Two young women are travelling by train to spend Christmas at one of their parent’s house. They never make it to their destination. They are instead terrorized, humiliated, abused, sexually molested and eventually killed by two thugs and a mysterious seemingly well to do older woman. The criminals think they have gotten away with it until they find themselves at the parent’s house and find mercy is in very short supply…
If this sounds at all similar to a little Wes Craven film from 1977 called Last House on the Left, you would be bang on the money. Night Train Murders is essentially the Italian Last House. Much like its inspiration, Night Train Murders (also known as Late Night Trains and Last Stop on the Night Train) also got caught up in the Video Nasties scare of the early 1980s. Luckily (or unluckily, from a notoriety perspective) Night Train Murders was never successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, while Last House on the Left was. Which is somewhat surprising (and just proves how ridiculous the criteria for prosecution was) as both films are just as grim, unsettling and just plain nasty as each other. I don’t mean that as a criticism (or as a slight to the Last House purists out there!) as a film with such a subject matter should be unpleasant and difficult to watch at times, it doesn’t make it any less of a good, even dare I say entertaining, well-made film.
After 1972’s Last House on the Left director Wes Craven didn’t make a horror film for five years, perhaps drained by filming the unrelentingly grim Last House and the controversy that followed it. In 1977 he returned to the horror genre with The Hills Have Eyes. This, while still certainly grim in places, doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of depravity that Last House achieved, and is more re-watchable for it, in my opinion.
The Carter family, led by Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel (Virginia Vincent) are heading to California with their family and two dogs in tow. To celebrate their silver wedding, they were gifted a silver mine by an Aunt and wish to visit it en route. Big Bob is a retired policeman of a take no nonsense sort of nature. Therefore, he of course ignores the warnings of the grizzled old Gas Station owner Fred (Robert Steadman) that the area is a no go area that is used by the government for air craft tests. They might of pay heed to his warnings of course, if he has just said ‘Seriously, don’t go that way, that way be a family of deranged cannibalistic madman’ but grizzled old Gas Station owners in horror films always go for the more mysterious approach.
At first glance 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown neatly fills the ‘mysterious masked killer’ gap in between 1974’s Black Christmas and 1978’s Halloween in the slasher genre. However there is some debate to be had whether The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a slasher film or not. I’ve seen folks refer to it more of crime drama, or a mystery. Maybe these people don’t like the slasher label, and feel it demeans the film in some way? It certainly has many of the hallmarks; the aforementioned masked killer, pretty young victims, bumbling cops, inventive deaths, a tension filled chase through the woods, spiky musical score and so on. It also has the genuinely unsettling fact that it is based on a true crime that was never solved. And not in the sense that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was very loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein. In 1946 the town of Texarkana was terrified by a series of five murders, of mostly young lovers, who were killed by a hooded man who became known as the Phantom Killer. He was never caught. That isn’t to say that the film changed nothing of the original case, and the fact that at the beginning the film states that ‘only names have been changed’ is clearly untrue (death by trombone is far too ridiculous to have actually happened for a start. Yeah, there’s a death by actual trombone in the film). But the fact that the base story here was reality for the residents of Texarkana, and not really that long ago either, is fairly chilling, with a veneer of exploitation on behalf of the film makers – Although seeing as Texarkana townsfolk appeared in the film as extras, they didn’t see it as malicious intent on behalf on the film makers to exploit their suffering. The cops who investigated the real case however, have more cause to be annoyed by their portrayal in the film. We’ll get to that later, let’s look at the film itself first.