In a grungy Moscow apartment, a young woman leans over a man’s shoulder and asks, “Are you afraid?” She has just emerged from a particularly loud, violent transformation from owl to girl and is, in fact, still covered in feathers. The young man widens his eyes incredulously, as if to say you’ve got to be kidding me, but simply points her to the shower. Welcome to Night Watch, a slickly produced modern vampire film from Russia that overdoses on exuberant, tripped-out action but never forgets the mundane details. Hyperactive, hyperviolent, and frantically entertaining, the movie fuses a hodgepodge of brain-boiling genre scares with a distinctly Russian dread of bureaucratic overreach.
The novel setup, in which rival agencies representing Light and Dark mythic creatures known as Others–mostly vampires, but also shape shifters, seers, and other pulp creations–is particularly apt, considering the film’s country of origin. What nation better than post-Communist Russia to posit a world in which even warring factions of ghouls must develop regulatory oversight boards? And you thought the PCAOB was a problem.
These two agencies–Night Watch represents the forces of Light, and Day Watch the Dark–exist to oversee the preservation of an ancient truce between the eternally battling factions of good and evil. But much to the consternation of the evil Day Watch, only the Night Watch has the power to license their villainous counterparts, deciding, for example, if a Dark vampire may “turn” a human lover. And, as is often the case with unchecked Russian agencies, not only does the Night Watch license actions, they also play the role of enforcer, hunting down those fanged foes who dare to engage in unregulated supernatural activity. So much for the separation of powers.
All this squabbling over rules, regulations, and influence inevitably leads to some unseemly examples of vampire rent-seeking, which, in typical fashion for frustrated tribes of warring supernatural creatures, results in the very real possibility of all-out war and the total annihilation of everything. Working at a vampire regulatory body isn’t just a desk job: For these bloodthirsty bureaucrats, the perils of overregulation are literally a matter of life and death.
When the film isn’t making forays into the business of policing the paranormal, it’s brushing up on the minutiae of a vampire’s day-to-day existence. It’s tough, for example, to maintain civil relationships with neighbors–especially when they happen to be Dark Others–and drinking pig’s blood is a quick way to get a vampire buzz. We discover that the raggedy looking fellows acting strange in the subway are really just vampires on the prowl, and we learn that lovesick bloodsuckers tend to go for melancholy evening walks–through heavy traffic. After a particularly harrowing encounter, we get a close-up glimpse of vampire medical care, which is performed on the hastily cleared-off top of the bureau chief’s desk, and without anesthetic. Apparently vampire health coverage isn’t so hot.
While the employees of the Night Watch occasionally find themselves mired in the tedium of daily life and otherworldly paperwork, the film’s director, Timur Bekmambetov, keeps things hurtling forward with a nuclear-strength blitzkrieg of editing-bay flash. Bekmambetov, drawing heavily from film style gurus like Darren Aronovsky and David Fincher, never met a digital effect he didn’t like, and he strings them together with unrivaled manic glee. Under his twitchy control, even the smallest of events–the start of a car engine, for example–unleash hallucinogenic blasts of lightning-fast cuts, caffeinated zooms, and blaring heavy metal. It’s as if every few minutes the director is suddenly afflicted with banshee vision.
When Night Watch manages to bottle up its cinematic hysteria for a rare calm moment, its set and costume design reveal an equal tendency to mainline on stylistic overload. In this film’s vision of Moscow, even the most rundown apartment buildings exude a carefully cultivated gloom. Foreboding shadows and curious beams of light are laid out with utmost precision. Bad guys drive high end Audis and wear expensive jewelry and sleek track jackets. And of course, everyone must constantly wear sunglasses. Inside. Underground. At night. Battling for the fate of the world. No matter what the circumstances, the glasses stay on.
Somewhere amidst the flurry of strobe lights and high-style creature warfare, there’s an epic story about eternal battles, apocalyptic curses, and a world-threatening vortex–a murky soup of prophesy and pulp. Following it, though, requires the sort of concentration that Bekmambetov’s frenzied visuals tend to discourage–it’s like trying to study nuclear physics at a rock concert.
Occasionally the film’s dual tendencies toward lunatic-invention and bloody-mindedness combine for some unnecessarily gruesome sequences, but these rare bits tend to zip by so quickly that they’re easily forgotten.
Night Watch is clearly not everyone’s cup of pig’s blood, but with its bemused combination of heavily stylized genre tropes and bureaucratic pondering, it delivers an ecstatic, ludicrous rush. Perhaps the film expresses its wild-eyed, bloodshot essence best in an early scene on a crowded subway car. After witnessing one of the vampires erupt into a series of shrieks and spasms, a frumpy looking lady scowls and, with the sort of frazzled outrage that can only come from a longtime city-dweller on an evening commute, she declares, “Wearing sunglasses indoors! Screeching like a lunatic!” Precisely.