If you are intending to enjoy your Christmas in any way, then I would avoid this film like an elf-induced plague. It’s not bad (far from it) it’s just so relentlessly grim it will put you off… well, life.
You know you’re in for a rough time when during the opening credits two Italian thugs mug and stab to death a nice guy dressed as Santa collecting money for charity on a street in Munich crammed with Christmas shoppers. All the while a lovely pop song plays over the top of the grisly scene; the singer warbling about how your dreams can come true if you try. Apparently not if you’re a nice guy dressed as Santa, bleeding to death as oblivious shoppers step over you. Then the angelic voices of little children join in with the chorus. Truly the stuff of nightmares. Little children singing in pop songs that is, not Santa stabbings.
Thank god we are soon past this jolly little prologue and into the main plot. It’s Christmas Eve and two girls are on an overnight train travelling home from Munich to Italy. The previously seen Santa killing thugs are also on board the packed train and their lives are soon to interact with horrific consequences. First, however, the thugs meet a middle-class woman, who they force into the toilet. But the tables turn when she encourages one of them to, well, fuck her brains out on the bog puts it pretty bluntly. When the train is delayed, the teenage girls switch to a much quieter train, thinking they’ll get the place to themselves and so a good night sleep. However the thugs and the woman (she never has a name, even in the credits she is just “Woman on the train”) soon appear and after a gruelling night of horror, the girls have been raped and murdered. Afterwards the three villains end up being picked up by the Italian parents at the end of the line, who soon realise what has happened and exact a violent revenge.
Yes, this is the same plot as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, although I suspect the filmmakers were really ripping off Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. It’s an incredibly bleak story and this Italian version really goes for it. Even with the familiar tale, this has a lot to recommend it… hmm, not recommend: a lot that makes it miserable and depressing, in its own unique way!
First, and most importantly, the music is by Ennio Morricone. When we first hear it, it’s just a solo harmonica. But then, like a Mel Brooks sight-gag, it turns out its being played by one of the thugs. It’s a silly joke that you can almost dismiss as a bit of fun on the director’s part. However hearing the instrument again sends a genuine chill down the spine because now it acts as a creepy musical signifier of the terror to come, telling you as the viewer and the girls as characters, that they are no longer alone. During the harrowing scenes that follow, the harmonica is joined by some of Morricone’s more familiar orchestral instruments. The traditional music mixes with the constant sound of the train on the tracks, chugging along to create a heartbeat, thumping faster and faster as the girls’ situation becomes worse and worse.
The whole sexual assault and murder scenes are the longest section of the film, and it’s not fun viewing. While it’s not as sadistic as the violent cruelty dished out in Last House on the Left, it is still way, way on the side of deeply disturbing. This is partly because the two teenage girls are genuinely portrayed as two sweet innocents with no idea of the adult world. Early on they lean against the moving train to get a “buzzing feeling down there”, it’s pathetically endearing rather than sexual and this makes the brutal assault they suffer all the more harrowing. Somewhat undermining this horror is the fact that the two thugs are broadly played like giggling stereotypes from action movies of the period. You keep expecting Clint Eastwood to turn up and blow them away with a Magnum .45. If only. This really isn’t helped by some pretty poor dubbing, using not very talented voice actors.
But the thugs are still horrible creatures, made more so by The Woman on the Train who encourages all of their most revolting behaviour. One of the girl’s horrific demise by knife is in fact suggested by the woman, as she looks on smirking at their pain and suffering. The Woman isn’t portrayed as a criminal-type herself, but rather as a bored thirty-something blonde looking for a bit of excitement. While she never actually gets her hands physically dirty, she is so manipulative she might be the most evil of the bunch. SUPER SPOILERS COMING UP: At the end of the film the two thugs are disposed of by the vengeful father, but the woman merely washes their blood off her shoes with a garden hose, pulls down the veil of her hat and only goes and gets away with it all. It’s a bitter pill to swallow after all we’ve been through. The parents may be disgusted by their own acts of violence, but having seen the ordeal the girls went through, as audience members we crave our own revenge. We want those bastards to die. The fact that the Machiavellian orchestrator of the whole sorry mess gets away scot-free is hard to take. Lucky for us the Woman appears in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, released later the same year. In that she ends up as the first victim and I like to think of the film as a sequel of sorts and so she gets her grizzly comeuppance, knifed in the back with her neck sliced open by a broken window. I’m against revenge in real life, it never really solves anything. But in movies sometimes we can only get satisfaction that way, when made-up characters distribute made-up vengeance: satisfying without the real-life guilt. END OF SPOILERS.
Actually, I don’t like seeing rape depicted in film. I know it can work as an important plot point, and no one can deny it really happens. I just don’t want to see it. Maybe its because I know people who have been sexually assaulted, but the depiction of sex-crimes just feels different from other nasty filmic happenings. I mean, knife violence doesn’t bother me much, and I’ve been stabbed. Not that you really see any of the rape here, but this is only because the framing and sound are not explicit. Often you will just see the faces of the victims or the perpetrators or the people watching the crimes but this doesn’t make it any less depressing or heart-breaking. Even the thugs and Woman acknowledge this after the fact, “I didn’t know it would end like this!” one of them cries. Although interestingly they don’t feel this way because of some sudden development of empathy about how awfully they have treated the girls, but because of how repulsed they are at their own actions.
And we too, as a viewer, are repulsed by their actions. Especially at Christmas, when what we want is good will and love between all people, this film represents the opposite – the ugly, distasteful and appalling side of humanity. It is weirdly compelling viewing, made more so with that hypnotic Morricone soundtrack, but do yourselves a favour, if you want to have any hope, happiness or hearty laughs this season, skip this now and maybe watch it at Easter.