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cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sofie Grabol, Kim Bodnia, Lotte Anderson, and Ulf Pilgaard

director: Ole Bornedal

107 minutes (18) 1994
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Danish director Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch (aka: Nattevagten) initially received a somewhat low-key art house-based release, at least in the UK, and only attained its small cult reputation as a genuinely unsettling, original and intelligent serial killer film when it was released on VHS not long after. In 1997 the same director mounted a Hollywood remake, starring Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte, a slightly compromised yet still successful project, which was also somehow ignored, despite a brilliant performance from Nolte.

I remember reading about the original film in genre magazines like The Dark Side and Shivers, and when I finally managed to obtain a (very expensive) copy, I was impressed with what I saw. Instead of the typical gore and knee-jerk scare scenes associated with such material, Bornedal concentrated on creating mood and tension, dragging the audience through a plot which even now progresses at a relatively stately pace for a genre film.

Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a young law student, gets a night job as a security guard at the local hospital, where he is required to make rounds and check up in every room, including the morgue. Vaguely dissatisfied with his life, he is convinced by his friend Jens (Kim Bodnia) that they each must challenge the other to carry out increasingly risky tasks. The loser, it is decided, will forfeit his freedom and marry his girlfriend. Jens' long-suffering partner is a novice vicar, and their relationship is troubled by his constant erratic behaviour. Martin, however, loves Kalinka (Sofie Grabol), a fellow student, and sees the risk worth taking as he intends to marry her anyway.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is abroad, scalping and sexually violating the corpses of his female victims. Inspector Wormer (Ulf Pilgaard) is heading the case to catch the killer, and takes Martin into his confidence whenever he brings the bodies of the latest victims to the morgue. Wormer is a tortured man; he tries to think like the killer to catch the killer, and this is clearly taking its toll. Martin is enthralled by the case, and unwittingly becomes involved, and even implicated.

These two storylines converge is a way that is clever and legitimate, and Martin is slowly drawn into a web of deceit and murder from which there seems no escape. Along the way we have some brilliantly executed scenes: the room full of eerily lit tubs containing body parts, the nerve-wracking tour of the night-time hospital given by the creepy former night-watchman, an ironic case of mistaken identity that proves a major plot point. This is all good stuff, and very well executed by Bornedal, who shows an eye for detail and an almost Hitchcockian willingness to wring tension from the slightest of moments. A sense of unease and decay - physical, mental, moral - permeates the whole film, and there is a heavy momentum to events that pulls the viewer ever deeper into the escalating mystery. Themes of necrophilia and underage prostitution are handled so well that they avoid the risk of being distasteful and add to the film's sombre air of dread and decay.

Exemplary acting, direction, art-direction, and screenwriting, all add up to create a unique film, both terrifying and blackly humorous, that should be regarded as a must-see for anyone interested in a fresh and different approach to familiar material.

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