The Russians are coming — hungry for blood! Gore-soaked horror-cum-cop drama “Night Watch” has taken a record-breaking domestic $15 million cume (more than “The Lord of the Rings”) on home turf since its July 8 bow. Russian-made pic displays pro technique and visual imagination on a par with, if not better than, Hollywood frighteners, but with a distinctive Slavic accent. Commercials director Timur Bekmambetov’s feature debut tells of Blade-like bloodsucker (Konstantin Khabensky) in a struggle between good and evil. Fox Searchlight-acquired pic, first of a projected trilogy, will sink fangs into U.S. market this fall. Subtitle-friendly horror fans might boost ticket sales through strong word of mouth.
Co-adapted by Bekmambetov and Sergei Lukyanenko from the latter’s own novel, story’s central conceit rests on Manichean notion that good and evil are equally powerful.
Opening prologue set in 1342 A.D. finds the Warriors of Light, led by Gesser (Vladimir Menshov), and the Warriors of Darkness, fronted by Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), forging a truce. Henceforth, “Others” — humans with supernatural powers from each side — will patrol the opposite side to ensure the balance of power is maintained. However, it’s prophesized that someday a powerful Other will come along who will be tempted by one side — maybe the light, maybe the dark — and who will throw the whole 1,000-year plan out of whack, wreaking havoc.
Flashforward to Moscow, 1992, where the Night Watch of the title — whose members belong to the light group — issues licenses to dark Others so they can patrol on the light side. However, the Night Watch will arrest or even kill them if they get out of line.
Darkness’s forces have a Day Watch crew as well.
Young Anton Gorodensky (played by Slav superstar Konstantin Khabensky) discovers he is an Other when he’s caught up in Night Watch’s sting on a witch.
Twelve years later, Anton is now a vampire on the side of Light and works for Night Watch. En route to rescue pubescent boy Egor (Dima Martinov) from the clutches of dark vampires, Anton spots mousy nurse Svetlana (Maria Poroshina) on the subway and recognizes her as a “funnel” creator, i.e. a walking bad-luck transmitter, who will be the trigger catastrophes in the coming days.
And this is just the first reel. Phantasmagoric, effects-heavy finale sees history repeating itself with a rooftop battle by digital cast of hundreds. A “Star Wars”-style revelation about Egor’s background and flashback-underscored twist get the table ready for the next franchise’s installment, “Day Watch,” due soon for local release.
Super abundance of allusions and devices suggest Bekmambetov and company are well versed in classic horror and sci-fi conventions from abroad, from “Frankenstein” and “The Matrix,” to le cinema de Jean-Pierre Jeunet (more “Delicatessen”-era than “Amelie”) and David Fincher. That certainly won’t hurt its appeal abroad.
Nevertheless, film is endowed with sharp local flavor, felt in its use of Muscovite landmarks and, more importantly, the specifically Russian types who populate the wide cast of characters.
Most of the Dark Others all look like Mafiosos or hooligans, with a smattering of nouveau-riche New Russians. On the other hand, the Night Watch and their friends look like downtrodden working stiffs in out-of-date duds, who have alcohol problems (these vampires drink both vodka and blood).
This may explain pic’s broad demographic appeal back home, while its good-vs.-evil plotline offers compelling new mythology for a nation still coping with the disappearance of enforced Communist ideology. The presence of august older thesps from the Soviet era (Menshov, Markova) combined with new stars like Khabensky and Chadov and TV soap actors no doubt has helped its crossover appeal.
Budgeted at a rumored $4 million, a lot for a Russian movie, pic makes every kopek count with lavish effects that send the CG “camera” whizzing from huge altitudes and distances to near-microscopic levels. One spectacular, smoothly executed shot, for example, follows an airborne rivet from flying plane down through the night air, down a ventilator shaft and into a cup of coffee. Make-up effects are similarly top-flight and effectively gruesome, climaxing with a spine being ripped out and used as a sword.
Given plotline centers round struggle between light and dark forces, camerawork and lighting shine particularly in the tech department, growing ever more mannered and murky as pic works toward final showdown in which Anton uses a lit fluorescent tube as a homemade light saber.
For the record, original title “Nochnoy Dozor” can mean either “Night Watch” or “Night Patrol,” and pic has been called both already in English-lingo publications. Fox Searchlight will distribute the original Russian version in the U.S., and an English remake will be done by 20th Century Fox.