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Synapse Films presents
Night Train (1999)

"Now it was time for Joe to picture life outside of prison. Now it was time for Joe to picture himself rising out of the toilet and taking a seat on the rim of society."
- Sam (Barry Cutler)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: July 30, 2003

Stars: John Voldstad, Nikoletta Skarlatos, Barry Cutler, Donna Pieroni
Other Stars: Pedro Aldana, Chuck Skull, Tom Waldman, Dan Shor
Director: Les Bernstien

Manufacturer: CineSite DVD
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, nudity, sexuality, gore, torture, language, bullfighting)
Run Time: 01h:20m:02s
Release Date: June 24, 2003
UPC: 654930302590
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B-A-A- A-

DVD Review

It's popularly believed that noir died in the 1960s, when they stopped making black and white movies. But the dark and grim in life has an endless appeal for some filmmakers. It doesn't hurt that noir tends to be fairly cheap to film: there's a very good reason why it was a staple of so many B studios back in the 1940s. This debut feature by longtime television and film effects man Les Bernstien proves that there's still some life in the old genre.

Obese hoodlum Joe Butcher (John Voldstad) gets a telegram from his brother in crime, Zack (also Voldstad), summoning him to Tijuana. Once there, Joe learns that Zack has been mysteriously killed in a car accident, though no one seems to know the details. The clues all lead Joe to the Perez Body Shop, but an evil-tempered dwarf named Don Alameda (Pedro Aldana) means to make sure that Joe's questions go unanswered. But there are large sums of money missing, and Joe's determination (in between drinking binges) leads him deeper into the mystery, which carries him deep into a world of snuff films, missing dancers, one-legged hookers, burial alive and involuntary tattooing. His only guides and allies are the bum Sam (Barry Cutler), who serves as the essential noir narrator, and the stripper/hooker Bobby (Nikoleta Skarlatos), who wants revenge for her dead sister Regina (also Skarlatos).

While a noir antihero is often a lowlife pug who's not too smart, Joe Butcher takes this archetype to an extreme. Ineffective and stupid, he falls victim to the bottle all too often. Voldstad (who played the Other Brother Daryl on Newhart for many years) has a great face for this role, displaying vacancy while dimly struggling to make sense of a complicated situation. Dissipated, puffy and bloated, he seems like the antihero of D.O.A. gone badly to seed. Aldana is suitably nasty and gleefully wicked (though he died before dubbing his voice, so the performance is a hybrid). Cutler is something like a poor man's Harry Dean Stanton and gives a suitable performance as the mentor, though his dubbing is rather a bit clean and on the intelligent side for the circumstances. The dubbing is really a weakness of the film, made necessary due to the noise of the streets of Tijuana where the picture was filmed. Although the commentary indicates that the filmmakers rather like the unnatural effect, I found that it drew me out of the picture substantially.

On the positive side, however, there's a lot of great style and a dark humor that will be appreciated by fans of noir. There are some terrific montages that could have walked right out of the 1940s. There's also an exceptional nightmare sequence that is both surreal and a dive into German Expressionism. There are plenty of double exposures and Dutch angles that put this picture back into the world of 50 years ago, as does the constant emphasis on trains. There's also a bizarre bit of a reflecting pool memory in a toilet bowl; toilets form a great deal of the imagery here, and while they are often just played for a sophomoric laugh, there's a thematic seriousness there to Joe's life in the gutter and his descent even further into the abyss once he wanders into the streets of Tijuana.

This will never be adopted as a travelogue for the city of Tijuana, but one gets a great sense of a very dangerous and exciting place. Echoing Touch of Evil in several ways, the film also contains elements from The Third Man (the mysteriously deceased man) and stylistic elements from Kiss Me Deadly. The result is a highly enjoyable, though often brutally nasty, look at the seamier side of South of the Border.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In keeping with the format of a 1940s noir, the frame is 1.33:1 and the film stock is stark black and white. There are a few random bits of hair and crud but for the most part the visuals are crisp and attractive. Black levels are excellent and greys have a wide variance when appropriate. Very little artifacting appears, most notably in the difficult-to-render striped jacket worn by Sam. Not bad at all.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is quite clean (since little live sound was used, this is natural). There's nice directionality to the music in particular, and decent surround activity. There's often a deep bass rumble as well from the trains. Once one makes it beyond the dubbing issues, there's really nothing to complain about here.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Les Bernstien, star John Voldstad, editor/sound man George Lockwood
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Original short film
  2. Publicity materials
  3. Music video
Extras Review: Synapse provides a wealth of material for the disc. Front and center is an enjoyable and interesting discussion on the commentary track. Director Les Bernstien, star John Voldstad, editor/sound man George Lockwood give us a good look at guerrilla filmmaking on the streets without approvals or consents, as well as the various noir influences behind the picture. We also see the 1991 short film (22m:02s) that was designed to raise the financing for the feature version. Set in Los Angeles, it has a very different tone and makes for a fascinating comparison. Delving even deeper into the prehistory of the picture, we see Bernstien's 1987 music video (5m:36s) for the song Plastic Pig from the band Bay of Pigs. Some of the thematic elements are already present here, including the brother's photo album of crime clippings and a definite noir attitude.

A set of storyboards for the nightmare sequence show how much was altered in the editing room. A set of publicity materials is a series of quotes from reviews and festival promotions. Bios are provided for Bernstien and Voldstad as well.

The Special Features menu features two not-very-well-hidden Easter Eggs: a featurette (11m:36s) on How to Make a Caesar Salad, filmed in the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana where the salad was invented, and Welcome to Tijuana (13m:38s), which is both a bit of a travelogue and a collection of anecdotes about the picture and the scenes where it was shot. These are both in color, which is a little disorienting.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A nasty and striking modern noir that generally hits on all cylinders, Night Train is powered by good lead performances and terrific visuals. Synapse also provides a ton of valuable extras to boot, making this a keeper.


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