Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor)

We’ve just been to see the Russian fantasy-horror movie Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor), which I would definitely recommend.

It brings to mind many other things slightly but isn’t especially reminiscent of any one film. The most obvious comparison is Underworld in the basic premise of immortals secretly warring among us, but Night Watch is much quirkier and more low key. In its DNA are Highlander, Ultraviolet, The Matrix, Neverwhere, Jim Henson’s Storyteller, Dark City… there’s even a clip of Buffy on the TV at one point… but ultimately it feels more like a European movie than an American one. It’s art-house pulp – Constantine as filmed by Jeunot and Caro.

The supernatural beings of the film include vampires, shapeshifters, seers and witches; standard fantasy tropes placed in a grim urban setting. These “Others” are divided into forces of Light and Dark, and the Night Watch are the group who enforce the uneasy truce between the two. They’re a team whose fantastical job seems to them utterly banal. The movie focuses almost entirely on one bemused member of the team whose life begins to unravel during a routine ‘sting’ operation on a vampire, taking in ancient mythological battles along the way.

Night Watch doesn’t really have anything profound to say beyond telling a certain fantasy story in an interesting way. Neither the plot nor the setting are particularly original, and with a couple of exceptions the characters are thinly drawn archetypes. Nonetheless the combination of familar genre ingredients is unusual enough to feel fresh, and the film benefits from smart ideas, edgy visuals and a dark tone. It’s the kind of film where you notice the buzzing of flourescent lights. I must confess that I’m a sucker for this kind of Gaimanesque mingling of the surreal and the mundane, and if you enjoy off-beat dark fantasy it has a great deal to offer. Better yet, it’s part 1 of a trilogy, part 2 of which (Day Watch) is already in production.

One of the most unexpected elements (at least in this “Fox Searchlight” release) is the subtitling, which plays an active part in the film: vampire speech dissipates like smoke; characters sometimes pass in front of the words as they leave a scene; someone reading from a computer screen has subtitles which are typed as he speaks, complete with flashing cursor. Potentially this is intrusive, but I actually found that the subtitles were entirely in keeping with the style and mood of the film. It’s an interesting device.

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