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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor) Timur Bekmambetov 2004

Action-Horror Worth Russian For

Let’s just get this out of the way: suck this, Van Helsing!

How strange is it that it would take a no-budget Russian movie to finally get the whole action-horror thing right? Over the years (ever since The Mummy did so well) we’ve been dickslapped with a number of screechingly boring action movies that think that throwing martial artists in rubber suits and capes somehow makes a horror movie. Uh… no. Night Watch is a refreshing example of what can happen when a culture takes a few cues from the Hollywood dogma but mostly allows a mythology to develop organically from its roots. Despite bearing a few of the window-dressings of American actioners like The Matrix and Blade, Night Watch – with all its dark, swirling imagery and heavy, daunting pathos – is at its heart a uniquely European piece of work. And thank God, because if I were going to have to suffer through yet another “Matrix-in-Halloween-Costumes” movie, I was seriously gonna barf.

What I loved most about Night Watch is that it sets up its own mythology, which always has potential for some great, sweeping ideas. In this scenario, demonic/angelic beings coexist with humans (they’re called “The Others”) and live either off of either their light or dark energy – it’s up for the Other to choose whether he wants to be light or dark. Due to a long-standing truce, no Other is allowed to force a human into giving his energy, and each side has its own group of sentinels who keep watch over the other side to make sure they’re behaving – the lights who watch the darks are known as Night Watch, and the darks who watch the lights are Day Watch. Due to a prophecy that predicted that a powerful Other would emerge who would end the truce and determine whether good or evil would reign, both sides have their eyes out for signs that this figure has appeared. And apparently, as luck would have it, he has.

Now, this alone is enough to follow. But that’s just the starting point. Now add in various curses, all kinds of Others – some of whom are working with ulterior motives, a plane crash, thousands of crows, an evil pop star (omigod – SO HOT), Eurotrash jailbait vampires, the personal journey of a reluctant Other who has the power to see the future (Anton, played by Konstantin Khabensky), and the fact that everyone is speaking in Russian, and try to follow it.

The only crime that Night Watch commits is that of being overambitious, and given the amount of creativity behind this project (the first in a planned trilogy, to be followed by the already-finished Day Watch and the rumored English-language Dusk Watch), that’s a crime I’m willing to forgive. While Night Watch may bite off more than it can chew for a single film, in these situations one has to trust that many of the myriad character setups and seemingly random diversions are going to reach fruition in later films. Unfortunately, those people who just want to see an eye-popping visual spectacle – which this certainly is – may find themselves in over their heads with a film that overstays its welcome with a boggy third act and a case of overly dense pacing.

But I’m more than willing to overlook the sludgy bits of the story to focus on what the film does right. For one, there hasn’t been imagery this hallucinogenic since Dark City bombed its way through theatres: all sorts of demons, animals, natural and unnatural disasters, and body terrors blaze across the screen, sometimes with no warning whatsoever. And while I’m not often a fan of histrionic visuals for histrionic visuals’ sake, for some reason within the Night Watch universe, it totally works – it’s best to just sit back and let these dark, nightmarish sights wash over you. Are you a fan of dolls that sprout spider’s legs and attack people? How about women that morph into lions or owls (quite well, I might add – the effects far surpass the film’s laughably meager budget)? Maybe legions of black crows creating a cyclone above an apartment building is more your speed, or a vampire who can only be seen in mirrors. This is consistently unique, very inventive stuff – a far cry from the dull, clichéd big-budget monsterfests that have plagued us here in the States for the past few years (yes, Van Helsing, I’m talking to your sorry ass. Again.). Even the subtitling – usually an afterthought – shows great creativity: color, text effects, and size and positioning are used to match the emphasis of the actors’ performances – why the hell has no one thought of this before? It’s used sparingly (I would have liked to have seen more of it, to be honest), but it’s very effective.

Things do eventually run a bit long – for the first hour I was rapt, but constant introduction of new characters and end-of-the-world crises does get tiresome, and by the last chapter it was all getting to be a bit much. Again, they do have quite a bit to set up for the next films, but it is at the expense of a clean, tight movie that can stand on its own. The climactic ending does tie the events of the film together nicely and sets up the real conflict of the saga – honestly, I didn’t really see it coming, as there was so much happening, so it was a pleasant surprise – but it’s a little long getting there. And while such cool things as flipping buses and exploding power plants and owl-witches and shit are hard to complain about, there’s only so much of that kind of thing you can take in one sitting.

In all, this is a promising start, and I’m really looking forward to the next film – especially after seeing an insane preview that involves a ferris wheel rolling through a city and destroying everything in its path (kind of like Track 29 meets King Kong). If you’re a fan of fantasy, action, and horror, and are consistently disappointed with the movies out there that claim to combine the three, this strange, unique vision of the battle of good and evil in contemporary Moscow might be just what the doktor ordered.

Rating (out of 5):