Monday, January 4, 2010

Wendigo Meets NIGHT WATCH (Nochnoi Dozor, 2004)

When I put Timur Bekmambetov's international sensation on the to-do list for our weekly survey of vampire cinema my friend Wendigo was in a mood to dive under the table. He had heard nothing but bad about the Russian fantasy film, and wasn't even sure that it counted as a vampire movie despite the emphasis on vampires in the American promotion of it. Also, like I had, he had seen Bekmambetov's Hollywood debut, Wanted, and that admittedly would make one reluctant to investigate its director's earlier output. But I had found a copy in a bargain bin, and he had asked me what sort of exotic vampire films I had, so there it was.

Wendigo had been warned by fellow movie fans and fellow vampire fans that Night Watch was disjointed, confusing, a jumble of dubiously related stories, and fatally incomplete. After seeing it, he feels that some of the criticism was exaggerated, but much of it was justified.

We open with the medieval legend of the Light Others and the Dark Others and their epic, inconveniently staged battle on a high bridge. The leaders of the two armies realized that the only way to avert mutual genocide was to make a truce. Part of the truce is the establishment of the Night Watch, a corps of Light Others (benevolent beings who feed on light and goodness) assigned to monitor the activities of Dark Others (who feed on darkness and, in some cases, blood) and keep them within authorized bounds. We meet some modern Night Watch members in 1992 Moscow, where they break up some human dork's attempt, with the aid of a Dark Other, to induce a miscarriage in his onetime girlfriend. When the dork, Anton, sees them interrogating the witch-woman, the Night Watchers realize that Anton himself is an Other.

Anton is no vampire, but he can drink pig blood and tap into the vampire's call to a prospective victim. The little fangs are a side effect.

Once someone recognizes the special abilities that make them Others, they have to decide whether they'll be Dark or Light. Despite his dubious start, Anton chooses Light and is part of the Night Watch in the present day. He's assigned to protect a boy from a vampire and his recently-turned girlfriend. The Night Watch destroys the vampire, but his girlfriend, not quite knowing what to do with her new powers and hungers, escapes and wanders the city, still trying to mentally call the kid into her clutches.

One clever touch in Night Watch is the hero's ability to see invisible vampires in mirrors, though it has done Anton little good by this point. Below, the widow vampire wanders through Moscow traffic.

But while Anton remains on the job he's also drawn into the threat of the Vortex of Damnation, the opening of which through the unconscious agency of a mysteriously cursed woman will break the great truce and provoke the final battle between Light and Dark. As Anton solves the mystery of the curse, he must also save the boy, Yegor, from the vampire woman and the influence of Zavulon, lord of the Dark Others and an avid video game player. We learn that Zavulon's hobby is really a form of practice for a final showdown with Anton, with Yegor's future as an Other at stake....

Above, scenes from a Vortex. Below, a crucial scene from Zavulon's video game.

In an interview, Bekmambetov expresses surprise that something that he considered a very Russian cultural product (it's based on a 1998 novel, the first of four) caught on in the outside world, including the U.S. It sounds like he was unaware of the evolution of the "urban fantasy" genre in the publishing industry. The popularity of urban fantasy (think Laurel K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, etc.) prepared the ground for Night Watch's American release in 2006. Wendigo is an urban fantasy fan. He judges the Russian film a good fit for the genre. It's a dark fantasy with multiple magical races and, of course, it has a modern, urban setting shadowy enough for the supernatural community to exist beyond human notice. There's a paradoxical element of social realism in urban fantasy, and in Night Watch Anton lives a grubby working-class life with a vampire (who works in a butcher shop) as a neighbor.

While Night Watch is clearly an urban fantasy, Wendigo doesn't acknowledge it as a vampire film. That's because vampirism isn't central to the story. It's unclear from the film alone exactly where vampires fit in the Dark Other pecking order, and while vampires play important roles in the story Wendigo thinks those roles could just as easily have been filled by other magical creatures. Having said that, he was impressed by the film's presentation of the female vampire's predicament. If the film had been about her, or if all Dark Others were vampires, it would have been a vampire film. Even in a film like Blood Suckers when it's left uncertain whether the villain was a supernatural vampire, the threat of vampirism and humans' response to it makes it a vampire film in a way that Night Watch isn't.

Fantasy film or vampire film: is it good? Wendigo found it as disjointed as early critics claimed, whether because something was lost in the translation into English (we saw a dubbed version because Wendigo was uncertain of his ability to read the film's animated subtitles) or because Bekmambetov is an incompetent director. He understands that the film (which only adapts the first section of the Night Watch novel) is meant to be disorienting, but it's one thing to be uncertain of the larger picture and another to be uncertain of what's going on at any particular moment. Even as a small portion of the novel, the film may have bit off more than it could chew by encompassing both the Vortex storyline and the evolving struggle for Yegor's soul, which are not well linked. While the whole was wanting, many of its parts were conceptually and visually intriguing, and Wendigo thought both the Russian actors and the (accented) English dubbers did a good job with the material. The movie leaves Wendigo slightly interested in reading the novel someday so he can figure out how the world of the Others actually works, but it left him uninterested in seeing Bekmambetov's sequel, Day Watch. He'll still give the director credit for showing promise which, as far as Wendigo's concerned, hasn't been fulfilled yet.

The American trailer (which promises a trilogy so far only two-thirds complete) was uploaded to YouTube by SkinoReturns.

1 comment:

Alex DeLarge said...

See DAYWATCH! These films when watched back to back make some sort of sense...though the second movie is really an adaptation of the second half of the first novel. If that makes any sense at all? I've read the 4 novels and admitt a fondness for Anton's plight which just seems to get worse as the series progresses.

The films take liberty with major plot points of the novels but are enjoyable nonetheless, and the Russian actor who plays Anton always reminds me of Tom Hanks.

I've reviewed both over at my blog, if interested:)