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Movie Review

Contrived 'Nightwatch' Revels in Mayhem at Morgue

April 17, 1998|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

If you didn't get enough swollen-corpse depravity out of David Fincher's 1995 serial-killer thriller "Seven," Dutch director Ole Bornedal's "Nightwatch" may fill your tank.

"Nightwatch," adapted by Bornedal and Steven Soderbergh from Bornedal's Dutch-language film "Nattevagten," is an empty exercise in the macabre. Like "Seven," it mixes the styles of suspense, horror and film noir, using murky lighting, odd angles and deliberately paced camera movements to create an atmosphere of constant dread.

What it lacks is purpose, psychological heft and a killer with his own sense of style.

I wasn't a fan of "Seven," but at least its villain was on a mission--to punish violators of the Seven Deadly Sins--that would be personally threatening to most members of the audience. The psycho in "Nightwatch" is a necrophiliac, the scourge of the county morgue, with the peculiar habit of killing and mutilating prostitutes before having sex with them.

Most of "Nightwatch" is set in that morgue, where law student Martin Bells ("Trainspotting's" Ewan McGregor) is the newly hired security guard. Graveyard shift. There are rooms where body parts are stored in jars or in vats of formaldehyde, and there's the refrigerated section where the newly dead await autopsies. And to warm him up for the job, the departing night watchman explains what to do in the event a corpse comes to life.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 18, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie director--Ole Bornedal, the director of "Nightwatch," is Danish. His nationality was incorrect in a review of his film in Friday's Calendar.

As if the job weren't stressful enough, Martin's kinky, thrill-seeking friend James (Josh Brolin) keeps sneaking into the morgue to scare him. He's under the supervision of a petulant, drug-addled duty doctor (the ever-creepy Brad Dourif) who's constantly threatening to have him fired. Bodies start getting moved around during his shift. And a smarmy detective (a slumming Nick Nolte) is asking him for a semen sample to test against evidence left at a murder scene.

Worst of all, the rotting breath Martin acquires from all that death-tainted air at work is a net loss in his love life with his live-in girlfriend, Katherine (Patricia Arquette).

A smart law student would consider quitting this job, but Martin presses on, doing his rounds with the look and nerves of a cornered rabbit, while evidence mounts that the serial killer is out to frame him for all the murders. One of the future victims has even been calling his home and telling Katherine what a pervert he is.

Bornedal keeps the real killer's identity secret through the first half of the film, by showing him only from the waist down, and by making everybody else so weird that they're all suspects. "Nightwatch" is a seriously overcast B-movie with rote performances from everyone but Brolin, who gives James an edge of danger that says that if he isn't a killer, he will be.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong morbid violence, language, sexuality and some drug content. Times guidelines: lots of weird, sick stuff.

'Nightwatch'

Ewan McGregor: Martin

Patricia Arquette: Katherine

Josh Brolin: James

Dimension Films presents a Michael Obel production. Directed and written by Ole Bornedal with screenplay adaptation by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by Michael Obel. Edited by Kant Pan. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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