Night Watch

Movie Information

In Brief: Because Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch was released in the U.S. by Fox Searchlight and was in Russian with English subtitles, it opened here at the Fine Arts Theatre — and was gone in the twinkling of an eye. This stylized, stylish and very, very over-the-top vampire film was hardly the sort of thing that was geared to their audience. It was bizarre, bloody, extremely noisy and had occasional outbursts of heavy metal. (Unsurprisingly, the theatre did not book the follow-up film.) There really was no venue for such a film in Asheville at the time. That was unfortunate, because — for all its excesses — Night Watch is a very good, very creative horror film. That it's also a little goofy is not entirely a bad thing. The plot is based on the idea that the forces of good (light) and evil (dark) long ago entered into a truce — complete with a convoluted bureaucracy that perhaps only Russians could comprehend. The truce is frequently imperiled in what might be viewed as a cold war between the two forces — a situation that comes to a head when a vampire is accidentally killed by one of the agents of light, Anton Gorodesty (Konstantin Khabenskiy). This in itself leads to another situation when it becomes clear that Anton's estranged son, Yegor (Dima Martynov), might be the prophesied "Great Other," who may tip the precarious balance of power — depending on which side he chooses. And this is only part of the movie's deliriously overstuffed plot.
Genre: Horror
Director: Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted)
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeriy Zolotukhin, Mariya Poroshina, Galina Tyunina
Rated: R



I briefly considered the idea of trying to detail the plot of Night Watch, but quickly realized this is nigh on to hopeless. You know how convoluted a Russian novel can be? Well, despite an essentially simple (even slight) plot, this is worse in all its tangents — and it only gets more intricate in the second film in the series, Day Watch, which is running next week. If you have at all followed Bekmambetov’s career in the US — Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) — then you know Night Watch is going to be overloaded with flashy style for style’s sake. This is often pretty thrilling, but it can also become pretty exhausting. Think of the Wachowskis — to whom Bekmambetov clearly owes a debt — only more so. Below is what I said about Night Watch in 2006.




I’m still not clear on what I think about this Russian vampire opus that works on its own particular mythology, and yet I saw it a full two days ago. After filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s Escape From Afghanistan in 1994 and a couple of movies under the auspices of exploitation master Roger Corman, Bekmambetov came into his own with Night Watch (or Nochnoi Dozor in Russian), which proved a big hit in Mother Russia and afforded him a shot at international status. In terms of imagination and filmmaking skill, Bekmambetov certainly merits that shot. Still, he seems a bit lacking in the realm of dramatic sense, at least judging by this undeniably fascinating and inventive work.




In fairness, it must be noted that this is but part one of a trilogy of movies, and based on the ending toNight Watch, the film does appear to be 114 minutes of setup to get to the real story. And I will freely admit that, while the pseudo-conclusion here lacks the emotional thrust of that of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s still strangely satisfying — and also bleakly, and distinctly, Russian. Indeed, the movie’s inherent Russianness may be its strongest point. For those of us who find Andrei Tarkovsky a little on the slow side, it’s nice to see that there’s life in Russian cinema after Eisenstein. Granted, that life is deeply indebted to Western pop culture — hands up, anyone who doesn’t note a whiff of Harry Potter about the magical owl, or detect the influence of the Hellblazer comics (turned into Constantine after Night Watch came out) on the film’s overall setup. And yet, the final result is intensely Russian.




Though a product of the post-Soviet Union era, Night Watch is deeply infused with the kind of grubbiness associated with everyday Soviet life, and nothing could be more like the old Soviet bureaucracy than a universe where the warring forces of “light” and “darkness” are set up like government offices, and where anything is permissible with the right official documentation and permit. The film may not be especially deep (it’s certainly not as deep as it seems to think), but there’s no denying that something is going on under the surface when good and evil are bogged down in paperwork, allow each other to exist because the alternative is mutual destruction, and seem little more than corrupt sides of the same coin. (There may well be a Cold War parable in there somewhere.) Make what you will of the boss of the good forces operating a power-and-light company while the head of the forces of evil plots his strategies via videogames.




The basic premise is solid enough: an age-old truce between the two sides. The armistice works on an apparently evolving basis, with humankind having free will (humans must choose between good and evil, and not be tricked or forced into one or the other); to watch for infractions, evil patrols the days and good patrols the nights. Likewise solid is the film’s re-monkeyed vampire lore. And I certainly cannot fault Night Watch‘s inventiveness. That said, partway through it’s hard not realize that what appears to be the plot line — a cursed woman causing a vortex of bad luck that will create massive destruction — is really tangential to the central story. (At least it is in this movie; its proper place may become clearer in the next). At that point, Night Watch starts to feel like it’s spinning its wheels — cleverly, yes, but still spinning them — because its actual story is too slight for a feature film.




That said, there’s enough striking imagery (a lot of it achieved very simply, since the CGI budget was obviously small), atmosphere and sheer loopy creativity to recommend Night Watch to any film fan looking for something out of the ordinary. Indeed, the film is wildly inventive — almost too much so, which may be part of its overall problem. Even the subtitles are creative (and I have doubts about some of the translation, as when the owl who turns into a woman talks about a hot shower, yet clearly takes a bath). There’s possibly an overabundance of “cool stuff” in this film that never gets properly explored. But hey, this seems a case where too much beats the owl feathers off too little.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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