Nightwatch (Nattevagten)

Nightwatch (Nattevagten) (1994)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kim Bodnia
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer

(Writer’s Note: For clarity, I will refer to the original Danish version of this film as ’Nattevagten’ and the American remake as ’Nightwatch’. Note that Anchor Bay is releasing this film under the title ’Nightwatch’.)

Despite the recent critical, financial, and Oscar-winning success of films such as ’Life is Beautiful’ and ’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, Hollywood as a whole still continues to have an aversion to foreign films. On many occasions, well-made and critical hailed foreign films have either gotten little exposure or no exposure at all in America, due to the simple fact that the studios and/or distributors felt that U.S. audiences wouldn’t ’get’ the foreign film. However, Hollywood has no trouble remaking successful foreign films. Dozens of European films have been turned into successful (and not so successful) Hollywood vehicles. (Of course, remaking a French film is always a risky proposition. ’The Man with One Red Shoe’ anyone?) A great example of this trend is the Danish thriller ’Nattevagten’. This film received world-wide praise when it was released in 1994 and Miramax scooped up the domestic rights and set to work on a remake, ’Nightwatch’. ’Nattevagten’ has been unavailable on home video in the U.S. until now, as Anchor Bay Entertainment is finally bringing the original to hungry American audiences, so that we can see how it measures up to the remake.

’Nattevagten’ offers the viewer three divergent storylines, which, at first, have seemingly little to do with one another. We start off with Martin Bork (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a young law student. Martin has taken a job as a nightwatchman in a morgue to help make some extra money. His girlfriend Kalinka (Sofie Grabol), isn’t crazy about the idea, but she knows that Martin is too proud to ask his parents for cash. Martin learns the ins-and-outs of his new job, and tries to settle in to the spooky environment. At the same time, Martin’s best-friend, the seemingly unstable Jens (Kim Bodnia), decides that life is boring and dull and begins to give Martin ’challenges’ to spice up their lives. Meanwhile, a series of murders have been going on in the city, in which young women are murdered and then scalped.

Martin tries to make the best of his eerie job, but things take a turn for the worse when the latest victim of the serial killer is brought into the morgue, accompanied by police detective Wormer (Ulf Pilgaard). Wormer immediately takes a liking to Martin, and shares some details of the case with the young man. As if that wasn’t enough to worry Martin, Jens has decided to take his challenges up a notch and brings a prostitute into their little ’game’. So now, Martin has to deal with a creepy job, a crazy friend, a suspicious girlfriend, and a morgue full of murder victims. But, just when things seem at their worst, a series of events point to Martin as the serial killer and he must race to clear his name.

When ’Nattevagten’ was released in Europe, it created quite a stir and the buzz soon hit the United States. However, the film went virtually unseen in North America, playing a few select dates and film festivals. Those who did see the film praised it for its suspense and originality. The rest of us had to settle for the 1998 remake, ’Nightwatch’. ’Nightwatch’ had a troubled production history and when it finally hit theatres, it was met with audience apathy and critical disdain. The most vocal critics of ’Nightwatch’ were those who had seen ’Nattevagten’ and claimed that the remake paled in comparison to the original. When ’Nightwatch’ hit home video, I rented it and thought that it was OK. I was definitely intrigued by the story. So, when I sat down to view ’Nattevagten’, I immediately recognized many of the scenes from ’Nightwatch’.

In order to do a thorough review of ’Nattevagten’, I watched the original film and ’Nightwatch’ side-by-side. Now, what I’m about to say is going to anger many people, but here goes: ’Nattevagten’ and ’Nightwatch’ are essentially the same film. The order in which some scenes take place was altered for ’Nightwatch’, and some of the subplots are a bit different, but otherwise, they are the same movie. Most of the scenes in ’Nattevagten’ were re-created shot-by-shot for ’Nightwatch’. The only major differences are that the killer’s M.O. is a bit different, Jens’ girlfriend has a smaller role in ’Nightwatch’, and the scene in which Kalinka visits Martin at the morgue is gone (for some reason). So, if ’Nattevagten’ and ’Nightwatch’ are basically identical, then why did fans of the original hate the remake? I believe that it has to do with the story. As mentioned in the synopsis, ’Nattevagten’ has three storylines converging at the end. The way that the film unfolds is mesmerizing, and the final reel holds some sinister shocks. But, once you know the story, it doesn’t pack quite a punch on the subsequent viewings. So, ’Nightwatch’ held no surprises for those who’d seen ’Nattevagten’.

That argument aside, ’Nattvagten’ is still a pretty good film, although the first half is quite unbalanced. The scenes where Martin is alone in his small office are classic, as they hit upon the universal fear of being alone in a strange place. Note how Martin turns off his music because he’s convinced that he’s heard something. We’ve all done that. But, until the divergent storylines begin to come together, the movie doesn’t gel very well. It’s obvious that writer/director Ole Bornedal has done this on purpose in order to set up the characters and to put the audience on edge, but the film still suffers for it. Some of the allusions and red herrings are far too heavy-handed in the first hour of ’Nattevagten’. And, the finale stretches on a bit too long. That nitpicking aside, ’Nattevagten’ is definitely a solid thriller. It offers a new take on a familiar premise and contains some genuinely frightening scenes.

Anchor Bay Entertainment is once again playing ambassador and brining a European film to Region 1 DVD. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen, and has been letterboxed at 1.77:1. This digital transfer looks very nice, giving the film a fine presentation. The picture is very sharp and clear, showing no defects from the source print. There is a very fine grain on some of the brighter exterior scenes, but it is basically negligible. For the most part, the colors on this transfer are rich and true, with the fleshtones appearing natural. However, there are some shots which appear a bit washed-out. The framing appears to be accurate and there is no interference from artifacting or compression problems.

The audio on this DVD is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The audio is very effective, as it is well-balanced and there is a creative use of surround sound. There is no hiss on the track and the dialogue is always clear and audible. As there are many suspenseful scenes, the rear speakers are put to good use to add to these scenes, as the DVD’s impressive soundfield offers accurate screen-to-speaker sound placement. The English subtitles are done in yellow and easy to read.

The main extra feature in the ’Nightwatch’ DVD is an audio commentary by writer/director Old Bornedal. Unfortunately for us, Bornedal’s comments are few and far between on this commentary track. Whether he is simply engrossed in the film, or uneasy with speaking English, it’s impossible to tell, but there are many silent passages. That’s too bad, as he does have some very interesting things to say about the film, as well as the remake. He states that the remake is ’a direct translation of ’Nattevagten’’, but then goes on to day ’The American version of ’Nightwatch’ didn’t turn out as good as this one.’ (He also offers some insight into how Steven Soderbergh got a screenwriting credit on ’Nightwatch’.) Bornedal’s insights and anecdotes about the making of ’Nattevatgen’ are never boring, but this commentary track certainly drags at times. Also, Bornedal’s tone is very low, so the volume must be increased in order to hear him. But, when there’s a loud sound effect from the film, it’s almost deafening.

The only other extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer for ’Nattevagten’, which is letterboxed at 1.77:1 and also contains the same yellow subtitles. Interestingly, this trailer is very reminiscent of the trailer for ’Nightwatch’ and contains the same warning line from Detective Wormer.

While I’ve certainly made it clear that ’Nattevagten’ and it’s remake ’Nightwatch’ are very similar, I must recommend that the uninitiated see the original film, as it is a better movie. ’Nattevagten’ is lighter in tone than ’Nightwatch’ and the subplots which didn’t make it to the remake definitely help. The Anchor Bay DVD of ’Nattevagten’ offers a glorious transfer of the film, with a great audio track, but the extras are disappointing. So, if you’ve only seen ’Nightwatch’, or are unfamiliar with the films altogether, then I recommend that you check out ’Nattevagten’. But, don’t watch it alone.