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  NIGHTWATCH

This 1994 Danish chiller remains a potent and atmospheric exercise in unease. It was the feature debut of Ole Bornedal, and is still his best-ever film.

The Package
     NIGHTWATCH (NATTEVAGTEN) was a massive success in its native Denmark (although it never received much play in the US), and marked the introduction of not only Ole Bornedal but also actor Kim Bodina, a who went on to become a major force in Danish cinema. Ole Bornedal followed NIGHTWATCH with such films as the mainstream epic I AM DINA (2002) and THE SUBSTITUTE (2007), another horror fest.
     Like THE VANISHING before it (made in 1988 by German filmmaker George Sluizer, who helmed a lesser American redo in 1993), NIGHTWATCH was remade in America by its own director. That follow-up film, starring Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette, appeared in 1997 and, truth be told, isnít as bad as so many critics claim it is. Itís actually quite good, retaining much of the overpowering creepiness of the original--which is obviously the preferable film.

The Story
     College student Martin takes a job as a night watchman in a hospital morgue. He learns the ropes from his retiring predecessor, a creepy old dude whoís been on the job far too long. Among his duties, Martin has to periodically patrol the area, including a double row of corpses.
     A few days into his job Martin is visited by a police inspector who informs him that a serial killer is on the loose who scalps his victims. Martin gets a look at one of those victims, whose cadaver happens to be interred in his place of work--Martin is seriously freaked out, then, when one night he spots bloody footprints leading to that very corpse, which lies spread-eagled in the morgue hallway!
     It seems that the killer is afoot in the morgue, perhaps trying to frame Martin for the murders. As to that killerís identity, it could be the creepy police inspector or Martinís troublemaking buddy Jens, whose activities include pretending to be a corpse and humiliating a hooker in a fancy restaurant.
     Whoever the killer is, it seems heís closing in on Martin--and does so in the nutty climax, which involves Martin, the police inspector, Martinís virginal girlfriend Kalinka, and Jens. Not all of them will come out alive!

The Direction
     This may be Ole Bornedalís first film, but he shows a Hitchcock-worthy knack for suspense. He also has a love of the perverse and grotesque that lends an added dimension to an otherwise straightforward suspensor. The filmís overall aura, befitting the morgue setting, is morbid and forbidding, with disquieting intimations of necrophilia and insanity that seriously turned off viewers of the US remake (which as I recall inspired more walk-outs than nearly any other movie Iíve seen). While there are moments of graphic nastiness (which Bornedal now says he feels are overdone), NIGHTWATCH achieves its effects primarily through its impeccably horrific, clinical atmosphere. In a word, this film is chilly.
     It doesnít all work, however. Bornedal spends too much time with the protagonistís pals, possibly because one of them is played by Kim Bodina, whoís frankly a better and more charismatic actor than the lead performer Nikolaj Waldau. Yet the scenes with Bodina are aimless and uninvolving, and a definite contrast to much of the rest of the film, which is tight and methodical.
     Iím also nonplussed by the fact that the narrative, particularly in the third act, isnít always plausible. I guess thatís a casualty of dark thrillers like this one, although Bornedal at least provides many thrilling and macabre elements (a sex scene amid rows of corpses, a crawl through broken glass) that hold oneís attention.
 

Vital Statistics

NIGHTWATCH (NATTEVAGTEN)
Thura Film

Director: Ole Bornedal
Producer: Michael Obel
Screenplay: Ole Bornedal
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Editing: Camilla Skousen
Cast: Nikolaj Waldau, Sofie Graaboel, Kim Bodina, Lotte Andersen, Ulf Pilgaard, Stig Hoffmeyer, Gyrd Loefquist, Rikke Louise Andersson, Niels Anders Thor
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