Night Watch/Nochnoy Dozor (2004/2006) ***
There’s something especially seductive (to me, anyway) about the prospect of seeing a genre movie made in a country that has little or no indigenous cinematic tradition within that genre. While Russia certainly has no shortage of native ghost and monster stories, it has never really had much chance to develop its own cinema of supernatural horror, due to the close coincidence between the rise of the movie industry and the rise of Communism. In orthodox Soviet thinking, the supernatural was indistinguishable from superstition, and had no place in the “Socialist Realism” which the arbiters of culture under Lenin and his successors tried to ram down the nation’s throat. Even quite fanciful films like Aelita, Queen of Mars had to explain their wonders in rational, technological terms, and although science fiction enjoyed a fair amount of official support (especially after Russia briefly captured the lead in the space race during the late 1950’s), magic and monsters were mostly relegated to children’s fare. Night Watch, which concerns itself with the impending collapse of a peacekeeping pact between the forces of good and evil, thus represents a major departure from the mainstream of Russian film. And all the more interesting, it also represents a considerable investment of time and resources (by some reckonings, it and its two projected sequels will constitute the most expensive movie production ever mounted in Russia) and a highly unusual bid to capture the attention of audiences outside its home country.
Most humans go through their whole lives without realizing it, but the world is full of supernatural beings wielding considerable occult power— sorcerers, shapeshifters, vampires, and who knows what else. These Others, as they are collectively called, live among normal humans, and can generally be mistaken for them by anyone who is not an Other himself. The Others also resemble humans in that their natures are inherently conflicted between good and evil, Light and Dark, but unlike humans, the Others are aware of their role in this cosmic duality. Way back in the Middle Ages (I’m guessing the mid-14th century on the basis of the weapons and armor), the armies of Light and Darkness met in battle on a bridge across a deep and sheer-sided gorge. The nature of the battlefield ruled out any possibility of escape or withdrawal, and the two armies were very evenly matched in fighting strength— the slaughter was appalling. Eventually, Lord Geser, the general of Light (Vladimir Menshov), recognized that there was no possible outcome to the battle save mutual extermination, and he halted the flow of time in order to parlay with his counterpart, the Dark Lord Zavulon (The Arena’s Viktor Verzhibitsky). The result of their negotiation was a peace treaty according to which Light and Darkness would coexist in an explicitly recognized balance of power. Both sides would refrain from committing violence against each other, and the depredations of Darkness upon the human population would be strictly regulated. Finally, each side would create a peacekeeping force charged with enforcing the treaty: Night Watch to keep tabs on Darkness and Day Watch to do the same for Light. The system has functioned more or less smoothly ever since, but it has been foretold that someday, an Other will arise more powerful than any that had ever existed before— greater even than the immortals Geser and Zavulon. This Great Other, like all Others, will have to choose his side, and when that happens, the long-interrupted battle shall resume, playing out this time all the way to its apocalyptic conclusion.
Skip ahead to 1992. At a crumbling Moscow tenement building, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) pays a visit to an old woman named Darya Schultz (Rimma Markova). Darya is an Other, a witch in service to Darkness, and Anton wants her to cast a spell that will get him his girlfriend (Mariya Mironova) back. Darya tells him that flipping the switch on the woman’s heart will be the easy part; her second sight informs her that Anton’s ex is pregnant with a child who may or may not be his, and that this child’s survival will undo any magic she might work on Anton’s behalf. But if Anton will give his consent, and knowingly accept responsibility for the deed, Darya can cast an additional spell to abort the child. Anton agrees, but before Darya can make much headway in her conjuring, the flat is invaded by invisible beings bent on apprehending the witch. These, as you might have guessed, are agents of Night Watch, Ilya (Aleksander Samojlenko) and Lena (Anna Slyusaryova), come to arrest Darya for the unauthorized practice of black magic. There is a major complication to the arrest, however. Ilya and Lena are operating in a subdimensional space called the Gloom, which ought to make them invisible to Anton, as humans are incapable of seeing anything going on in the Gloom. But Anton obviously does see the Night Watch agents. It therefore follows that Anton must be an Other without realizing it. In fact, he’s a precognitive, possessed of an erratic and mostly uncontrollable ability to see into the future (or, apparently, into the Gloom). Once he and his partner have Darya under control, Ilya tells Anton everything he needs to know to make some semblance of sense out of what he’s just witnessed.
Twelve years later, Anton is a Night Watch agent himself, about to become involved in a pair of extremely dangerous, tangentially connected cases. A vampire named Andrei (Ilya Lagutenko) has recently utilized the license granted him by Night Watch to convert his hitherto-human lover, Larisa (Anna Dubrovskaya), but no license has been issued for Larisa to do anything to anybody. It is thus a violation of the treaty when Larisa uses the Call (a somewhat enhanced version of the hypnotic power conventionally attributed to vampires) on a twelve-year-old boy named Yegor (Dmitri Martynov), summoning him to Andrei’s hideout so that she can kill and convert him. Anton has been assigned to track Yegor to Andrei’s place. His paranormal abilities should enable him to home in on Larisa’s Call, but if not, drinking a little blood will sensitize him to it. Anton isn’t picking up a thing, and he doesn’t happen to have any blood on him at the moment. Luckily, Kostya (Aleksei Chadov), the boy who lives across the hall from him, is a vampire, and Anton talks Kostya into hooking him up. (Kostya assumes at first that Anton has himself been recently converted.) Anton gets the signal loud and clear after that, and heads off to find Yegor. He catches up to the boy on a subway train, and for a moment there, he thinks he’s found his vampire, too. One of the women on the train (Mariya Poroshina) is a Dark Other, but Anton’s sunlight ray (disguised as an ordinary flashlight— sneaky and budget-conscious) has no effect on her. Furthermore, no sooner has Anton trained the ray on her than he is visited by a vision of an airliner being knocked out the sky by a tornado and plowing into a high-rise apartment building. Obviously, this is something that merits Night Watch’s attention, but there’s no time for that just now— Yegor has left the train, and is on his way to the vampires’ lair. The bust doesn’t go well. Anton’s backup goes to the wrong building, leaving him alone to face two vampires. Larisa escapes, Anton goes far beyond his treaty mandate by killing Andrei (potentially bringing the wrath of Day Watch down upon his head), and he nearly dies himself of injuries inflicted during the fight. It takes an emergency application of high-octane mojo from Lord Geser to save Anton’s life.
While Geser is patching Anton up, he does a little mind-meld with him in the hope of finding out what in the hell went wrong at Andrei’s flat. Doing so also makes Geser privy to the vision Anton had on the subway, and the content of that vision disturbs Geser greatly. A quick perusal of a book called Legends of Byzantium confirms Geser’s grimmest fears: the woman on the train is most likely the prophesied reincarnation of the Virgin— not the Virgin Mary, mind you, but rather the bearer of the most fiendish curse that was ever lain on anybody. The Virgin carries with her a Vortex of Damnation, and dire misfortune befalls literally everyone and everything she comes into contact with. Although Yegor still isn’t safe as long as Larisa is at large, Geser wants Anton to give this other matter the bulk of his attention. He’s going to need some additional assistance, though, which Geser assigns him in the form of a were-owl named Olga (Galina Tyunina). While Ilya and Lena (who we now learn are a were-bear and a were-tigress, respectively) keep an eye on Yegor, Anton and Olga will try to discover the identity of the woman on the train, to figure out who placed the curse upon her, and to make the offending magician undo his handiwork. But despite all appearances to the contrary, Yegor may actually be the more serious concern. For one thing, there’s a tie between him and Anton much more compelling than either official duty or the seer’s sense of personal responsibility. For another, Day Watch agent Alisa Donnikova (Zhanna Friske) has sought out Larisa, and has incited her to renew and intensify her pursuit of the boy. Although the kid may not look like much, Zavulon suspects that Yegor may actually be the Great Other, and the Dark Lord will stop at nothing to win him over to his side.
It certainly isn’t an easy movie to follow (and descriptions I’ve read of the subtitled gray-market edition that circulated in 2005 make it sound almost incomprehensible), but Night Watch is well worth the extra concentration. Yes, the film is awkwardly structured, and the need to keep up with two mostly unconnected parallel plots can be frustrating. Yes, the exposition is offered up in such a way that the audience can feel overburdened with detail, even as a number of seemingly important questions either go unanswered or have their answers apparently deferred to one of the sequels. Yes, not enough is done with the movie’s most interesting and distinctive ideas, like that of a stable but mutually unsatisfying state of ceasefire between Light and Darkness, or that even traditionally evil creatures such as vampires and lycanthropes possess the free will to choose whether or not to follow what most stories of this type would present as their fundamental natures. And yes, director Timur Bekmambatov is just a little too enamored of visual cues copied from The Matrix and (God help him) House of the Dead. All those points are only partial counterweights to Night Watch’s positive qualities— its impressive stylishness, admirable unconventionality, and confident aspiration to an epic scope. Bekmambatov isn’t afraid to risk looking ridiculous, and while that means that he does indeed look ridiculous from time to time, it also means that there are moments in Night Watch that you’re simply never going to forget. Name me one other movie in which the lead villain wields his own spine as a broadsword, or that uses the descent of a rivet falling from the belly of an airliner as a transitional device linking two scenes. The filmmakers are similarly unafraid to own up to their influences, as when the scene in which Larisa makes her second attempt on Yegor’s life opens with the boy sitting in front of the television, watching a fifth-season episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (although an extended quote from “Angel” would have been even more appropriate). But where Night Watch is perhaps most successful is in striking the balance between working as a free-standing film and working as the purpose-designed opening installment of a series. Night Watch is both sufficiently self-contained to be mostly satisfying as a movie in its own right and sufficiently open-ended to flow naturally into a much larger and more complicated story. Unlike some trilogy-starters I could name, it ends with a meaningful climax, at a logical stopping point, and yet still makes it clear that the events of the preceding two hours will be the source from which a more sweeping and serious conflict will stem. That it does the job by standing the story on its head during the final act— in a way that cannot be dismissed as just another fashionable twist ending— is a further treat for audiences who have grown weary of business as usual. I’m looking forward to Day Watch and Dusk Watch with more excitement than I can recall attending any forthcoming movie in quite some time.