“Carry my dead, bored
been there, done that, anything”
How I Came To Horror (2 of 4)
by Pablo D’Stair
I was lucky enough to be very much a teenager when Scream brought forth a torrent of slasher/horror/ thriller films aimed at the adolescent/newly-adult age bracket (very blessed, because this was prior to the aim changing from the visceral to the supernatural, this was person-against-person horror stuff, no spirits or curses to muddy up the game) to be right there in the thick, eager to chart the sudden rise and the excruciating fall of this particular return of popularity to a genre. Not a week would go by without a film or two in this vein being released theatrically or straight-to-video and I had developed a real love of theatre-going/home-viewing, had thoughts larger than ‘did I like or dislike this or that offering’ churning around inside of me—I was active, considered myself a lay-chronicler of a moment in American movie history, though at the time I was too all over the place to care to do any proper chronicling.
I was not a particularly pleased viewer of most of the films, let me say—in fact, very quickly my interest became morbid, a love of ‘shitty movies’ supplanting any more overtly positive way of thinking of the cinema at hand. If not for the fact that every once in awhile an actor I adored from some more quality project showed up in the cast of one of these flicks, I likely would have burned out double-quick—I’d get bored to tears with things, but suddenly Bruce Greenwood (who I knew and loved from the television series Nowhere Man) would show his face in Disturbing Behavior (for whatever reason) and so re-pique my interest, hold me over through the thickening tide of dogshit.
Sometime during this, I saw a preview for a film called Nightwatch which was to star Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte, a film that, after my seeing this preview, seemed to vanish from the world. But just knowing it was out there, coming (maybe) had me tucked in for the long haul—something about that preview hit me just right, it stayed on my mind.
It is Nightwatch and my intersections with it I will be discussing here in the second of my four part series on how Horror Cinema got me and what happened to me as a result.
It is not often that one can truly say a piece of cinema literally changed their life, had such an impact as to make it honestly possible to say ‘If not for that film, I would be a wholly different person, my life would have gone a completely different direction’ and usually when one hears a statement like this it is with regard to some documentary prompting a person to social action or a certain film having awakened a desire to write, direct, photograph, costume, to tell stories and share artistic expression on the celluloid canvas, some discovery of deep Principled or Artistic self.
In my case, Nightwatch prompted me (a few years after seeing it) with fever to become a night security guard. Nightwatch made me go through the door of St. Moritz Security (despite the misspelling of their slogan ‘Protecting Your Intrests” and to ask that I please be given a graveyard shift at whatever ‘the scariest site they had available was’—a request granted by a man, I will add for texture, who during my tenure at the company murdered his two children, attempting to make the act seem like an accidental house-fire (true story). If not for Nightwatch, this job would not have happened and if not for this job my first efforts as a novelist and playwright would never have materialized and many, many minute and particular avenues of my life would have never made themselves traversable.
But to go back a bit: The preview for the film never left my mind, though I only saw it once—and every time I found myself sitting in a theater or in front of my television I’d hope to see it again (never did) and every time I flipped through an Entertainment magazine I’d look for a capsule review, a release date, some indication of the thing (never anything there). It was not until, during one of my habitual aimless wanderings of the town I lived in, I randomly walked past the crumby little cinema in the mall that I saw the poster listing it as Now Playing—this was a Thursday and by Friday it would be gone, I soon discovered, and there was some complication of convincing the bastard manager to let me in despite my not being old enough for an R-Rating (think the opening sequence of Herzog’s Fitzcarlado, Klaus Kinski, hand bandaged, trying to maneuver his way past the usher into the opera, already in progress).
Settling in to my seat, prepared for the worst but hoping for something transcendental, Ole Bornedal’s film began. At first, it could easily have been any number of things I’d viewed in the preceding year-and-a-half—the ‘Preface Murder sequence’ (this one filmed far better than most others, though, even more artfully than the fantastic opening to the ultimately pile-of-turd Urban Legend) the nicely stylized (if lengthy) credit sequence which dotted in some rather run-of-the-mill character intros and let the audience know Martin had gotten a security job and that—brace yourselves—a serial-killer was on the loose. The ground was also set for some perfectly workable later-in-the-film character motivations and some pointless red-herrings—not a shit film, from the get, but nothing too far above ho-hum.
But then Martin goes in for his first night on the job. And I was in love.
Understand that I—then, now, and forevermore—abhor the statement ‘the location was a character in-and-of itself’ but if ever there was a film that made me want to give this praise, myself, it was Nightwatch. There did not need to be a plot to this thing, just let the camera do its loitering creep while Martin is walked along the skeleton-lit corridors of his overnight shift at the medical examiners building and down in to the morgue—had no killer materialized, ever, had just the old-man Martin was replacing told him he was leaving his baseball bat behind ‘just in case,’ that there was ‘nothing to be afraid of’ but having such a bludgeon handy was ‘always a good idea,’ had nothing, nothing, nothing but Martin sitting there trying to study then having to hourly walk the halls to hit the punch-clocks have happened in this film it still would have been balls-out-exceptional.
In many ways, being honest, the scenes of Martin quietly sitting around doing his job, giving looks over his shoulder, staring at his reflection in the glass, becoming more confident in his rounds (while me, as viewer, became more wary) were the film, the magic. The plot of Nightwatch, yes, is more than serviceable and the sequences between Martin and James (a marvelous—far better-than-necessary, in fact—performance by Josh Brolin) are good (though the same cannot be said for Patrica Arquette who…in this film…I don’t know, but something just wasn’t firing off right with her) but it’s the silence, the nothing, the atmosphere that does it all—just that always flicker-buzzing fluorescent light in the corridor leading up to the morgue door is, I might go so far as to say, one of the most menacing “villains” in Horror.
It was the gruesomeness of the atmosphere—the first time I really thought of ‘gruesome’ so particularly, not graphic, not by a stretch, not gory, just disquieting, leery with dread–that made things hum. It was the seeding of ideas—Martin shielding his eyes as he nervously walks the length of the morgue to punch the security key; the corpses in the morgue somehow being sexually violated while Martin is on the clock; the matter-of-factness of Notle saying ‘the killer takes their eyes’ almost as a tossaway line; the bodies being moved during the night in a bizarre, but seemingly purposeless, cat-and-mouse (I’ll always remember, as far back as the preview, McGregor’s delivery of the line ‘I saw her…in the hallway’ just a wonderful muted sing-song to it, as little a thing as it was I loved it, repeated it to my mirror all the time); the killer pouring a vile of semen on the buttocks of a slaughtered victim then, the camera slowly drifting from the room, moving to mount the corpse—it was the unending, pin-hole view of a particular sordidness never strayed from, every shot permeated with the same paranoiac unease, that made this film kick.
The serial killer, himself? Eh, I could take him or leave him. That is until Nick Nolte (obviously the killer from the start, because otherwise what’s Nick Nolte doing in the film, right?—by this time I’d been around the horror movie block enough times to get this from the credit sequence) gives his monologue over a just violated corpse, Martin allowed to join the other detectives in the morgue, standing rigid, watching, maybe wondering why it seems he is so directly being addressed by Nolte, maybe not. Lordy Lord, I say with no hesitation that P.T. Anderson could have filmed that sequence no better and the infusion from this scene into the film of actual (part-nihilistic, part-existential) gloom reinforced everything that was already spectacular about the slow-burn pace and the well-telegraphed end corkscrewing around.
Now, head-over-heels or not, I left the movie knowing a few things were not exactly Rosemary’s Baby good about it, but palpably I recall the walk home was the first time it struck me not to look on certain things as ‘flaws-in-a-particular-movie,’ but as examples of how tropes in a genre could be utilized precisely because they were so recognizable and immediately self-evident—I thought about little things that bugged me, thought and thought and thought.
The little “shock moment” of Nolte being officially revealed to be the killer? Maybe it wasn’t trying to be a stunning reveal and maybe it wasn’t an unnecessary addition for cheap effect—perhaps it was just indicating that from that point forward the script had altered inertia, a new proposition was given the audience, one line finished, new line starting.
The red-herring of “maybe it’s James who is the killer (for some reason)”? Maybe that wasn’t there to actually make the audience ever think this, but just to deliver the ideas, the thoughts about the characters, their place in the world, the tenuousness of desire, the razor thin line between disappointment and self-actualization.
Maybe these plot-points, as I thought of them, were just atmosphere, the same as the camera tilts and the brown-tint of the lighting, not quibbles to be nit-picked.
As I say, I’d figured Nolte for the killer since the opening credits—did that make it any less interesting to watch the progression of things? In no sense. In fact, I realized my complaint about a lot of horror/thriller cinema was that “reveals” were too often just lame tricks, little things dickishly held off being told to the audience to give a false sense of suspense, nothing but stacked writing meant to make a film first-view-heavy.
In any event, I was (maybe even over-defensively, as no one I knew had seen the film and I had never read a single review so had no detractors to rail against) conscious of what I liked about the film, for all its genre-drenched-formulaic-tendencies, had taken something very particular out of the viewing. I liked the idea, the concept, and I liked how a billion-million permutations of it played out in my head, the actual way things went on camera fine, but secondary to how I kept running with it.
In many ways, the film never left me—even more than prompting me to get that security job, Nightwatch was largely the germ of my first narrative novel, it was the prompt for many conversations with friends and some written as dialogue in plays. Somewhere I learned it was a remake (remade by the same writer/director) and one day, perusing a Suncoast Video looking for the yellow label tops indicating an Anchor Bay horror film, I came across Nattevagten. Of course, though strapped for cash, I bought it right up and, of course, I watched in at my night security job—something I had to do in secret, in a side lab building (this was a bio-chemical research facility I worked at) because it was against the rules to watch at the main desk and I’d gotten caught once, discovered there were actual consequences to that transgression.
It was kind of stunning how much the American version was the same film as the original—not just remade in the sense of working from the same script, but in that everything, nearly shot-for-shot, was the same. The American version was sleeker, yes, the aspect-ratio wider, the color was more muted which made it feel tighter, as well, the camera movements were a bit more fluid and the sense of space in some of the silences was tweaked a tap, elongated and tensed just a sniffle—but everything important was literally the same: the actors and actresses bloody looked the same, little details (Martin refilling the coffee pot or seeing a door close but not seeing who went through it etc. etc.) were the same and (though the songs were different) the moments music kicked in and the shots the montages were built around were the same.
Yet, I soon discovered, decidedly not so. In fact, the elements I thought were missing from the American were not only present in the Danish, but made front-and-center. The Danish seemed to place the plot and the visceral horror elements very much secondary to the character exploration, the philosophy—indeed, entire scenes between central characters were present in the Danish film but only (if at all) presented in a stripped down, one note version (meant to advance story, nothing else) in the American. Most notably, the James character in the Danish was given a full scope, painted on a canvas equal in size and import to Martin—in the Danish, they were not foils or prompts for each other, but the two were more vehicle for the full examination of both sides of a philosophical coin. In the Danish. ‘James’ (‘Jens’) was not so much a dubious red-herring, but equal partner, someone caught up in the events (from the outside) and grappling just as much with them as Martin was (from the inside).
Also, having now worked overnight security—and in a truly unnerving environment—watching the original and comparing it to the American made me see how much the film was composed of so precise a set of observations on the part of the artist—as plotty and in many ways built-of-tropes as the piece was, the fact that when given the chance to re-imagine the thing, the auteur just took another stab at getting down the same vision showed me how nuanced and unconsciously driven even story-centric Horror Cinema, rendered honestly, could not escape being.
I came away from the original film thinking that the wholeness of Bornedal’s vision existed only somewhere between them—the Danish film (I was hesitant to think this, but came to think it pointedly) was not exactly what he intended, the American film equally not a full expression. The fact that the films differed hardly at all stylistically but were worlds apart in subtlety and impact was curious. I became intrigued as to where the divide was rooted—was it cultural, to do with budget, just some behind-the-scenes business nitty-gritty etc?
However it was, what this curiosity led to, in me, was a sense of the full field of what Horror (or thriller or suspense) cinema could do. I’d by this point in my ‘layman film-watching career’, always looked at genre-heavy things as one or the other of two very different animals—(a) Art-House ethereal, having to do with atmosphere and emotion full on, plot there only as-thin-a-string-as-possible or else (b) Popcorn One-Shots centered on story and execution, on specifics and thrills, particularized investigations without wider implication.
Nightwatch—by my happening to see the ‘same film’ come from the same artist at two points in my life, by being influenced first unconsciously by it and then coming to its early form able to observe through my own (at least partially) established aesthetic—opened up in my thinking how myriad the expression of a single idea could be, showed me that Horror, which I still thought of as segmented, as highly “genre-fied” was something more than the apparent sum-of-its-parts.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.