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Nightwatch is one of the most unsettling horror movies of the '90s. Based on a Danish film, Nattevagten, that broke all Danish box-office records, Nightwatch plays with one of our strongest fears--the fear of the dead and what happens after we die, when our bodies end up in the morgue, at the mercy of the medical examiner's scalpel. It's a strong fear, one that Hollywood has mined effectively for many decades with stories of zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein's monster.
In the hands of Danish director Ole Bornedal, who also directed Nattevagten, Nightwatch doesn't give the audience any easy explanations, nor any pop-psychologizing to explain away the events. No, Bornedal knows that our fears aren't based in rational thought; they're based on deep-seated primal emotions that eat away at rationality. By design, Bornedal doesn't give us a safety net: "Explanations are just a fiction to make us feel safe," says one of the characters in the movie.
Ewan McGregor stars as a young law student named Martin Bells who takes a part-time job as the night watchman at the city morgue. "All I have to do is sit on my ass all night and read a book," he says. Even during daylight hours a morgue can set your nerves on edge. But Martin works the graveyard shift, all by himself, from 8pm to 4am. Every hour he must make the rounds, visiting designated rooms including the morgue itself, where a dozen or more bodies are laid out on steel tables.
Lonny Chapman, as the old night watchman, sets an appropriately eerie tone for the movie: "At night, this place is like Mars," he says. He gives Martin a tour through the building's drab, brown, cinder block hallways, where doors have round windows, like portholes on a ship, where the florescent lights constantly flicker, and where various unrecognizable body parts rest in bottles of formaldehyde. He hands Martin a baseball bat: "There's nothing to be afraid of, but it's a good thing to have," he says.
Brad Dourif as the chief medical examiner is immediately suspicious of Martin, but he gives him some interesting advice: "Have you ever spent any time with the -zine family?" he says as he smiles and shakes a vial of Thorazine. "They are really very nice."
At the same time, the city is hit by a rash of murders as a serial killer stalks prostitutes. As a result, police detective Cray (Nick Nolte) escorts the recent victims to the morgue, and Martin must then walk past their bodies every hour. Cray also has some interesting advice for Martin: he urges him to look in the luminous vats in a particularly eerie room: "Nothing cures a fantasy like a quick dose of reality."
The building itself is a masterpiece of design, with long hallways, sterile white tile, light fixtures filled with dead moths, and a front door that never seems to close completely--allowing virtually anyone access to the building. Across the hall from the security office, black plastic tarps cover construction work, but we never see any work done. The plastic sheets billow ominously, as if the building is somehow alive.
Plotwise, Nightwatch plays out as a mystery. The movie's opening sequence shows us one of the murders taking place (unfortunately, it's one of the weakest scenes in the movie, complete with a ceiling fan that falls for no other reason than it sort of looks cool as it twists through the air and shatters on the floor) and we are left to guess the identity of the killer. The movie gives us several possible suspects, including Josh Brolin as James, Martin's best friend. James craves a good bar fight, but they just don't give him the "rush" that they used to: "My tolerance is increasing and I just can't get that feeling," he says.
Frequently, "who-done-it" style mysteries become gimmicky and unconvincing. Look no farther than Scream 2 or I Know What You Did Last Summer for examples of movies that pull their killers out of left field and then provide neat psychologizing to explain away the murderous tendencies. But director Bornedal avoids taking the movie down that path. Unlike Scream 2 or I Know What You Did Last Summer, Nightwatch isn't interested in showing us new ways to kill people nor is it interested in thrilling us with scenes as the killer stalks his victims. No, director Bornedal makes murder look disturbing and unsettling. There's no fun when the inevitable knife plunges into a torso. And even the cast of characters can't be separated into good and bad categories--as they almost always can in the slasher genre. Martin is a bit of a creep, but we like him, sort of, anyway. He's too willing to go along with James' twisted idea of fun. During one scene, when James gets Martin involved with a prostitute, you might even start hating Martin for being so weak willed. But at the same time, the movie doesn't paint James as completely bad. Because the characters can't be easily categorized as good and bad means Nightwatch will probably confuse many viewers. While most slasher genre movies are careful to give us someone we can identify with, Nightwatch distances us from the characters. Strangely, Martin's and James's girlfriends emerge as two of the strongest people in the movie (played by Patricia Arquette and Lauren Graham, respectively).
Nightwatch has a decidedly un-Hollywood feel. It's not another cookie cutter slasher movie. It's an intelligent and unnerving film that will undoubtedly make you feel uncomfortable. But primarily it's a masterpiece of atmosphere and suggestion. But be forewarned: Nightwatch is the kind of movie that will get under your skin and make you feel like rushing home to shower off the grimy residue that it leaves behind.
[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]