Ole Bornedal’s taut thriller has aged extremely well since it made a slow but gradual appearance in North America via Miramax as a creepy horror tale worth catching on the big screen.
Of course the affront to the film’s fans was classic Miramax: the film was bought, released, issued on DVD by Anchor Bay, and once the DVD went out of print, the film vanished, where for Region 1 fans, it’s been languishing in the vaults of Miramax, whose mandate during the nineties was to buy up hot foreign properties for remake purposes, and sit on the originals of which several – such as Jan Kounen’s Dobermann – continue to rot since 1997.
Like The Vanishing / Spoorloos (1988), which director George Sluizer remade for Fox in 1993, Bornedal was brought in by Miramax to helm the Nightwatch remake in 1997. Although Steven Soderbergh co-wrote the English adaptation with Bornedal, some scenes were dropped, including a vital scene that destroyed an important link in the film’s cat-and-mouse plot about a broke law student named Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who takes a job as a morgue night watchman, only to become the suspect of a string of vicious serial killings.
Bornedal’s thriller isn’t particularly deep or complex – it doesn’t take long to figure out who is the killer at large – but by the time that realization has hit audiences, they’ve already bonded with the characters due to the wealth of small nuances that were laid out over the first hour.
The simplicity of the story allowed Bornedal to write and direct some very chilling scenes that are all about mood, including a murky lore about a job that drove a prior night watchman to do perverted deeds, and how the job’s weird and long hours in a creepy place physically turns Martin into an exhausted, pale young man whose breath is becoming fetid and revolting to his longtime girlfriend Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl, from The Killing / Forbrydelsen [M]).
Added to the mix are the couple’s best friends, Lotte (Lotte Andersen), a novice priest, and her boyfriend Jens (Kim Bodnia), as well as a star inspector Wörmer (Ulf Pilgaard) who’s dedicated to apprehending the sicko who rapes women and scalps their cadavers. Little gore is actually shown in the film, but being a European production, the nudity is much franker than a standard Hollywood film.
Jens and Martin are ostensibly idiots, dedicated to daring the other to commit prankish act ‘without limits’ in order to avoid the gradual slide into domesticated marriage, career, and a bourgeois lifestyle. Martin’s job as a night watchman would still have made him a target for the serial killer, but Jens’ betting and one-upmanship is what broadens the danger to Martin’s girlfriend, himself, as well as a young prostitute Jens brings into the stupid game.
The film’s pivotal scene has Jens paying Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson) to dine with Martin, and publically humiliate him in the upscale restaurant. What eventually unfolds is the film’s most horrifying moment that’s thoroughly bloodless.
Joyce may have been brought to the restaurant to test Martin’s fidelity to Kalinka, but Jens’ teasing is unmerciful, as he flaunts money, insults, and little dares to earn extra cash in the young girl’s face. It’s a scene where quiet brutality reigns, and while Bornedal may have devised the scene as a means to throw suspicion on Jens as the wanted serial killer, it also shows a sadistic side that makes Martin start to question his friendship with Jens, a man who has the maturity of a grammar school bully.
Joyce’s victimization is vital, though, since it deepens the tragedy when she encounters the serial killer and is humiliated like the other victims. Bornedal keeps his camera distant and the bloodletting largely off-screen, which pays off by instilling sympathy in a character that in a more conventional film (or even a classic giallo) would’ve been a shapely bimbo doomed to die in an erotically charged montage of slicing and dicing.
Source music is used to goose the pacing of scenes – notably Martin’s boring nights, and his walks down the corridors – but it also reflects his immaturity. The score by Joachim Holbek (Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom series, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself), however, is all-orchestral, and its gravity always hints at real-world dangers that are ready to pounce, be it the increasingly fed-up girlfriends, or the killer.
Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a trailer and an English commentary track by Bornedal, but the director’s reflections are minimal and sometimes banal. It’s a pity he wasn’t joined by Soderbergh, as the two could’ve pulled off an engaging discussion about creating horror, the film’s writing and design, and the difficulties in transposing the story for an American market (which Bornedal has largely avoided since the remake).
Although there are some interesting bits of material – Bornedal does mention the remake now and then, as well as being a creative producer on Miramax’ Mimic (a film affected by studio-imposed reshoots in 1997) - his commentary becomes increasingly sparse after an hour, and his voice was recorded and mixed far too low, and just a smidge louder above the mixed soundtrack. Should the film get a deserved re-issue, Bornedal should be coaxed into recording a new (and far more detailed) track with carefully mapped out topics.
Bornedal’s most recent thriller is 2007’s The Substitute / Vikaren, which features small roles for Sofie Gråbøl and Ulf Pilgaard).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan