Night Watch (aka Nochnoi Dozor) (2004)

Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valeri Zolotukhin, Mariya Poroshina

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Any film that outgrossed both Spider-Man 2 and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at the Russian box office – where both of those Hollywood imports were huge – is bound to cause some excitement, especially when it’s a slick horror film full of vampires, shape-shifters and other supernatural beings. Since the $4 million Russian-made movie opened in the former Soviet Union last year, grossing $13 million in just three weeks, little had been heard of the film, except that Fox Searchlight had picked it up for international distribution, and stepped in to part-finance the next two films in what looks set to be a major movie trilogy.

In December, the film became Russia’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards, a surprising choice given the Academy’s reluctance to recognize genre films, let alone those from the horror genre: The Silence of the Lambs, a horror film by definition (in that it sets out intentionally to horrify, despite MGM’s insistence that it was a mere thriller) is a notable exception. Then, in late February, Fox finally unveiled the slick new US cut at the Berlin Film Festival, where it screened as part of the Official Selection.

Thankfully, the Russian dialogue (which lends the film a certain exotic frisson) hasn’t been dubbed with American voices – fears had been expressed when it was revealed that screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Oliver Stone’s Alexander, James Cameron’s upcoming Battle Angel) had been hired to script the English language version – but retro-fitted with the most startling set of subtitles ever to grace a foreign film. Indeed, they are so artful and stylized, one wonders why no one ever thought to make subtitles part of the movie experience as a whole, rather than just slap standard white text throughout. (Co-writer/director Timur Bekmambetov has said that as soon as he realized he would have to subtitle the film, he immediately set about designing them, so presumably this is one area where Fox assisted financially.)

Night Watch, or Nochnoi Dozor to give it its Russian title, concerns two rival groups of supernatural beings, or “Others,” who have co-existed peacefully with each other and with ordinary humans for over a thousand years – ever since they signed something called The Truce, which created two forces, the “Night Watch” and the “Day Watch,” whose task it was to police the other. Under its terms, no one may use magic in public (shades of Harry Potter), kill or conspire to kill an ordinary human or an Other, and so on. Now, however, The Truce has been broken, and old rivalries and latent enmity is ready to boil over into a cataclysmic war in which the human race will be caught into the middle. Added to all this magic, mysticism and metaphysical mayhem is the fact that a centuries-old prophecy – which foretells the coming of a “Great Other” whose choice of sides will influence the outcome of the battle – looks like it may be about to come true.

Given that this is the first of a trilogy (Night Watch 2 will shortly wrap production in Moscow), one might expect that the first film would mainly be concerned with setting the scene. Instead, Night Watch has the feel of The Matrix, Star Wars or Blade — a self-contained, stand-alone story set in a fully-realized universe with its own mythology, which will ultimately become the nexus of a much larger story. (Anyone seeking clues to the development of the film will have to hunt down the trilogy of novels from which they are adapted; either in Russian, or when they are published in English later this year.) Only the film’s ending – much too dark to ever be allowed to stand in a Hollywood film, unless a sequel was already in the works – gives a clue to how the story might proceed, since it both concludes the first film’s story arc and sets up a pretty amazing premise for the next one – a little like the closing shot of the Resident Evil movie, in which Milla Jovovich escapes the laboratory only to walk out into a devastated city.

Hollywood’s recent attempt to bring supernatural creatures to the big screen, in such films as Van Helsing, Underworld and even The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, have floundered for the most part, often because the story and characters seem to be slaves to the special effects, rather than the other way around. Night Watch avoids these pitfalls by making sure it has crucial elements such as a gripping story, strong characters, whip-smart dialogue, and actors capable of delivering great performances before the set-pieces are designed or the special effects technicians are allowed anywhere near the picture.

Fox Searchlight has set a tentative US release date of July 29 which, being slap bang in the middle of summer, shows the studio is confident enough to set the film against the biggest blockbusters of the year.

Americans haven’t really worried about the Russians since the Cold War ended. But if Night Watch really is, as the trailer suggests, “the breakthrough film of modern Russian cinema,” Hollywood may well have reason to.

There’s a link to the official site below, but check out a very cool fan-made site right here!

5 out of 5

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Jon Condit