Though Denmark isn’t generally known for turning out horror films, director Ole Bornedal created a minor splash throughout Europe with Nightwatch, an efficient, atmospheric, and occasionally striking mixture of whodunit and Grand Guignol. Unfortunately American audiences were deprived of the opportunity to see it when Miramax picked up U.S. distribution rights, only to promptly lock the film away while director Ole Bornedal helmed a remake starring Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, and Patricia Arquette. After sitting on the shelf for over a year, the remake was drastically watered down, barely released, and tanked. Now years later, viewers can finally see what all the shouting was about.
Martin (Nikolaj Coster Waldau), a young law student, takes on a job as the overnight watchman at a local morgue, while his girlfriend, Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl), studies to be an actress. Martin’s repetitive nocturnal routine sitting at his desk is interrupted by occasional visits from the police, mainly an inspector named Peter Wormer (Ulf Pilgaard), thanks to the activities of a psychopath out slicing the scalps off young prostitutes. Meanwhile Martin’s personal life is tested when he and his hellraising, potentially insane best friend, Jens (Kim Bodnia), embark on a test whereby they challenge each other to an escalating series of audacious stunts. Naturally, the first one to back down must marry his respective girlfriend. One challenge involves a teenage prostitute named Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson), who may know more about the killer than she realizes.
At least for its first half, Nightwatch is a powerful exercise in suspense which skillfully plays off anyone’s inherent fear of being left alone in a vast, dark building for extended periods of time, not to mention the chilling experience of wandering down empty hallways lined with doors behind which lie unimaginable terrors. The script also wrings some surprising tension and emotional resonance from the challenge scheme, in which two essentially overgrown boys try to fight off the encroaching threat of manhood. Along the way they thumb their noses at convention by tossing beer bottles onto a statue of Hans Christian Anderson, destroying communion during a church service, and engaging in sexual horseplay in the middle of a fancy restaurant. However, following one marvelous, shiver-inducing sequence in which Kalinka comes to visit Joyce’s apartment, the film lapses into standard, Hollywood-safe conventions as the villain menaces the protagonists with a variety of sadistic plots involving bonesaws and, most memorably, a pair of handcuffs. For all its perverse subject matter and dead bodies on display, Bornedal reigns in any overtly graphic material in favor of suggestion, even during two sequences in which most directors would have drenched the walls in blood.