Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

Sub Rosa studios have marketed the 1990 feature NITE OWL (formerly NIGHT OWL) as a vehicle for Hollywood actor John Leguizamo. Despite playing an interesting central role in Spike Lee’s SUMMER OF SAM, Leguizamo has primarily been a supporting player throughout his career, ranging from dreck like MARIO BROTHERS to the more impressive CARLITO’S WAY. So, despite being a highly capable actor, he’s a fairly dubious anchor point to sell a film. This notion is even odder when we consider that not only does he have a secondary role in this film, but that he also plays one of those problematical ‘worried and protective older brother’ character types. It should also be made clear, for any viewers seeking a glossy piece of entertainment, that NITE OWL appeared a couple of years before its ‘star’ found his way into the Dream Factory; it’s a grainy, low-budget independent picture. Now that we have the deceptive appearances out of the way, an important issue needs addressing. Is NITE OWL any good? And if so, does its distributor need such inappropriate marketing campaigns?

The narrative focuses on Jake (James Raftery), a surly young man who lives alone in a dingy flat and works at a pizza shop. He also happens to be a vampire who preys on girls at a local Manhattan bar. Jake routinely takes them home and has sex with them, before biting them and subsequently disposing of their bodies in order to prevent a vampiric transformation; his nocturnal activities soon get him into trouble, however. After victimising Zohra and disposing of her body, her brother Angel (Leguizamo) starts making enquiries and discovers that Zohra left the bar with Jake. Oblivious to the impending trouble, Jake continues quenching his blood lust with a young Chinese woman whom he follows home after a fall out with her boyfriend. Shortly afterward, he picks up Anne Guish, a performance artist whose act involves relating gruesome stories concerning vaginal mutilation; and although she manages to survive one night with him, she’s a persistent girl. After calling round for him a second time, Jake’s vampire condition - previously repressed and hidden from her - explodes, and he does away with her like all the others. Eventually, Angel confronts Jake...

As we can surmise from the above synopsis, there isn’t that much going on in NITE OWL. Rigorous cause and effect narration is thrown out in favour of digressions, set pieces and extended musical numbers. Examples include Anne’s ridiculous tall tales, a badly staged fight scene between Jake and Angel, several mechanically staged sex / bloodletting sequences, as well as numerous bar scenes involving songs that seem to go on forever. All of these cases succeed in dragging out the film well past its natural limit. Considering the running time of seventy-seven minutes one cannot escape the notion that the makers are guilty of a severe case of padding to enhance the film’s status as a feature.

Superficially, NITE OWL contains several similarities to Buddy Giovinazzo’s no budget masterpiece COMBAT SHOCK (1985). Both pictures are filmed in a cheap, grainy, shabby style with uneven light levels, and they both revel in depicting the lives of no hopers through a mise en scene occupied by deserted streets and dingy apartments. Both also depict alienated, blank-faced loners as their main characters. But whereas COMBAT SHOCK uses a masterful sound / image montage and disturbing voiceover to explore its protagonist’s deranged mental states and secure an uncomfortable spectator intimacy, NITE OWL’s application of single shot setups and long takes only succeeds in distancing its audience. The only redeeming facet of this long take usage is that the unities of time and space are preserved; after Jack kills a woman, in general we often see the lengthy and messy cleanup aftermath, which is interesting, although director Jeffrey Arsenault is no Andrei Tarkovsky (THE long take master). One could also argue that the aforementioned spectator distance can be an asset, as it often makes demands on the viewer’s intellectual prowess (as, for example, the films of Jean-Luc Godard), but NITE OWL lets us down: as we will see the content of the film is as vacuous as the face of its protagonist.

As an example of the film’s vapid substance, NITE OWL’s depiction of a teenage vampire borrows some heavy conceptual chunks from George Romero’s superior MARTIN (1978). In both films, the confused young men fantasise about being well-dressed, aristocratic, and seductive creatures of the night. But whereas MARTIN made it fairly clear that its protagonist was merely a messed up kid - the use of different film stock for the ‘romantic vampire’ scenes delineated a different mental state - NITE OWL’s killer is a genuine vampire: towards the end of the film Jake bites someone who returns as a member of the undead because Jake has neglected to destroy the corpse. Consequently, the film come across as confused rather than ambiguous, and the references to MARTIN feel arbitrary and wholly inappropriate.

Despite the negative comments, NITE OWL displays a couple of interesting cinematic devices that succeed in livening things up a little. Scenes of Jake wandering around the streets at night are presented by means of sideways tracking shots, which manoeuvre from right to left. Usually in films, the camera moves in the opposite direction (left to right, as if you need telling). In mainstream cinema, when the camera does move leftwards to follow a character it is usually not for any sustained length of time. Consequently, this simple yet effective device offers a challenge to our settled way of perceiving images; in a way it’s like the credits moving down instead of up at the beginning of Robert Aldrich’s film noir masterpiece KISS ME DEADLY (1955), and likewise succeeds in conveying that we’re looking into an off-kilter, unstable world, that we’re being taken down a different road. Also interesting is the use of technique in one of the later murder scenes. Jake strangles a girl, and we are given an isolated close up of his black cat’s head; the sounds of the screaming victim are layered on top of this image. This is another disorientating technique, and shows that the filmmakers have taken a creative attitude to the possibilities of sound and image in film, albeit briefly.

It is a shame that NITE OWL, like a great many other films in the vampire genre, fails to convey the ’essence’ of a vampire’s existence. Why don’t filmmakers attempt to put across the feelings and sensations, the sickness and exhilaration, the loneliness and the transient happiness of being a supernatural bloodsucker? Why present us with yet another confused, alienated, brooding young man? An exception to this rule would have to be Philip Ilson’s recent short film BLOOD, which utilises a fascinating, poetic voiceover and an evocative use of character / space interaction, and succeeds in creating a genuinely sickening, visceral, poetic and beautiful cinematic experience. BLOOD, an unashamedly short film that utilises the potential of its medium, achieves far more in its ten-minute duration than NITE OWL does at feature length.

Mathew Sanderson

Directed by Jeffrey Arsenault

English language
USA / 1990 / 77 mins / black and white

Actor auditions
Interview with Caroline Munroe
Interview with the director

A Sub Rosa Platinum DVD release

All Region / NTSC / Mono / 1.33:1



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