Some movies have a very unforced, natural tone, feeling, or mood, a sense of relaxed ease and flow that can only come from the intense preparation and hard work required for any film shoot, which is why it's especially impressive when that behind-the-scenes stress doesn't show up onscreen. Nightwatch, a Danish horror-thriller from 1994, has that warm, relaxed feel. It's a hangout movie, a film that seems to fall into place without any forced heavy lifting. The setting, the tone, the performances, the cinematography -- everything clicks in Nightwatch and contributes to its cohesive feel.
The film opens with a dinner party consisting of two Copenhagen grad student couples, law student Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and theater student Kalinka (Sofie Grabol) and fellow law student Jens (Kim Bodnia) and seminarian Lotte (Lotte Andersen). The four are good friends, and they're having a great time drinking wine and joking around until a report on the local news catches everyone's attention. Another murdered prostitute has been found, and police have no leads in tracking the serial killer. Talk subsides at the party as the four contemplate the news. Slowly, conversation resumes and Martin talks about the new job he'll be starting the following night as nightwatchman at a morgue.
Soon, we're on the first shift with Martin, as the retiring nightwatchman (Gyrd Lofquist) shows him around. The old man has plenty of advice for Martin, particularly that the younger man should acquire a radio as soon as possible. The old man will be leaving most of his things behind, but he's taking the radio with him. He also tells Martin he'll get chronic bad breath from working there, that his own predecessor was fired for having sex with the corpses (though it was hushed up so the families wouldn't find out), and that there is a self-activated alarm in the room with the bodies in case they bring in anyone who isn't actually dead, but he shouldn't worry because it never happens.
Martin is uncomfortable and a little freaked out his first night on the job, but he soon comes to enjoy the work as it allows him the opportunity to sit on his ass all night and study and/or listen to music. He has to make his rounds each hour, but he's getting less squeamish with each passing shift. Soon, bodies of the serial killer's victims make their way to the morgue, and Martin befriends the homicide detective investigating the murders, Inspector Wormer (Ulf Pilgaard). Unfortunately, weird and creepy things begin happening in the morgue at night, leading investigators to have their suspicions about Martin.
Meanwhile, a parallel plot strand also amps up the suspense. Jens starts to have an existential crisis common to people in their late twenties. He feels his life is too predictable. He's on track to finish law school and get married, and he's choking under the expectations. He convinces Martin to undertake a two-week series of mutual dares. If either of them back down from a dare, the other man wins. The loser is required to marry his significant other and begin a safe, predictable middle class life. The dares quickly grow more intense, and a real dark side is uncovered in Jens. This aspect of the film has some parallels to Neil Labute's debut film of three years later, In the Company of Men, in its oddly seductive indictment of misogynistic game playing between two young, upwardly mobile friends, one sadistic and aggressive, the other more passive and easily influenced. This part of the story complicates our relationship to the leads, though it gets dropped during the final third, when the horror and suspense elements come to the foreground and our male leads redeem themselves somewhat. Bornedal didn't quite have the nerve to go all the way with this, and its resolution as light comedy in the final scene is a bit of a backing away from the film's darker implications, but for the most part, this aspect of the film adds a complexity to what would otherwise be a solid horror/suspense film.
Bornedal has a great feel for actors, with each character in the film, no matter how small, given a chance to create a distinct personality. He's also great with the physical space of the morgue, its hallways, its lights, its windows, its doors and locks. He's a skilled builder of tension, and no scene drags or passes by too quickly. I'm unfamiliar with the rest of his filmography, which mostly consists of Danish film and television work. He's also made two American films, last year's horror hit The Possession and a 1997 remake of Nightwatch, with Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Lauren Graham, Nick Nolte, and Brad Dourif. The remake received tepid reviews and didn't do that well financially, but I'm interested in how Bornedal remade his own movie.
Unfortunately, that remake is easier to see than Bornedal's original Danish version. The remake is currently streaming on Netflix and is easier to find in video stores. The 1994 film is out of print on DVD, with copies selling on Amazon for $50-$70. Used VHS is your best financial option. I had some trouble tracking the film down myself, and this review almost didn't happen this week. Netflix doesn't carry it, a local video store accidentally checked out the original copy to a guy who rented the remake, and another local video store had their copy stolen. Thanks to a friend of mine who manages that video store, a replacement copy was ordered, arriving just in time for the weekend. Thanks, Steve at I Luv Video and your assistant manager whose name I didn't catch but whose shared love of obscure horror led to the purchase of a new copy. Shoutouts to you fine people. If you can find this movie, give it a try. It's a good one. If you live in Austin, Texas. you'll be able to find it on VHS next Tuesday at the I Luv Video on Airport Boulevard after I return it on my way home from work. This last paragraph sure had a lot of local flavor.