Night Watch (aka Nochnoy dozor) DVD Review
Written by Daniel Hirshleifer
DVD Released by Fox Home Entertainment
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Written by Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis, based on a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko
2004, Region 1 (NTSC), 114 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on June 20th, 2006
Russia is the last place you’d expect to find a kick-ass, balls-to-the-wall vampire film, but Night Watch is exactly that. Not only that, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. Is it scary? Not particularly. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. The film is full of unique and fascinating ideas, matched with great action and some fun special effects.
At its opening, the film explains how anyone with supernatural powers must choose if they want to be good (light) or evil (dark). The forces of light and dark forged a truce so they didn’t just all kill each other completely. Each side has a police force to watch the activities of the other group. The light group is called Night Watch, and the dark group Day Watch. However, both sides are on the lookout for an extra powerful Other (the film’s term for supernatural beings). According to prophecy, this extra powerful Other will decisively plunge the world into darkness or forever bring it to the light. The film then cuts to a man, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) going to a witch for a service. In the course of things, Anton discovers he himself is an Other. Several years later, he is working for Night Watch, and it seems as if the fate of the world may very well be at stake.
Night Watch is an all-around excellent film. The epic feel of good vs. evil, the acting, the direction, it all works. Considering I hadn’t heard of this film until it dropped in my lap, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Director Bekmambetov has a solid handle on the material, and while there are some shots that seem a little extraneous (in particular a scene where a character starts a car and we see a CGI shot of gears turning and pistons moving), but they are few and far between. And the few iffy sequences are more than made up for by some really impressive scenes, such as a scene in The Gloom and a scene where Anton discovers a woman who is not a vampire, but isn’t quite human, either.
Konstantin Khabensky more than competently carries the weight of the film on his shoulders. His brooding anti-hero feels like a film noir throwback in the best way possible. The rest of the cast are all solid in their roles; they all really give the feeling that there’s a vampire underworld that the rest of us are simply unaware of.
The version found on this DVD is a cut that Fox made after buying the international distribution rights to the film. It cuts out entire subplots and trims sections of scenes, while adding scenes of exposition to help further explain the ideas behind Others. Even though there is a Russian version listed on the DVD, it is still the recut version. After seeing this cut, I would love to see the original Russian cut, so it’s really a shame that Fox didn’t offer it on this disc. Even in this form, Night Watch is more than worth a viewing.
Video and Audio:
Picture is solid without being stellar. It was easy to tell when CGI was being used, but I attribute that to less than ILM levels of CGI, and not to the transfer. I didn’t notice any artifacts, and color reproduction is solid. A lot of the film takes place in dark places, and the shadows have depths to them. Black levels don’t waver. It’s not going to win any awards, but not every transfer needs to.
The disc offers Dolby Digital 5.1 English and Russian tracks, as well as 2.1 Spanish and French tracks. I watched the film in Russian, and the sound mix was very satisfying. Punches packed a wallop, and explosions could be felt. There was some subtle directionality, although most was aimed at the center speakers. I took a quick listen to the English track, and there is a noticeable difference to the dialogue and the rest of the sound. But, as you will see, there is an even better reason to watch the Russian version.
While subtitles wouldn’t normally be considered an extra, they are worth noting here. Night Watch is a two-sided disc. Side one has the English version of the film. Oddly, the English version offers both English and Russian audio tracks. Try playing that side in Russian with English subtitles, and you get closed captioning for the hearing impaired. I hate this practice (Disney has done it on several Miyazaki DVDs instead of providing true translations). Annoyed and confused, I switched the disc to side two, which was listed as the “Russian version.” And finally I figured it out. Side two has subtitles burned on to the print. But these are like no subtitles you’ve ever seen. Very rarely do they appear at the bottom of the screen the way all other subtitles do. Most of them appear somewhere on the face of the film itself, and everything from the typesetting to the way it appears and disappears is a reaction to what is going on in the film (one fantastic example is during a scene where a child has a nosebleed in a pool and the blood forms into the subtitle and then washes away moments later). The subtitles are as much fun to watch as the film itself, so I highly recommend watching the Russian version when seeing the film for the first time.
Back to side one, we get a commentary by director Timur Bekmambetov on the film. Timur reminds me of Guillermo Del Toro. They are both very animated and full of humor. Bekmambetov’s commentary isn’t particularly revolutionary; it’s the standard mix of anecdotes, explanations, and funny comments. I was greatly intrigued about the film after seeing it, so the commentary was not a chore to go through at all. The other big special feature is an extended ending that thankfully they did not use. This also has commentary by Bekmambetov. Sadly, his commentary on the extended ending is nothing more than spelling out the obvious.
Rounding out side one, we get an all too brief sneak peek at Night Watch 2 (Day Watch) and Night Watch 3 (Dusk Watch), although I think a far better title would be Gloom Watch), and a featurette on upcoming Fox horror films, most notably the remake of The Omen.
Side two does have one notable feature: A subtitle commentary by novelist Sergei Lukyanenko, who wrote the original novel.
Coming seemingly out of nowhere, Night Watch is a breath of fresh air for horror cinema. At a time when we see more and more remakes and rehashes, Night Watch reaffirms what the horror genre is capable of when the people involved go for more than just the lowest common denominator. While it would have been nice to include the Russian theatrical cut, the current cut is still a gem of horror cinema and more than worth a purchase. In short, go see Night Watch — right now.
(Films that Daniel Hirshleifer reviews are played on a Pioneer Elite DV-59AVi DVD player, viewed on a Mitsubishi WS-55413 HDTV and listened to on a THX Ultra 2 Pioneer Elite VSX-59TXi A/V Receiver through a 7.1 setup of JBL Northridge E series Speakers.)