactory and the attempts at social commentary, courtesy of writer George Eastman/Luigi Montifiore, somewhat ham-fisted.
Yet, what saves the film and makes it so interesting and worth watching despite its flaws is the inclusion of this selfsame material, disregarding the way it slows down and complicates the narrative as you try to keep track of everyone, their relationships with one another and, most intriguing of all, to try to figure out where the filmmakers want to you stand regarding them all.
Rather than just class, it's also about gender, generation, political leaning and appearances against reality.
Thus, for example, when first confronted with the gang, the father asks his daughter if her current boyfriend is like that, a “social degenerate” before playing the “I only want what's best for you” card in his defence; a decidedly creepy remark in the light of later revelations.
Likewise, Anna, who had earlier welcomed the gang playing their radio loudly, responds to the quiet arrival of the prisoner and his guard in the dining wagon with the remark that their presence “shows a complete lack of consideration.”
Her husband's equally telling riposte: “Look who's talking, when you condone the outrageous actions of those three punks back there! God, it pisses me off!”
Father: “It's really hot in here”
Daughter: “I wish I could turn off the heating”
Father: “Why don't you take off your nightgown?”