Nightwatch (Nattevagten)

Denmark (1994) Dir. Ole Bornedal

Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a law student who takes a job as night watchman at a mortuary to help pay his fees. Part of his rounds includes checking on the rooms which store the dead bodies which are currently full with the scalped female victims of a serial killer, being investigated by Detective Peter Wörmer (Ulf Pilgaard). Meanwhile Martin is indulging in a series of dangerous games with his ridiculously fearless friend Jens (Kim Bodnia), much to the chagrin of their respective girlfriends Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl) and Lotte (Lotte Andersen). A series of weird happenings begin to occur at the mortuary which Martin pouts down to Jens larking around but when a prostitute named Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson), one of the unwilling participants in Jens and Martin’s games ends up dead, the evidence points at Martin as the killer.

The debut film from former TV writer Ole Bornedal is a much lauded black comedy horror thriller which got the Hollywood remake treatment in 1997 with Ewan MacGregor as the lead, directed by Bornedal himself. While the story and the chills haven’t aged so well since much of it has been reproduced ad infinitum by every horror film which followed in its wake, the key point of interest is to see some now familiar in their younger days – most notably The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl and The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia, who played Martin Rohde (to complete the small world theme, Lotte Andersen also appeared in The Killing II). Both are instantly recognisable physically but their characters make them seem like completely different people altogether, such is the power of their star making performances here.

The story isn’t all chills, thrills and bloody spills, taking its time to unravel building to a tense climax. Martin’s work is fairly humdrum, largely patrolling the empty corridors of the mortuary accompanied by the rock music on his walkman (a precursor of the IPod for any younger readers). His predecessor (Gyrd Løfquist) leaves Martin with some cryptic do’s and don’ts which Martin ignores for his own amusement until bodies start to move about on their own accord.

When Martin reports it to the medical staff, the bodies are back in their rightful place and still dead and Martin is declared a pest and a looney. As the serial killer’s conquests continues so does the daring nature of Jens’s challenges – including Martin and Kalinka sharing an intimate moment in the morgue. But Joyce’s minor presence in their lives becomes a major one when Kalinka believes Martin and Joyce are having an affair, setting off a fatal chain of events.

A large part of the film is spent exploring the relationship of the two couples: Martin and wannabe actress Kalinka are the closer of the two, while devout Lotte has her hands full with boozing prankster Jens, whose immaturity threatens to jeopardise their forthcoming wedding. These scenes are interspersed with Martin’s time at work, much of it limited to showing the mundane side of the job.

There is an underlying sense of mystery as the resident doctor (Niels Anders Thorn) and Detective Wörmer suggest something isn’t quite right but the clues aren’t enough to make this obvious to the viewer. To show Bornedal has a cheeky side, he throws in some dark humour at the least expected places. One scene sees the killer going about his blood thirsty business with a joyous little Danish pop ditty playing on the stereo!

Bornedal shows a lot of potential for shots and scene composition in this first outing of his which improved as his career grew (his 2009 chiller Deliver Us From Evil is reviewed HERE) and his clear enthusiasm is matched by the efforts of the cast. No-one is half hearted here but Sofie Gråbøl stands out as the one who was giving the most, showing flashes of the emotional range she went on to display in 2004’s Aftermath.

Being honest, Nightwatch wasn’t the quite the five star masterpiece I was expecting from the reviews and plaudits this film has received. It certainly isn’t bad but like a lot of influential films, its successors have eclipsed the original.