The Russian horror film Night Watch.

The Russian horror film Night Watch.

The Russian horror film Night Watch.

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Feb. 17 2006 4:45 PM

From Russia With Blood

The horrors of Night Watch.

Dima Martynov in Night Watch. 
Click image to expand.
Dima Martynov in Night Watch

Let's start with the basics.

About a thousand years ago, on a gore-strewn darkling plain, the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness forged a truce. To enforce the truce, the Light Others agreed to patrol the night (on "Night Watch") and forces allied with the Darkness agreed to patrol the day (on, you guessed it, "Day Watch.") ("Others" are basically like you and me, but can freely exit and enter the Gloom, a murky alternate reality.) Aside from the usual scofflaws—some vampirism here, a little black magic there—the peace has been kept pretty well, though dusting off the proper mythological sources, you'll notice a footnote: A Virgin (so prophecy foretells) will herald the Last Battle between Light and Dark. A boy will be forced to choose—a fateful decision that shall tip the balance in the Last Battle!

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Got that? OK, try this one instead: Dostoevsky, Roger Corman, and a Trent Reznor video all walk into a bar…

How do you go about describing Night Watch (Fox Searchlight)? "It is easier for a man to destroy the light within," as one Night Watcher intones, "than to defeat the darkness that surrounds him." Hear that, brother; and harder still to follow the plot of your movie. But here's the rub: I didn't care. For the first hour of Night Watch, a dark, arresting, and unrelentingly weird thrill ride out of post-Soviet Russia, one feels lost. Not bad lost, as with a densely clotted mess like Underworld: Evolution, whose mythopoetics land in the viewer's lap in concrete chunks; but good lost, exhilarated lost, like what am I watching? After some early Dark Ages boilerplate, Night Watch fast-forwards to Moscow, 1992. A young man named Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) visits a garish old woman who promises him that, using her dark arts, she can make the jilted Anton's girlfriend return to him. But there's a hitch: The girlfriend is pregnant—and not by you, this rouged-up old harridan clucks. Getting her back, this will be easy; but keeping her, if she has that baby … ? A two-for-one special is proposed: If Anton agrees, she will, abra cadabra, bring on a miscarriage. Just as Anton accedes to the forces of Dark, a band of grubby Night Watchers bursts in, to break up the proceedings. Your routine Night Watch bust, until they notice Anton crawling around in the Gloom. Anton, as he has only just discovered, is himself an Other.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate’s critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

A hangdog in sunglasses and a more or less permanent flopsweat, Anton is the movie's Everyman superhero. Tuning in to his own telepathic wavelength, he figures out when a prospective victim is being given "the Call" (come to me, come to me) by a truce-breaking vampire and then runs interference on the kill. The second hero of the movie, and a principle source of Night Watch's endearing strangeness, is contemporary Moscow itself, balanced as it is between a brutal Soviet hangover—the unremitting dinginess, the blasé gangsterism—and a much younger, more vibrant city that is fizzing up tentatively through the cracks. But above all, Night Watch is powered by a hungry ingenuity. Director Timur Bekmambetov nods vigorously to the Tarkovsky of Solaris and to the Matrix serial, but his imitations are open and guileless, and nothing could override his film's wildly singular feel. A constricted budget—Night Watch was shot for $4 million, a fraction of what you now pay to brand a Hollywood film with a single starlet—forced Bekmambetov to be witty with every frame. For all the CGI trickery, there is no bloat; no special effect is wasted, from the skulls that turn into translucent globes, lit from within by a web of neurons, to blood rising off the surface of a swimming pool like a vapor. (My favorite: A little bolt in the wing of a seemingly doomed jetliner rattles free of the plane, falling through the cloud cover, down an airshaft, past roach-infested walls, and into the teacup of … could she be the Virgin of the prophecy?)

If Night Watch is energetic, it is also frenetic; if neatly plotted, it is also too open-ended, a set-up for the remaining two installments of a trilogy. Which raises a red flag. The third episode will be in English, a co-production between Fox and Channel One Russia. What a dreary thought: that all the energy and underfed decadence of this franchise is already under siege.