Friday, September 01, 2006

Nightwatch

One of the first horror movies I really enjoyed was Nattevagten - which I was fortunate enough to see in Germany in 1995 (it was on delayed release here for years owing to the Hollywood remake). Up to that point I guess I suffered from the typical misperception that horror movies were all gore and things jumping out of closets with chainsaws. I've since learned to appreciate the better ones (because like any genre, horror has its goods and its bads and shouldn't be judged only on the bads) - and largely due to seeing Nattevagten.

What was so good about it?

In a single word: atmosphere.

The story revolves around a law student who takes a job as a night-watchman in a morgue to help ends meet - and it's in showing the surroundings at the morgue where the director really shines. Martin's place of employment is so convincingly creepy you almost don't want to watch.

In two phrases: atmosphere and a clear picture of evil.

There's a serial killer involved, of course - and the climax is distinctly unsettling.

But this was all 1995. Hollywood remade it, and the remake inexplicably (given that it had the same director) lacked the punch of the original. Which has always left me wondering just how good the original actually was.

On the surface, the two movies look the same. The surroundings are largely the same, the characters too (Ewan McGregor looks especially convincing as Martin). The plot isn't exactly the same, but it's close enough. And yet, something doesn't quite click in the Hollywood version, and I've always wondered what. Of course, I've never really been able to find out, since for years it was hard to find the Danish original on video in this country. I eventually stopped thinking about it.

Then, today on Samizdata, someone mentioned in a comment thread about remakes that in addition to remaking classics, Hollywood has been remaking recent foreign films. And so naturally I thought of Nightwatch, checked Netflix and was pleased to see that the original Danish version is available on DVD in the US. I put it at the top of the Queue and am hoping to see it next weekend.

Several things might have colored my judgement of the original. For one, I had only been in Germany a couple of months at the time, and my German (I saw the film dubbed) was still taking off. If I'm not mistaken, it's the first full-length movie I saw that year (though I'd seen some others on a summer trip the year before) - and it didn't help that it was a student union showing rather than a "real" theater. No doubt I missed lots of subtleties in the dialogue, plenty of which were relevant to the story, I'm sure. For another, I didn't exactly like horror movies at the time, though for no good reason that I can remember - lack of exposure, really. It might be that all that was going on is overcomming prejudice - I was surprised to see one that was coherent and (passably) well-made.

Or maybe, just maybe, the original is as good as I remember. That's what I'm hoping. And there is reason to expect that too. One thing that I didn't waste much effort thinking about at the time but has interested me since is the relationship between Martin and his friend Jens. Jens is sort of a bad seed. He has a really strange and cruel sense of humor and seems needlessly misogynist. Martin, in contrast, is (more or less) a typical "good guy." Does his homework, works his part-time job. They don't seem like a good match, and yet somehow it's all very convincing. Large parts of the movie were devoted to that (seemingly) strange relationship, and I just didn't really pay attention. Then there was also the big joke at the end that I didn't get. One of the last lines of the film got the whole union laughing, and I wasn't really paying attention and missed it (and, given my German at the time, might have missed it anyway).

Well, should be interesting. Follow-up post when I've seen it.

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