Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One is always looking for something interesting, new and different, and Synapse's Night Train Special Edition is a promising idea, a low-budget black & white crime story shot in Tijuana. The critic quotes on the package promise noir thrills and technical brilliance, and compare it to classics like Kiss Me Deadly.
What we get is yet another noir wanna-be, this time with a convincingly loathesome leading man (John Volstad, looking every bit the besotted bum he plays) and some well-shot optical montages that sometimes remind of the nightmare dreams in pictures like Murder, My Sweet. The locations are also authentic, and the atmosphere of sleaze is pretty thick.
But Les Bernstien and Gary Walkow's script is shallow and predictable. Ex-con Joe (Volstad) goes to Baja to find his brother, and wallows in beer and fallen women in between being threatened, beaten and tortured by the bad guys. It appears his brother Zack was a snuff film producer who died owing a midget racketeer (Pedro Aldana) money. Joe's main contact is a stripper, Bobby (Nikoletta Scarlatos) whose sister became one of Zack's victims. The story bounces from low-rent versions of scenes in The Third Man to endless encounters with whores and vile Mexican hoods. Joe's only friend is another Yank alcoholic (Barry Cutler) who tries to tell him to leave well enough alone.
1998's Night Train may have impressed devotees of independent cinema, but it doesn't work because it can't even approximate the basic values of the movies it emulates. The dialogue and narration is forced, and although Volstad is convincingly wretched as the hero, he's not much of an actor. Likewise for the rest of the anglo cast, who are wholly unconvincing. The latin actors and their dubbing seem much better, even though most are chosen to be as disgusting as possible.
Bernstien never achieves his 'Tijuana is hell' goal, because the trite story undercuts the credible location with cliché conceptions - plus an exploitation sensibility that puts various Mexican women in nude scenes, but not the anglo leading lady, even though she is a professional stripper and part-time hooker. The camera direction is reasonable during Volstad's aimless drifting, but dramatic confrontations are undercut by poor blocking. A rooftop confrontation near the end is particularly amateurish.
Night Train is attractively shot in contrasty b&w. There are too many nightmare optical sequences, dominated by a flushing toilet sound to accompany an ever-present superimposed whirlpool. Using baroque dream visuals to foreshadow scenes almost works; in the technically-challenged independent filmmaking world, the shot-on-film multiple exposures here must have looked impressive on a big screen.
As in Paul Schrader's Hardcore, there's a scene where a trussed and drugged hero is shown the snuff film in question. It's an odd flurry of blurred shots and cutaway gore details that look like anything but film shot during a real killing, so we never get the impression of seeing the final level of Bernstien's Hell. In the exploitative surroundings, even this gory scene hasn't much impact. Night Train creates a sleazy, ugly world, but fails to make it interesting or compelling.
The and the Tijuana soundscape is interesting, considering the flat dialogue looping of many scenes. The lively music background by the group Calvera is a definite plus, and helps hold the picture together.
Synapse's DVD of Night Train comes with two predecessor films, a music video and a twenty-minute dry run that helped raise funds for the shooting. There's also an audio commentary, bios for the director and star, and some storyboards. Synapse's production, menus and packaging artwork are very good.