• Night Owl (Vinegar Syndrome) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: June 25th, 2019.
    Director: Jeffrey Arsenault
    Cast: John Leguizamo, Lisa Napoli, David Roya, Ali Thomas, James Raferty, Holly Woodlawn
    Year: 1993
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    Night Owl – Movie Review:

    The feature film debut from director Jeffrey Arsenault, 1993’s Night Owl follows a young man named Jake (James Raftery). He is, as the title implies, essentially nocturnal and he lives in an old abandoned building without any electricity. He has a small circle of friends that seems to revolve around the pizza joint he hangs around, and he’s got a thing for bad 90’s house music. One night, while hanging out at The Space Place taking in a live show from Screamin’ Rachael, he picks up a pretty girl named Zohra (Karen Wexler) and takes her back to his squat. They make out, one thing leads to another, and during some energetic sex in his kitchen he bites her neck, sucks her blood and puts her body in a large garbage bag.

    Soon enough, Zohra’s brother, Angel (John Leguizamo), notices she’s missing. None of her friends no where she is or what happened to her and so he hits the streets, putting up flyers and trying to find out what happened to her. His older brother, Dario (David Roya), seems less concerned but eventually that Angel is right to be concerned. At the same time, Jake hits it off with a performance artist named Anne (Ali Thomas) and simultaneously falls deeper into the abyss.

    Shot on location in and around the East Village of the early 90’s (look for some great footage of the St. Mark’s that once was and even a quick bit that takes place near Times Square), Night Owl doesn’t really have much going on, in terms of plot, but it’s watchable and interesting in its own weird way. Part of the appeal, of course, is seeing a young John Leguizamo strutting his stuff. He’s quite good here, treating the material very respectfully and delivering a solid performance. In fact, most of the performances here are quite good. Raftery, who didn’t do much else outside of this and one other picture in 1998 called Barriers where he appears to have played a paramedic, delivers a really good turn in what is essentially the lead role. He skulks about believably, looking sick without looking overly made up and delivering some intensity without chewing the scenery. You kind of wonder why he didn’t go on to do more acting in films, his work is strong. Supporting performances from Roya, Thomas and Wexler are also more than solid and hey, look out for Holly Woodlawn (one of Andy Warhol’s drag queen sidekicks and one of the subjects addressed in Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’) in a small but important role as a bar fly and, oddly enough, a completely gratuitous appearance from the admittedly lovely Caroline Munroe as herself on a TV talk show (speaking a for a few minutes about her work for Hammer – this scene feels like unnecessary padding and adds nothing to the film but a celebrity cameo).

    The music in the picture, however, is dated and obnoxious. With all due respect to Screamin’ Rachael and the other contributors, but the upbeat house music clearly anchors the film in the early 90’s and it sounds at odds with the film’s undeniably dark and ominous tone. Additionally, without spoiling things, there’s a fight scene here that just doesn’t work and comes off less as two characters coming to blows than it does a couple of kids play-fighting. Still, this was clearly made with little money and a lot of heart. It’s an artsy and strange film, one that is loaded with atmosphere and is, somewhat inexplicably, more than watchable despite some flaws.

    Night Owl – Blu-ray Review:

    Night Owl arrives on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.33.1, taken from a new 2k scan of the original 16mm black and white negative. This one actually did get a DVD release through Sub Rosa years ago, but that transfer left something to be desired. Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration is a good one, though the film is still very, very dark and very, very grainy. Still, we get about as much detail out of this as was likely possible, given how the movie was shot. Black levels are nice and deep and contrast looks really solid here.

    The only audio option available for the feature is an English language DTS-HD mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Dialogue is a little hollow in spots but always easy to understand. The track is free of any audible hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced.

    Extras are plentiful, starting with an audio commentary with writer/director Jeffrey Arsenault that is a reasonably screen specific talk that starts with comments on the cobble stone streets featured in the opening shot with some insight into who played the homeless woman. He talks about how he shot a lot of Raftery’s apartment scenes in an abandoned funeral home that his personal landlord owned, who does the radio bits in the opening, how and why the film came to be set in 1984, working with extras in the club scenes, the trickiness of shooting the first sex scene in the film and having to direct that, and, of course, how he got Leguizamo to appear in the film. He talks about how well Leguizamo worked with the other actors and how positive and energetic he was to work with and how they collaborated on some theater pieces after the film was made, how Screamin’ Rachel wound up in the picture, where the idea for Ali Thomas’ character Anne Guish came from, the significance of a certain picture in the background of a scene, shooting the bar scene in a bar called Lucy’s with the owner, Lucy, in the film and the pros and cons of working with younger, inexperienced actors. Oh, and he covers the presence of the cat as well – it was his cat and his name was Spider he loved the camera.

    From there, dig into the featurettes starting with Night Life, an interview with Arsenault that runs nineteen-minutes. He opens by talking about how he learned not to be afraid to take risks, which he kept in mind when making movies. He then speaks about where he got some of the ideas from for the movie, writing multiple drafts of the script (he wrote the first in 1984), where he got some of the cast members from, working with an energetic Leguizamo (who was late but didn’t apologize for being late), shooting the film over two years, using available light outdoors as often as possible and quite a bit more.

    Living For The Night interviews actor James Raftery for fourteen-minutes. He talks about how he moved to New York City to go to NYU acting school when he was eighteen and how he auditioned for the film and was attached to it for a number of years before it actually started. He shares his thoughts on the part and what he did to research the role and get into character, and how because the movie was made over such a long period of time he would have to reintroduce himself to the part over and over when production would start up again. He also talks about working with Arsenault and Leguizamo, how the movie is a bit of a time capsule and other related subjects.

    In A Chance To Die we sit down with actress Karen Wexler for eleven-minutes and learn how she got to know Arsenault before Night Owl was made, which led to her getting to read for Zohra. She talks about graduating as a theater major, her thoughts on her character, what Arsenault expected from her in the part, having to scream in the film, shooting the sex/death scene with Raftery and how kind everyone was on the set during the shoot.

    Vinegar Syndrome has also dug up an archival interview with Jeffrey Arsenault from a June, 1990 episode of the Marie Colwell Show that runs just under over twenty-nine-minutes. It covers a fair bit of the same ground that the commentary and other interview covers but it was recorded before Night Owl we released so it provides some insight from a different perspective. He talk about how long it took to get the film moving, shooting the picture, what the film is about, the significance of the title, how he cast the film, different people that he collaborated with, the importance of Leguizamo (whose name Colwell can’t pronounce!) being in the picture, getting Holly Woodlawn to appear in the picture, challenges of bringing the film in on a low budget and plenty more.

    There’s also nine-minutes of original cast auditions featuring Karen Wexler and Alan Edwards from October 1989 (with a bonus appearance from a cat!), five-minutes with Lisa Napoli from October 1989 and eight-minutes featuring James Raftery from the spring of 1985. Also included on the disc is the raw interview footage featuring Caroline Munro shot in November, 1991 and used towards the end of Night Owl. There’s just under nine-minutes of material here and it’s interesting to see that it is shot in color (and on tape, which makes sense given that it was used for a TV broadcast in the film).

    Rounding out the extras is an original video trailer, which is in pretty rough shape and makes you appreciate the quality of the transfer even more. Menus and chapter selection are also included. As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie and Vinegar Syndrome packages this with some nice reversible cover artwork.

    Night Owl – The Final Word:

    Night Owl isn’t going to be for all tastes but if you can appreciate a low budget blend of arthouse and horror and don’t mind pictures that rely more on performance quality and atmosphere than plot, then it’s probably a pretty safe bet that you’ll enjoy this one as it is quite well made. Vinegar Syndrome have given this one a proper special edition release, presenting the film in a very authentically filmic presentation and on a disc loaded with extras.

    Click on the images below for full sized The Night Owl Blu-ray screen caps!