Horror Movie Double Header: Night Watch & The Hills Have Eyes

The kind people at Fox Searchlight (the specialty releasing division of 20th Century Fox) invited me to their Horror Movie Double Header on the Fox lot yesterday: screenings of NIGHT WATCH and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. In between, there was a reception with Timur Bekmambetov and Wes Craven.

I attended with slightly mixed feelings: based on the trailer, I was eagerly anticipating NIGHT WATCH, but I had little hope for HILLS HAVE EYES, which is a remake of 1970s film written and directed by Craven (who acted as producer of the new version). Although I'm a fan of much of Craven's work, HILLS HAVE EYES is not one of my favorites -- it just seems like a step-down from his debut LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (i.e., it's slightly more polished but lacks the same intensity).

Curiously, both films confounded my expectations: NIGHT WATCH was not quite as good as I had hoped, and HILL HAVE EYES was a bit better than expected. NIGHT WATCH is still the superior film by a long shot, but I was glad that the double bill encouraged me to see a film I might not have sought out on its own.

NIGHT WATCH is a Russian film, the first of a "trilogy" (more on that later) about an eternal war between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, which are perfectly balanced and have forged a truce. The "Night Watch" of the title are basically a police force of "Others" (humans with special powers) that ensures the forces of Darkness abide by the truce; their counterparts are the "Day Watch" (which is the title of the second film in the series). Both sides co-exist relatively peacefully under the truce, but there is a prophecy of an Other who will tip the scales between Light and Dark, leading to a renewal of all-out war.

The film is quite good -- more action that horror. It avoids the silly martial arts extravagance of the UNDERWORLD movies but does make excellent use of CGI to portray the paranormal events. Although obviously inspired by American fantasy-horror films, NIGHT WATCH has a look and feel different from them, thanks to its Russian heritage; there is a drab monotone to the settings and photography, a sense of living in a run-down world.

Unfortunately, this sometimes bleeds over into the pacing, which occasionally feels slow, in spite of the abundance of action. And the script's attempt to weave the various story threads together is not quite seamless, with a few ends left dangling. Needless to say, there is no real ending, because the story has to set up the sequel. Even so, NIGHT WATCH is easily more than entertaining enough to leave you wanting more.

And the Fox publicists definitely tried to tease our interest, cue-ing up a clip from DAY WATCH and telling us we were the first ones in the U.S. to see it. If anything DAY WATCH looks as though it might be even better than its predecessor. Obviously, it's hard to tell from a clip, but with the exposition out of the way in the first film, it's easy to imagine that the sequel would have an easier time of telling its story, and it's bound to have a more dramatically satisfying ending.

After the film, Timur Bekmambetov (who co-wrote the script and directed the film, which is based on a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko) was supposed to appear for a Q&A session, but he was late, so the event made a smooth segue into the reception outside the screening room. Wes Craven was there, moving from table to table, answering questions about producing the HILLS HAVE EYES remake. Soon, Bekmambetov showed up and answered a few questions about making a fantasy epic in Russia.

Of course, the big challenge was creating the computer-generated special effects in a country without an established tradition of doing that kind of work. Fortunately, the artists are there; according to Bekmambetov, it was just a matter of finding them:

"With CG, we had a lot of small studios in Russia, not big studios like Pixar," he explained. "We had studios with five/ten talented people. We researched and created a net, a society, a community, and all of them were involved [with NIGHT WATCH]."

Like SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN II, NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH were filmed back to back; however, a third film in the series will be shot separately, in English. Because the films are based on a trilogy of novels, this has led to some confusion among fans, who cannot understand why the conclusion of the film trilogy would switch horses in mid-stream.

Bekmambetov explained that the structure of the films does not conform exactly to the novels; the English-language NIGHT WATCH 3 will be a separate entity, co-produced by Fox. Rather like Sam Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS, this "sequel" will be designed as a stand-alone film that can reach a wider audience, many of whom will not have seen the first two.

But that doesn't mean the Russian-language trilogy is unfinished; part three was already incorporated into the second film.” Originally, it was fourteen episodes, and the fourteen episodes became the first and second movie," Bekmambetov explained of the story. "Then when we were shooting [NIGHT WATCH], the writer wrote the story for the third movie, and it became a trilogy. When we released the first movie, because of rights, we understood we didn't have time to produce a Russian trilogy, and we combined two stories for the second movie. The trilogy becomes a diptych."

Perhaps a more apt comparison for NIGHT WATCH 3 would be to THE GRUDGE, which was also a redo of a foreign-language film that received a small art house release in the U.S. Apparently, Bekmambetov insisted on U.S. theatrical exposure when Fox came asking for a chance to make an English-language version of NIGHT WATCH, based on its success in Russia. (The film earned $16-million in its native land -- eight times more than any other Russian film.)

Bekmambetov was closely involved with the U.S. release of NIGHT WATCH, co-writing the English translation, which is brilliantly rendered in subtitles generated with digital effects that help convey the tone of the spoken Russian dialogue: words fade in and out, are wiped off the screen as actors walk by, shift color and size to convey emphasis. At one point, as a boy suffers a nosebleed in a swimming pool, the subtitles even turn red and disperse like drops of blood dissolving in water.

Bekmambetov shrugged a bit when I asked him about the decision to use subtitles in this way, as if the decision were an obvious one. "In Russia, we had the voice," he said, pointing his hand to his larynx for emphasis. "We needed to show that somehow. The voice told us what to do."

After the reception, it was back into the screening room for THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Instead of getting right into the feature presentation, the publicists first showed a trailer-clip combo from the film and asked for reactions from the crowd. Considering what an unscientific sampling this was, I can't imagine much useful information being gleaned. I suspect the true purpose was to make the assembled journalists (who write mostly for horror magazines and websites) feel like a part of the process, so that they would be more sympathetic to the film and, consequently, be more likely to write nice things about it.

But never mind my suspicions. As I said above, the HILLS HAVE EYES remake turned out to be somewhat better than expected. It's not a totally successful movie by any means, but parts of it are enjoyable. Which parts will depend a lot on your taste in movies, because HLLS HAVE EYES is all over the map.

In fact, it reminded me of that old joke: "If you don't like the weather in [fill in the blank with the appropriate city or state], just wait fifteen minutes." The same holds true for THE HILLS HAVE EYES: if you don't like what you're seeing, just wait fifteen minutes: the film skips from silly slasher stuff (you're supposed to think the gore is cool) to grueling horror (you're supposed to be genuinely terrorized) to revenge-action (you're supposed to cheer when the good guys turn the tables), and it winds up with one of those obligatory "it's-not-really-over" stings that's supposed to send you out of the theatre with either a chill or a chuckle, depending on you mind-set.

The different pieces don't really fit together, but as I said, the variety at least kept the film interesting from time to time, and I will admit that I enjoyed seeing the pet dog (which belongs to the unhappy campers beset by radioactive mutants in the desert) sink his fangs into the bad guys. But the whole thing really is ridiculous: the mutants have no trouble killing off people, but for some reason a dog is just too tough for them.

By the way, I'm sick of horror movies where the action is staged like championship wrestling, with the supposedly merciless killers throwing their victims around -- this just puts some distance between the two characters, giving the victims time to regain their breath and fight back. If you were a homicidal mutant, and you had your hands on the person you wanted to kill, wouldn't you just finish him off and be done with it?

And I'm really sick of the severed finger gore effect: it's been in HOUSE OF WAX, THREE EXTREMES, and WOLF CREEK. Isn't it about time we moved on to something new -- like, maybe eye-gouging?

Anyway, as often happens in this kind of situation, the most horrifying thing about the evening was not the films but the post-film reaction. This was an invitation-only audience, mostly made up journalists and fans devoted to the horror genre, and listening in on their reactions has its own queasy charm. Complaints overheard in the men's room were especially disturbing: not enough gore, too tame, etc. One enthusiastic soul seemed disappointed that the final shot of HILL merely implied more trouble for the survivors; he wanted the film to end with a town-full of previously unseen mutants emerging at the last minute to wipe out the good guys.

This was almost as much fun as the guy after the ScreamfestLA screening of WOLF CREEK, who was so thrilled about the "head on a stick." (You can read about it here, but you will have to scroll down a bit to find it.)