Zombos Says: Very Good
I'm happy to say Night Watch is not a clunker. Instead, it is a whirlwind of special effects, odd characters, and a story that definitely puts Russian horror on the genre map. While the filmed story is different from the book it is based on in some important respectes, the movie is still an entertainingly fast-paced and strong first entry in the Night Watch trilogy.
The director, Timor Bekmambetov, did the movie for Russian audiences, which explains the more melodramatic and flowery-mouth approach to mis-en-scene and dialog. But it's these Russian nuances, composed alongside the standard but well-executed horror trappings we all know and love—CGI and gore effects—that give this film's quirky, good versus evil, story a fun and very watchable spin for any discerning horror fan.
It opens with a battle between the forces of good and evil (like in Lord of the Rings and Thor)—here it’s the light and the dark squaring off—as they each fight for foothold on a narrow bridge. Both soon realize they are equally matched and neither can win. So a truce of sorts has them divvying mankind's fate into having Light rule by day, and Dark rule by night.
Jump ahead a few millenniums and we're in Moscow, where Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy), our soon to be strong-willed but hapless hero, pays a visit to a witch, hoping to keep his girlfriend from having someone else's child. Bad move on his part as it brings him into direct contact with Night Watch, the forces of Light.
In short order the witch is subdued, suddenly and chaotically, for engaging in witchy kinds of things, and Anton, caught in the middle, discovers he's a seer and a Light Other—which means a good guy, sort of. The Dark Others are vampires and other nasty things that go bump in the night, and the Light Others are shape-shifters and magic wielders, who try to constrain the Dark Others from doing harm. It’s been this way for centuries: both sides fighting each other to maintain balance. For those of you who work in a corporate office, just substitute "managers" for Dark Others, and your workmates for Light Others, and you'll understand the whole concept perfectly.
From the opening salvo with Anton, the witch, and the Light’s shapeshifters, it's a wild ride. Anton's entry into the light and dark world will leave your head swirling, but stay with it and all will be revealed in time. Night Watch is a kinetic movie of visualizations first, done in fast cut actions, speeded-up and slowed-down, and herky-jerky scenes spliced with CGI. Short pauses for explanation flitter by before plunging you into yet another whirlwind of chaotic visualizations, which for a limited budget are skillfully done.
Much of the special effects are devoted to the Gloom: the twilight state where the natural and supernatural worlds converge. Director and co-writer Timur Bekmambetov heralds its onset by swirling mosquitoes, which he says remind him of vampires, but, unlike the novel, he does not focus on the Gloom much.
One fast and furious scene in an old Russian barbershop has Anton fighting a vampire who pops in and out of the Gloom to attack him, otherwise remaining invisible. The bloody and gorific fight is a special effects treat that ends with a snap, crackle, and pop.
Other memorable touches include a yellow maintenance truck (think Ectomobile from Ghostbusters), recognizable to Russian audiences as a very slow moving vehicle, but is made fun of in the movie by adding rocket jets to have it speeding madly through the Moscow streets.
And then there's the owl, a stuffed bird brought to life to help protect Anton, now that he's gone and killed a vampire. The Dark Forces will not forgive him for that. No sooner does the owl follow him home then it turns into Olga (Galina Tyunina), a sorceress, in a flurry of feathers and goo (looking like the Chinese fast-food MSG variation of goo). Being forced into owl shape was her punishment, but for what is not explained. Since the owl can stand for either good or evil in Russian folktales, we can't be sure what type of past Olga had, or which side she’s really on.
Did I forget to mention the Vortex of Damnation Curse? Aside from Anton's issues with vampires, there's this cursed woman who’s about to bring down the apocalypse (and she’s not even a zombie!) so the forces of Light and Dark can battle again. Considering they were at a standstill a millennium or two ago, I'm not sure why they want to bother.
Why this woman is cursed can almost be taken as a joke by American audiences. Why she's cursed, and why Anton is causing bad things to happen, is due to the bad decisions they made when they had more control over their lives. Since their destiny is intertwined with everyone else's, one bad decision becomes everyone's problem. The premise of Night Watch is simple: each person chooses to join the light or the darkness by the decisions they make; and those decisions affect everyone else. In American horror films, people are usually put into situations beyond their control, then they make bad decisions making things worse – often terminally. So instead of a taste of Hamlet in our horror, we prefer hamburger with lots of onions and bloody red ketchup. We don't savor the bun or its relation to the burger; we just want to eat it.
Night Watch savors the bun with its moral story, and adds a dash of Shakespearean ketchup to provide a unique and colorful tale combining fantasy, horror, and the choices made by all of us that will lead to either the Light or Dark path. The Russian sensibility of horror is summed up best by this dialog between two characters:
"Careful what you say. Damn is more than just a word."
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