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In Features, Issues

The low-budget phantasia of Les Bernstien's Night Train

"In a way," says writer-director Les Bernstien, pausing between bites of Yankee pot roast, deep in the back room of the legendary L.A. lunchery the Bounty, Night Train is a kind of cross between Heart of Darkness and The Wizard of Oz."

"With a bit of Under the Volcano thrown in," adds the film’s editor, sound designer and optical-effects maestro, George Lockwood.

"We kind of knew where we were going when we started the film," the mild-mannered, handsomely groomed Bernstien continues, "but it was also a situation where, after we went down to Tijuana the first time – after we crossed the border, so to speak – all bets were off."

A visually dizzying and occasionally laugh-out-loud lurch toward the end of the line, Night Train – shot on location in Tijuana’s zona roja – is what film noir must look like after someone’s rediscovered it for the 12-millionth time: stubble-covered, flop-sweaty, with chunky bits of something stuck to its cheek. Its story is strictly from under a rock: one alcoholic ex-con (played by John Volstad, last seen as one of the two Larrys on the 1980s sitcom "The Bob Newhart Show") goes to Mexico in search of another and runs afoul of both a snuff-film syndicate and an epic case of Montezuma’s Revenge. You could call it Bowels of Darkness, or The Blizzard of Ooze.

What sets Night Train apart from so many of its post-noir brethren – and from its own at-times nonexistent narrative – is the way it manages to powerfully re-create one aspect of the express-ionist aesthetic most neo-noodlers leave behind: low-budget but altogether sleaze-lovely optical effects. Not since the days of Edgar G. Ulmer or Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter have shadowy silhouettes, woozy triple-impositions and mirror-image monstrosities been used to such startling effect. The Village Voice’s indie-film kingmaker Amy Taubin called Night Train "a resourceful, nasty, no-budget Touch of Evil," and why not? This is a movie where strippers, dwarves and even vomiting heroes are all – as Marlene Dietrich once pigeonholed Orson Welles – "some kind of man."

Night Train (co-written by Gary Walkow) is Bernstien’s directorial debut, but it’s far from his – or Lockwood’s – first experience in the movies. An accomplished visual effects cinematographer, Bernstien’s for-hire work – in everything from Batman Lives and Dante’s Peak to Fight Club and Paul Verhoeven’s forthcoming The Hollow Man – has been seen by audiences around the globe. And Lockwood’s vast and varied credit sheet includes sound design for Gregg Araki’s The Living End, title-sequence opticals for John Carpenter’s The Thing and a 20-year-long collaboration with Los Angeles experimental film giant and optical-printing pioneer Pat O’Neill.

Bernstien and his crew at Metropolis Pictures have been working on Night Train which has become something of a staple on the international fantasy-and-horror film festival circuit, with summer play-dates in Munich, the Czech Republic and Puchon, South Korea – since the early 1990s, developing the material from a short he had made and designing optical sequences as the production wore on, both to fit the fabric of the story and to patch the holes in the seat of its pants. Most of the shooting took place between 1993 and ’95, but the film wasn’t completed until 1998. "We’d gotten used to using adversity as a kind of luxury," Lockwood says, "and that became a big part of our post-production technique. We’d waste hours in long, interesting conversations, dreaming up new ideas."

Shot mainly on the hard-to-find East German film stock Orwo, Night Train’s deep, liquid blacks contribute to the opticals’s archaic feel. "I ran a number of tests with Orwo and Kodak B&W stock side-by-side, " says Bernstien, "and the Orwo was 100 percent better. It’s got an extreme toe-to-shoulder exposure curve." Once favored throughout Europe for archival reproduction printing, Orwo all but ceased operations in 1993, and now only manufactures the stock in 16,000-foot special batches.

Bernstien’s also particularly proud of the film’s sound design, which makes extensive and deliberate use of low-tech dialogue "looping" to achieve its disorienting and off-kilter ambience. "The production sound we recorded ended up being used mainly as a guide track for the actors; all the dialogue was re-recorded and stylized in post," Bernstien explains, adding that his model for Night Train’s aural dimension was Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, where screams and squeals and barked commands seem to emanate directly from Hell. "We decided early on that we wanted to work in terms of concepts rather than pragmatism."

"Speaking of looping," Lockwood chimes in, "did you catch The Loved One on TV the other night? That’s another film where the dialogue’s all looped."

That’s Night Train for you, too: at once gorgeous and nauseating – not to mention black as stool and hotter than a Mexican lunch – and never a tequila-shot shy of totally and completely looped.

Chuck Stephens


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