Filmmaker John Huston once noted that it was all right to steal from others when making movies — the fatal mistake was stealing from oneself. It’s a piece of advice Ole Bornedal decided not to heed in remaking his Danish chiller “Nattevagten.” The new outing — which retains the essential twists of the original, a hit overseas that was never released Stateside — has been physically enhanced with American production values and a marquee cast, but much of the earlier film’s humanity and mordant humor have been lost in translation. Result, “Nightwatch,” is a story that’s gone from arthouse to grind-house; rather rapid theatrical play will attract devotees of shock horror, with OK, if limited, ancillary action in that genre niche.
The setup is classic horror formula. University student Martin (Ewan McGregor) takes a job as the night watchman in the city morgue to earn some extra money. He ignores vaguely sinister warnings from the former guard that it’s a place where strange things happen. Then, strange things happen.
One can see exactly where “Nightwatch” is headed. A pre-credit sequence of the brutal murder of a prostitute is an early tip-off that shock value is the pic’s trump card. The piece’s nihilistic foundation is underscored in a police officer’s comment to the young man that the “why” of senseless killings is a vain pursuit.
The eerie occurrences at the morgue are somehow related to the activities of a serial killer, and suspicion falls on Martin. Though his twitchy, erratic friend James (Josh Brolin) is a more obvious murderer, he’s too obvious a choice for such an upscale production. Perhaps Martin has been driven insane from long hours in creepy quarters. Still, this theory doesn’t wash with the fact that the first victim predates his morgue job.
If it all sounds a bit confusing … it is. Pic is rife with contradiction, lean on characterization and motivation. It’s not ideas that are lacking, but the connective tissue to give them life. The absence of even a vague unifying spirit reduces “Nightwatch” almost to the level of an intellectual “snuff” film.
Bornedal is confronted with a dual dilemma. In addition to facing the constructs of a genre, he’s tackling a story he has already filmed. Unfortunately, the new variants diminish the potency of the original. The humorously macabre notion of animate corpses and the slyly malicious nature of the slasher have been robbed of texture. Greater artistic resources have provided the film with a more realistic look and more seasoned performances. But, ironically, the ragged qualities of the original were a key ingredient in the picture’s successful, entertaining recipe.
The cast here is underutilized. Patricia Arquette is squandered in the girlfriend role, and Brolin has more energy than focus in a badly conceived part. McGregor is quite good and credible as the protagonist, but he mostly serves as the anchor of a rudderless ship. There’s also a nice turn by Alix Koromzay as a vulnerable and tragic teenage hooker.
The grand disappointment is Nick Nolte. He’s turned his role of the investigating cop into a lumbering, oblique presence who veers from the dimwitted to the sagacious without seeming benefit of drugs.
“Nightwatch” shares a grim relationship with the movies “The Vanishing” and “Three Fugitives.” The trio were all based on foreign-language hits and were unsuccessfully Americanized by their original filmmakers.