With the U.S. release of Nightwatch, Deep Focus comes full circle. The very first review I wrote for the Internet was dashed off after I trekked halfway across Chicago, in the rain, to see a film festival screening of a little Danish horror movie that looked promising. That movie was Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten, and it disappointed me so much that I dashed off a bitter review, hoping simply to warn others away from it should it begin a regular U.S. theatrical run.

Well, Nattevagten never showed in U.S. theaters, mainly because Miramax, no doubt stoked from the enthusiastic reception given the film by festival audiences, bought up the remake rights and quashed the original. They then had Steven Soderbergh — not one of my favorite auteurs — give Bornedal’s scenario the once-over, and handed the film back to the director to remake. Reservations about Soderbergh aside, it sounded like a good enough idea to me. With the suddenly inescapable Ewan McGregor in the lead and Patricia Arquette brought on board as The Girlfriend, I actually found myself looking forward to the remake.

Alas, Bornedal mounted the new version of Nightwatch as a scrupulous remake of the original. The sets, the camera angles, the incessant flickering of lights are all literal carry-overs from the previous film. As such, you may as well browse my old review to get a handle on what’s wrong with the new film. Miramax, who got pretty much what they bargained for, seemed embarrassed by the result. Trailers for Nightwatch screened in front of the first Scream in 1996. Inexplicably, the film was pulled from the release slate and then rescheduled again and again over the course of the next 15 months, finally getting dumped on the marketplace in mid-April, no man’s land in your local multiplex.

So in this case, I can point back to my original review and say, “I told you so.”

Martin (McGregor) is a struggling college student who becomes the night watchman at a campus morgue in order to pay the bills. His story, which becomes intertwined with a police inspector’s search for a serial killer of prostitutes, should be the uneasy crux of the film. Instead, there’s a whole ‘nother story inside this story — a tedious buddy movie about the relationship between Martin and his distasteful friend James (Josh Brolin). James has a predilection for 17-year-old prostitutes, you see, and his actions are just shady enough to suggest … well, call him a suspect.

The new stars have no juice whatsoever. McGregor seems to be having trouble with his American accent, lapsing into Trainspotting mode in a couple of scenes. Arquette is incredibly bland as Martin’s girl Catherine, and can be seen just sort of standing around the set as though waiting for some direction. Nolte’s somnolent inspector, meanwhile, is as cadaverous as anything in the morgue. The uniformly stilted performances seem to be in part the result of some awkward cutting — even ace film editor Sally Menke (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) can’t seem to make uniform sense of what she has to work with.

The movie also founders for want of some real characters to place in peril. At one point, Catherine crawls across broken glass in an attempt to save her life, but we don’t care — she’s just “the girlfriend.” The only female character who fares any better is a prostitute named Joyce, who gets iced in the setup to what’s easily the movie’s best sequence. Sordid and devious, this stomach-turning incident hints at what a scary and disquieting experience Nightwatch could have been, if it had been tightened up and invested with just a little more wit and humanity. Instead, the film’s climax is a distended shadow of just about every other mad-slasher-and-coeds film that ever showed up on pay cable in the middle of the night.

Directed by Ole Bornedal
Written by Bornedal and Steven Soderbergh
Cinematography by Dan Laustsen
Edited by Sally Menke
Starring Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, Patricia Arquette
USA, 1996 (released in 1998)

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