Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sofie Gråbøl, Kim Bodnia, Lotte Anderson, and Ulf Pilgaard
Screenplay by Ole Bornedal
Directed by Ole Bornedal
I think of myself as a horror movie connoisseur and as a result I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I had not seen Nightwatch until a few nights ago. This film is not necessarily one of the greatest horror movies of all-time, but it is on plenty of ‘the best underrated or underappreciated horror movies’ lists. I think Nightwatch has earned every bit of its reputation as a hidden horror movie gem. This is a taut thriller with some definite horror movie elements that make for a creepy evening in at the movies.
Martin (Coster-Waldau) is a law student hard up for cash to finance his studies. In fact, he is so desperate for cash that he takes a job as a night watchman in a mortuary. As the soon-to-be-retired watchman shows Martin his new digs we quickly get the feeling that things may not be as dead as expected at the mortuary. In addition to his unsettling new job a terrifying story is making headlines in the news. Martin, his beautiful girlfriend Kalinka (Gråbøl), his capricious friend Jens (Bodnia), and Jen’s pious girlfriend (Anderson) follow the series of killings in which a Jack-The-Ripper-esque killer is disposing of prostitutes in a very grotesque manner. The killings quickly become more than just news and part of Martin’s reality as the bodies of the deceased women begin to be deposited in the mortuary during his shifts. Strange happenings at the mortuary and Inspector Wörmer’s more than casual interest in Martin’s extracurricular activities give Martin pause to wonder – was this the best job for him after all?
Right from the start of Nightwatch it feels like a very professional movie and not some cheap old horror film (sorry if you were looking for nostalgia). From the very first scene depicting a dinner party with Martin and his friends, we are treated to beautiful cinematography and even a little symbolism, not always a staple of the horror genre. Martin’s scenes at the mortuary are both suspenseful and frightening. Nothing in the world would make me agree to take Martin’s place during those lonely scenes that would likely inspire some of the most disconcerting journeys of imagination. As the viewers, we truly feel for Martin and share his fear.
One problem with Nightwatch is a bizarre bet that Martin and Jens make near the beginning of the film. It’s a bet fueled by machismo in which the friends can request anything of each other, if they do not comply, then they lose the bet. This is a very flimsy plot device, and unfortunately one that the narrative revisits and relies on throughout the film. If you can suspend your incredulity for this one point then the rest of Nightwatch is very enjoyable.
Finally, one of the greatest strengths of Nightwatch, second only to its unsettling atmosphere, is the traditional who-dunnit at the heart of the film. The characters are quite well written, many having the potential to be the serial killer on the loose, and they should have you guessing at the identity of the killer right up to the final scenes of the film.
If you’re looking to try out an older horror film then take a chance on Nightwatch. But be warned, patrolling the almost silent halls of the mortuary alongside Martin at night is not recommended for the faint of heart.