NIGHTWATCH

R

-By Maitland McDonagh


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It's fair to say that U.S. remakes of European films--even when they're remade by their own directors, like George Sluizer's The Vanishing--seldom improve on the originals, and generally botch them so badly that you can't imagine what the appeal of the original film might have been. Though writer-director Ole Bornedal's Nattevagten was never released in the U.S., it was a smash in his native Denmark, which mostly suggests that the Danes don't see as many pictures about crazed killers carving up prostitutes as we do.

Los Angeles law student Martin Bells (Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor, pulling off a serviceable but erratic American accent) needs to make some extra money and still have time to study for his finals. A gig manning the graveyard shift at the medical examiner's building seems the perfect fit: How hard can it be to work as night watchman at the morgue? It's not as though the average thief wants to steal skanky cadavers or jars of deformed fetuses.

But Martin sorely underestimates the heebie-jeebie factor. The departing guard fills his head with stories about necrophiles, including a watchman who was fired after being caught in the nasty act, and what to do if a corpse suddenly wakes up. 'It'll never happen,' he promises, but good thing there's a little cord over each gurney, connected to an ominous alarm in the guard's office. It also doesn't make Martin feel better to know that there's a crazed killer on the loose killing hookers, especially after one girl's body is brought into the morgue in the middle of the night. Inspector Cray (Nick Nolte) accompanies the corpse, and confides in Martin the unpleasant detail that the lethal loon likes to cut out his victims' eyes.

Oh, and let's not forget best friend James (Josh Brolin), who, if he isn't a murderer yet, is certainly on the road to becoming one. The sadistic little pretending-to-be-a-reanimated-corpse prank he pulls doesn't strike Martin as very funny--not to mention that it puts Martin on the freaky night-duty doctor's (Brad Dourif) personal blacklist--and James' adrenaline-junkie escapades with bar thugs and a pathetic little prostitute named Joyce (Alix Koromzay) are very sick and creepy indeed. Martin's girlfriend Katharine (Patricia Arquette) urges him to quit, but he sticks it out past the point of no return, namely the point at which it becomes clear that the aforementioned wacko killer is planting clues that point directly to Martin.

If Nightwatch were a direct-to-video thriller featuring a bunch of no-name hopefuls and Brad Dourif in the role of the freaky night-duty doctor, the only attention it would attract would be from the occasional renter surprised by its carefully crafted look. But, saddled with a nominally respectable cast and given a theatrical release, its clichd story and gratuitous nastiness leave a bad taste; you're tempted to check your breath on the way out, the way Martin does after being warned that the morgue stink burrows into your pores. Bornedal knows how to direct a suspense sequence, but Nightwatch's most striking moments are incidental: Martin accidentally knocking the ancient alarm light off the crumbling wall and trying furtively to fit it back into place, or Martin's attempt to chase away the shadows by gliding serenely around the silent lobby on his rolling chair, in thrall to the raucous music on his walkman. The rest is running and screaming and the threat of awful death by bonesaw, and we've seen it all before.

--Maitland McDonagh


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