The F*cking Black Sheep: Nightwatch (1998)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Not to be confused with the 2004 Timur Bekmambetov genre joint of a similar name, one movie I always thought got criminally short-shrift from hardcore horror heads is Ole Borndedal’s genuinely heart-pounding 1997 whodunit, NIGHTWATCH. Not only does Bornedal join the ranks of such international titans who would boldly remake one of their own movies in the U.S. (a la Michael Haneke with FUNNY GAMES, Takashi Shimizu with JU-ON, to name a couple), in many ways, the Danish director was able to rectify the mistakes and refine the rough edges found in the original (NATTEVAGTEN). I still may prefer his 1994 version on the whole, mainly for implanting the seed of such a cool premise, but there’s little doubt that the excellent cast in the English language redo – including Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Brad Dourif and John C. Reilly – elevates the material to even greater horrifying heights.

And now, as the movie just celebrated the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release this month (April 17th), we can think of no better time to break down for y’all just why, despite functioning as eminently entertaining and intensely effective murder mystery, NIGHTWATCH still remains a F*cking Black Sheep!

Get a load of this setup. Ewan McGregor plays a young law student named Martin Bells, who, in order to pay his tuition and study uninterrupted, works nights on the graveyard shift at local mortuary. All alone! What is normally a pretty quiet, boring and mundane routine of a job turns into anything but when a brutally murdered hooker with her eyes carved out is delivered to the morgue. Martin has an inherent sense of paranoia and unease about the macabre setting of his workplace to begin with, particularly when the preceding night-watchman (Lonny Chapman) spooks the hell out of the kid with tales of terror.

But when he gets indirectly involved with one of the latest killings, the serial prostitute-killing, eye-collecting madman puts Martin square in his crosshairs. But not to kill him, to frame him! Nick Nolte plays Inspector Cray, the lead detective on the case, lending his irascible and curmudgeonly ways that play perfectly against Bells’ wide-eyed gullibility. Cray has a morbid fascination with serial killers and their twisted pathology, setting him up as a prime suspect. The other key culprit could be Martin’s sociopathic prankster pal James (Brolin), whose penchant for adrenaline-fueled challenges put him in legal danger when he pays a prostitute to fool around with Martin. A prostitute that turns up dead promptly thereafter! This raises the hackles of Martin’s belle, Katherine (Patty Arquette), naturally, setting up for a really fun, tense, chest-bashing finale that culminates in a whole lot of bloodshed.

The first thing that ought to be commended about NIGHTWATCH is how lean, economical (I see you Ammon) and focused the screenplay is. Co-written with Bornedal by Steven Soderbergh, these guys keep the action concentrated, with only a few characters, in just a handful of locations, and focus primarily on plot and character. On building tension and holding suspense. There’s no extraneous fat, which keeps the watching experience constantly amusing. I also really like the diversionary nature of the whodunit structure itself. After a perfectly fine-tuned opening scene that gives us a look at the murderer’s M.O. – forcing hookers to play dead, a white-sheet and toe-tag and all, then slaying them with a large carving knife to the tune of “This Old Man” – we only get another one or two onscreen kills. But we never see the killer’s identity, just white latex gloves. Normally this kind of structure pays off in the very end, with the killer revealed to us along with all the other concerning characters. Here it’s different. Here the audience is let in on who the killer is with thirty minutes to go, while keeping the other characters left in the dark. What’s more, the killer tries to frame our protagonist and almost gets away with it, which is really cool wrinkle in the way whodunits are typically presented.

The other thing I really love about NIGHTWATCH is how innately creepy the setting is. Brilliantly shot by Dan Laustsen, who would have won an Oscar for THE SHAPE OF WATER if it weren’t for a long overdue makeup award given to the greatest DP of all, Roger Deakins, he shows how the morgue is the absolute ideal place to set a horror whodunit. We’ve got flickering ceiling lights, autopsy rooms with no interior handles, shadowy corridors, formaldehyde-filled jars of unidentifiable body parts, you name it. The scene where James sneaks into the morgue, yanks the alarm that denotes a dead body has animated, then pretends to be an undead ghoul under a white sheet, is flat out f*cking fun. Even the dark, glossy lobby scenes where Cray interrogates Martin has an unnerving feel that suitably counters the bright white lights of the autopsy room.

But what really makes it all shine is the caliber of acting. For otherwise B-movie material, there’s a reason why this script attracted such a wealth of talent. McGregor plays his part without a false note, as per usual. We’re right there with him the whole way, never willing to even think he might be the killer. A pre-Renaissance Brolin might be my favorite here, as the unpredictable punk we just can’t tell whether or not to trust. I swear, when I saw this movie for the first time, by myself, on VHS, perhaps in the middle of the day even, this one scene between McGregor and Brolin near gave me a f*cking angina. It’s such a simple but expertly crafted little exchange in a Laundromat, during which Martin timorously asks James if he killed Joyce the hooker. By this time we have every right to think it could be James, as does Martin, so to flat out confront him in such a matter of fact manner, is downright tense! Word can’t do this scene justice. The way it’s played, the way it’s cut by Tarantino’s longtime editor Sally Menke, the way it’s scored, the way it’s framed in medium close-ups…it’s masterful!

All this to say it’s a damn shame NIGHTWATCH fell by the wayside after its release in 1998, many months after it was completed. It grossed a paltry $1.2 million in the U.S. over its entire theatrical run, and was largely panned by critics. I urge y’all to revisit the movie and enjoy it for what it excels at. That is, it has a killer concept, a kickass setting, a tightly woven screenplay, a top-notch cast, a tension-riddle finale and a potent dose of gore. NIGHTWATCH is a nifty horror whodunit indeed, and will always be a F*cking Black Sheep in our yet to be carved out eyes!


Extra Tidbit: Ole Bornedal orginally wanted Harrison Ford to play the part of Inspector Cray.
Source: AITH



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