Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Daywatch; because if you can make one mad horror film set in Moscow, there's no reason to stop there

If you've never seen Nightwatch, look away now. What follows isn't going to make a button of sense. But if you've never seen Nightwatch, maybe you shouldn't be reading this blog anyhow.

Of course, the title of this post is completely misleading. Nightwatch and Daywatch aren't even horror films in any modern sense. No-one gets eviscerated with a scythe or has a foetus torn out of them or any of those cool things you see in hip modern American horror films. I am reminded of a wonderful deadpan Tom Lehrer line (again, if the reference means nothing to you, you're in the wrong place. Nothing to see here. Move on. Go play in Facebook) "My friends in the DJ business, of which I have none...." Thus me and modern horror; I accept, rather numbly, that American horror exists, but I'm waiting for it to go away.

Nothing horrible happens at all in Daywatch. You could argue that a couple of horrible things did happen in Nightwatch, but that's outside my remit this evening; I'm just here to waffle briefly to the effect that Daywatch is rather cool, and to make a case for the notion that what's coolest about both movies is that they're from a different planet.

The set-up is simple; good and evil aren't just real, but a pair of going concerns who long ago reached a modus vivendi rather than risk breaking the whole world by having fight to the finish. Each side polices the other to ensure that it doesn't interfere too much with the mundane world or try to get the drop on the other side. The Nightwatch are the good policemen keeping any eye on the forces of Evil and the Daywatch are the bad guys keeping an eye on the forces of good. You can imagine how Hollywood would do it - just think of everything you've ever seen from the first James Bond movies to Men in Black.

The team behind Nightwatch and Daywatch have a slightly different take on it. The forces of good hang out at the Moscow Light and Power company and they're visibly broke. Everyone is wearing hand-me-downs. All their kit looks like it was recovered after a not quite disastrous fire. It looks like it ought to be held together with duct tape, except that in Russia, apparently there is no duct tape. The forces of evil seem to have more resources, but they have no taste. Everything is tacky. Their headquarters seems to be one of Russia's phone companies, and they have lots of good technology which they mostly use to play computer games (throughout Nightwatch, the leader of the forces of evil, Zavulon spends a huge amount of time practicing on a Playstation for his show down with the forces of good). So good and evil are clearly differentiated. Good dress like impoverished charity workers. Evil dress like chavs with lots of money but no access to anything made outside the Soviet Union. Wonderful notion.

The thing is, they're not doing this to be awkward, but because there's a coherent vision underpinning the whole enterprise. This is what happens when you adapt a series of books with a fanatical fanbase. Not because of the fans telling you what to do, I think, but because the books are so popular in the Russian market that the films could be made without worrying too much about how they'd play anywhere else. You can't please everyone. But if you know who you want to please and what might make them happy, you've got a pretty good shot at getting it right.

They get it right. I suspect that only Russians can completely get what's going on. The actors - particularly the supporting cast - are so good at underplaying their roles that I assume they're the Russian versions of John Heard and William Fichtner and all the other "that guys" who prop up movies in the US. But I suspect that it's even savvier than that - I'm willing to bet that the actor who plays Zavulon was deliberately chosen because it's not the kind of role he usually plays. There's no way for outsiders to know how that kind of thing hangs together. It has to be enough to know from all the other little things that that's what's going on.

Anyhow, it's all huge fun. There isn't anything horrifying at all, but there's plenty of stuff which is scary - because they've made the characters so earthy and grounded and fun that they seem real despite the preposterous background that when they're put into jeopardy it matters to you. And this doesn't stop them from playing a lot of the film for laughs; in a desperate ploy to save the main character, he swaps bodies with a woman - only to find that he's stuck in a car with the woman he's in love with who wants to talk all about what's wrong with him.

There are so many little things which are fun. It's in Russian, with subtitles. And the subtitles change colour and move around and reverberate in counterpoint to the action (this was done wonderfully in the first film, where vampires coax a small child out of a pool; their thoughts are shown as red subtitles, dissolving in the water). The closing credits are done on illuminated bill boards around Moscow as some of the supporting cast drive around at night. And the stunts are weirdly out of synch with the plot. In a conventional Hollywood movie, the big stunts build up the star and bolster the climax. In Daywatch, the biggest stunt is a Mazda RX-8 being driven up and around the facade of a vast hotel before popping through the window and revving down the corridor and through about nine doors into an office. The only reason for any of it is so that one supporting character can step out of the car and deliver some news to Zavulon; news he already knows. It's a great, completely unnecessary scene. God knows what it cost, even as CGI. And it doesn't do a damn thing to drive the plot or anything else. It does give a great scene closing gag, but that's it. At the end of the movie, when everything is coming to climax and the whole world - we suddenly realise - is on the line - there's way less in the line of eye candy.

It's a fun mad movie. It's already made all its money back in Russia, so it's not like anyone needs the money if you go - but you need the fun.

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