Robin’s Underrated Gems: Nightwatch (1994)

It’s almost redundant to say that one of today’s biggest complaints about Hollywood is too many damn remakes. I have a particular aversion to remakes which are nothing more than lazy rehashes of the original film and do not even attempt to try anything different with the material. If the original film was so good to begin with, what’s the point of sitting through an inferior carbon copy? However, sometimes, I try to put myself in the shoes of a viewer who might not have seen the original film. Would they consider the remake to be a solid film if they have nothing to compare it to? Well, such a situation actually occurred with me when I sat through the 1998 horror-thriller, Nightwatch. The movie was directed by Ole Bornedal and was an English-language remake of his own Danish film from four years earlier. The remake had a first-rate cast consisting of Ewan McGregor, Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Patricia Arquette, Lauren Graham, John C. Reilly and Brad Dourif. I thought the film was a very well-made and enjoyable thriller when I saw it during its initial release and could not figure out why it got mostly negative reviews and bombed at the box office. I knew it was a remake of a Danish film, but at the time, the original version of Nightwatch had never been officially released in North America and could only be viewed via the miracle of VHS bootlegs. Years later, I finally acquired a copy of the original Nightwatch and saw that the Hollywood remake was practically the EXACT same movie, scene-for-scene. Needless to say, the remake is now a distant memory.

The protagonist of Nightwatch is Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a law student who is forced to take a full-time job in order to pay for his schooling. He winds up getting a gig as a night watchman at a morgue, which will require him to guard the place overnight on his own. Even though the place is ominous and creepy, it seems like it will be an uneventful job for Martin. However, the city is currently being overrun by an unidentified serial killer who is butchering prostitutes. One of the victims’ bodies happens to be brought to the morgue during Martin’s shifts and he becomes acquainted with the lead investigator on the case, Inspector Wormer (Ulf Pilgaard). It isn’t long before strange things start happening. The victim’s body somehow moves from the morgue into the hallway and by the time Martin tells someone, the body has been put back in place. The building is equipped with an emergency alarm that the corpses can use to signal for help should they somehow find themselves waking up in the morgue. Of course, Martin is told not to worry this because the alarm will never, EVER go off. Zero points for guessing that this exact thing will happen during one of his shifts. It also doesn’t help that Martin’s best friend, Jens (Kim Bodnia), is pretty unhinged and isn’t above playing sick practical jokes while Martin’s on the job.

At this time, Martin and Jens decide to make a strange wager which involves both of them having to do everything the other person demands, no matter how strange the request. Jens attempts to dare Martin into sleeping with a prostitute, but Martin soon learns that one of this woman’s clients is likely the same serial killer who has been murdering hookers. It isn’t long before Martin becomes so embroiled in the situation that he becomes a suspect in the murders, even as his suspicions grow that Jens might be the real culprit. Ole Bornedal said that he wanted Nightwatch to demonstrate that European filmmakers are capable of making good use of generic stories. Indeed, the storyline of Nightwatch is pretty conventional, but the film is slickly made and beautifully shot. Bornedal adds a lot of stylish touches to the proceedings and builds up a genuinely creepy atmosphere. The morgue makes for a wonderfully unsettling location and the film does a very solid job of building up tension. Even though you know that the morgue’s emergency alarm is going go off at some point, it still provides a huge jump scare when it happens. Since Bornedal focuses mostly on tension and atmosphere, there is no actually onscreen violence or gore until about two-thirds into the movie, a particularly disturbing sequence where the killer plays an upbeat children’s song while committing a brutal murder (in the remake, “This Old Man” is played over this scene).

The climax also features a gruesomely cringe-worthy moment which precedes Saw by ten years, as the one of the characters is forced to carve off an extremity in order to save their own life. Of course, Nightwatch wound up being the first major role for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who obviously went on to much bigger things and now plays the role of Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones. Coster-Waldau does a solid job in the role of Martin and makes a very sympathetic and likable hero. Nightwatch became a big hit in Denmark during its original release, so it was probably inevitable that it would be given the remake treatment by Hollywood. However, when Miramax acquired the rights to do a remake, they made sure to keep the original film away from distribution in North America. This may be why Bornedal just decided to go through the motions when he was contracted to direct the remake. In spite of bringing on Steven Soderbergh as a co-writer, Bornedal’s remake is pretty much nothing more than a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot carbon copy of his original film. It’s a similar situation to when Michael Haneke did an American shot-by-shot remake of his Austrian film, Funny Games. Both the Nightwatch and Funny Games remakes are solid enough films on their own accord and if you watch them without having seen the originals, you’ll probably like them. However, once you do see the original films, the remakes become 100 % redundant. The 1994 version of Nightwatch is one of the best foreign-language horror films of that decade and strong enough to make its American doppelganger disappear from your mind forever.

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