B&W, 1993, 82 mins. 48 secs. / 75 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by Jeffrey Arsenault
Starring James Raftery, John Leguizamo, Ali Thomas, Lisa Napoli, Screamin' Rachael, David Roya, Yul Vazquez, Caroline Munro
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Sub Rosa (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

Something Night Owlstrange was in the air in Manhattan in Night Owlthe first half of the '90s, with the height of the AIDS epidemic and a much-publicized crime problem contrasting with a thriving underground scene in every aspect of the arts. Rising out of that era was a small but intriguing series of scruffy indie art-horror films (most shot in black-and-white) about vampires during the time of multiple modern plagues, including Larry Fessenden's Habit, Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, and Michael Almereyda's Nadja. Lesser known and shuffled off straight to video without a traditional theatrical release was Night Owl, a long-gestating project that had cast its leading man, future musician James Raftery, several years earlier during the first attempt to get the film off the ground. Perhaps because it mostly seen only via festival screenings (and a Lifetime thriller with an identical title aired the same year), the film has often been overlooked as the first of the East Village vampire sagas and is most valuable now as a snapshot of the area during a turbulent but exciting moment in time. The film is also significant for an early starring appearance by John Leguizamo, who would go on to collaborate with director Jeffrey Arsenault on some of his earliest and most successful stage productions.

In a nocturnal world of clubs and lowlifes, Jake (Raftery) is much older than he appears and suffers from a constant thirst for human blood. His predilection for using one-night stands as his food supply is becoming complicated by disease and drug use, but that's just the beginning when Angel (Leguizamo), the brother of his most recent victim, gets way too close for comfort to Jake's trail of victims; on top of that, the miserablist vampire finds himself falling for Anne (Thomas), a performance artist, and tries to find ways to suppress Night Owlhis dark nature.

The actual plot here is quite thin and not all that novel, but the use of the gritty settings (including some wild, very long club performances by the energetic Screamin' Rachael) is Night Owlbound to raise a smile from anyone who was around in the early '90s. Raftery is well cast and carries a haunted look well that he achieved through some dedicated method acting around the time, and Leguizamo already commands the screen even this early in his career. Anyone looking for a traditional horror film will be confounded as this is far more in art territory (closest in spirit to something like Ganja and Hess), though it does deliver a few splashes of blood here and there along with some grueling depictions of the nastier consequences of Jake's lifestyle. Today it's also a little surprising the film doesn't have more of a following given that it features appearances by no less than two cult icons, Warhol Factory veteran Holly Woodlawn (as a nightclub patron) and the much-loved Caroline Munro in a TV interview (about Dracula A.D. 1972) conducted just for this film.

First issued on VHS by Tempe Video and temporarily sold via Something Weird, Night Owl has remained largely under the radar over the years all the way through its underwhelming 2004 DVD release from Sub Rosa (with a pretty awful cover). The 2019 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition from Vinegar Syndrome (which comes with a limited slipcover in its initial pressing) is a massive improvement and really the first time most people will be able to see this film in prime condition. The deliberately ragged nature of the film is left intact in the new 2K scan from the 16mm original negative, but there's so much more detail here as well as deeper, richer blacks. The DTS-HD MA English 1.0 audio is fine for what it is, given that Night Owlthe film doesn't have a very polished sound mix in the first place; optional English subtitles are also included. Night Owl

Arsenault contributes both an audio commentary and a new video interview, "Night Life" (19m7s), which overlap a bit but serve as an in-depth chronicle of how the film came about (over several years) and what led him to become a filmmaker, including some advice from Shelley Winters. He talks quite a bit about the actors in parts both big and small (with multiple crew members popping up here and there), the ins and outs of shooting under primitive conditions in Soho and surrounding areas, the issues of shooting a film for two and a half years, and the subsequent fates of most of the participants. "Living for the Night" (13m43s) is a new chat with Raftery about the process of making the film, which began when he was an 18-year-old NYU student and went on and off for several years before the project became a reality. Then "A Chance to Die" (11m20s) features actress Karen Wexler, who plays the ill-fated Zohra, recalling her time as an aspiring actress and the process of getting cast in the film in her "free spirit" role. An archival 1990 interview with Arsenault (29m12s) for the public access program The Marie Colwell Show is also fascinating as it captures him in the thick of the production and his oblique pitch for the film as a "murder mystery thriller" (which isn't entirely inaccurate, but...). Then you get a batch of "Original Cast Auditions" (8m53s), most from 1989 (including an effervescent Napoli) but also featuring Raftery's original 1985 audition, as well as the full unedited Munro interview (8m37s) in color and the very primitive home video trailer.

Reviewed on July 18, 2019.