Friday, November 26, 2010

Night Watch (2004): The Terror of Spastic Director Syndrome

The establishing prologue for Night Watch (Nochnoy dozor in the original Russian) is not encouraging – two fantasy armies are doing battle, but they’re slightly cheesy, and you keep expecting to see Terry Gilliam prancing behind them banging coconut shells together.  The prologue is like those in many fantasy novels, easily skipped to get to the good stuff.  It’s a tedious way to set up the eternal contest between the supernatural “Others”, Light and Dark, each monitoring the opposing side to look for violators of their ages-old truce (the monitors are the Night Watch and Day Watch).

The film follows precog Anton (Konstantin Khabenskiy), a member of the Night Watch tasked with policing the Dark Others.  He’s a refreshingly shabby protagonist, a staggering, vagabond vampire hunter.  His Night Watch teammates include a few shapeshifters who never actually shape-shift, and Olga the were-owl (Galina Tyunina), who has a well-filmed, messy transformation scene and then seems to have nothing to do for the rest of the film.  The Night Watch members echo the Ghostbusters, with their jumpsuits and their bright yellow truck with flaming tailpipes, whizzing through the city streets to supernatural incidents.

There is a plot, but it is told incoherently, as if the director cut out half the footage at random.  The end result is loud, garish, confused, and somewhat annoying, with strange camera angles, quick jump cuts, and hardly a whisker of character development.  There’s something about the “Vortex of Damnation” and a cursed virgin, who appears to herald the final battle between Light and Dark, and a great Other who will choose sides and determine the outcome. 

The film and its sequel Day watch (2006) were based on a series of novels by Sergey Lukyanenko.  Perhaps if you’ve read the novels you can fill in the blanks in the movie version of Night Watch, but otherwise the events are made barely comprehensible by the spastic, jumpy direction.  The special effects, impressive for the overall budget of about 4.2 million, and sometimes inventive (wheeling clouds of ravens and a handy spine-sword), are the only real reason to see Night Watch

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Naked SCUBA! Zombie vs. Shark! Splinter-in-eyeball! It's Lucio Fulci's "Zombie"

Hot on the shambling heels of Dawn of the Dead (1978) came Lucio Fulci in 1979 with the imaginatively titled Zombie (sometimes titled Zombie 2 to confuse European viewers into thinking they were seeing the sequel to Romero’s film, which was titled Zombie in European releases). 

An abandoned boat (or is it?) drifts into New York Harbor.  It belongs to the vanished father of Ann (Tisa Farrow, Mia’s sister).  A note (“due to my morbid curiosity, I have managed to contract a strange disease”) points to the Caribbean.  Soon, Ann is on her way, joined by reporter Peter (Ian McCulloch, who went on to star in a different role in 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, a film which is unrelated to Zombie other than being filmed on the same sets, and alternately titled Zombie 3, apparently to confuse viewers even more).

The two convince boat bums Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay) to take them to the supposedly cursed island of Matul, the home of Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson).  A zombie outbreak is underway, with no explanation for the cause other than some mumbling about voodoo. 

The highlight of Zombie occurs before the protagonists reach the island, as Susan goes naked SCUBA diving and is witness to a zombie eating a shark.   

It’s difficult to top that.  Fulci tries to do so with gore, giving up on the scanty plot for face-eating, arm-rending, flesh-ripping, splinter-in-eyeball mayhem.  In general, the special effects are realistically stomach-turning.  Gallons of blood are spilled, bright 70’s movie blood like tomato sauce (maybe it was tomato sauce?).

It’s surprising more zombie films aren’t set in the Caribbean, where, after all, zombies originated.  Zombie has pretty island scenery and brightly-colored villages where the zombies roam, and the soundtrack includes both cheerful island music and voodoo drums.  The film even includes a sort of tropical recreation of the cemetery awakening scene from The Plague of the Zombies and many others.

Although more gross than frightening, and not the most intelligent zombie film ever made, Zombie is undeniably entertaining and well worth a look.