Nattens Engel (1998)

A young woman inherits a large manor house in the Danish countryside and so she travels there with her boyfriend and her bestie. Intrigued by her peculiar family history, the three friends read stories which are collected in an old book – stories concerning an unfortunate vicar who got infected with vampirism and his later notoriety.

You may realise from the plot summary that this film has an odd structure. There are three of these rather lengthy stories from the mysterious book, all set in different periods of time. These tell the life and times of that particular vicar-turned-vampire. Arguably though, he is not the central character in at least two of these, so this film has the character of an episodic film, with different main characters in each segment. These stories are enclosed by the frame narrative (the three young people in the manor house) which at the end, with less than 15 minutes to go, is refashioned into being the film’s centre of attention.

Of the three stories, the first is not that bad, apart from the fact that the “original” vampire in this scene looks like an oversized Gremlin, invoking painful memories of the unfortunate appearance of The Strain’s Master in the process. But it is a “historical” scene, set in 1850, and they made a bit of an effort with costumes, etc., and the scene features some decent acting, in part thanks to a short appearance by Svend Johansen. Tonally, it is trying to imitate traditional vampire hunting stories in a Stokeresque tradition.

The second scene, probably set in the early 1980s, is a bad attempt to copy the tone and feel of From Dusk Till Dawn. Nothing here really fits, including the musical score. The sole redeeming feature of this story is the short appearance by Game of Thrones’ own Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.

The third story is a horror drama with a female victim/protagonist, revolving around a demonic pregnancy, and it features all the hallmarks of that particular sub-genre. No redeeming features in that story, I am afraid, though Ulrich Thomsen certainly tries his best in spite of the script. Confusingly, this story seems to be set in 1998, which is the year Nattens Engel was released and, we have to assume, also the year the frame narrative takes place. Which is slightly odd as it would have made more sense if more time had passed. Not that that would have saved the film.

As you can see, each of the three stories is an homage to one particular vampire or general horror subgenre, with the frame narrative arguably representing a fourth subgenre: three young people in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere, with all the additional ingredients of that particular subgenre: no car (= no possibility to get away), bad cell-phone reception, alcohol, music, hormones, nudity, etc., plus all the occult stuff.

And you have to give Shaky Gonzáles, the guy behind this film, props for that: it is at least an interesting idea and an admirable effort to use such an almost episodic structure to mimic four different tones and genres and try to still create one coherent film. However, it was also way too ambitions. I am not sure if there is a way to pull this off successfully, but if there is one, Gonzáles certainly has not found it.

That Nattens Engel does not manage to find a way to reconcile the different tones of its various parts is one thing; but what actually turns this Danish flick into a jaw-droppingly bad film is the nonsensical dialogue and completely unnatural interaction between most of the characters throughout the film. Everything that these characters do or say is completely arbitrary. There is absolutely no consistency in their opinions or their decisions. They change their view from one scene to the next, make statements that oppose what used to be their own position only seconds ago, or they say one thing and then do the other.

And I am not talking about ordinary plot holes here. Here, we have situations where a remark in one sentence can cause a logical black hole that will swallow half the story that preceded it.

One of the “highlights” is the moment in which a massive plot hole in one scene is explained away through dialogue in the frame narrative. Clearly the frame narrative was shot at a later point and moulded to fit the three stories. And when they realised that they were missing a scene (or possibly had a writing error on their hands) in their third story, the frame narrative had to fix it somehow: “there are pages missing in the book”, we are told, and so the fact that one character suddenly has possession of a thing we never heard about before must clearly mean that another character gave it to her in a moment we were not able to witness because it is described in one of the missing pages. Yikes!

 

The sets are limited in number and many are rather small. A lot of effort went into the set decoration of the manor house crypt, but it all looks very much like Halloween decoration rather than antiques or historical artefacts. The camera work is not bad, but there are many close-ups and quick cuts in fight scenes, so they are trying to gloss over the fact that there is no decent choreography. Always an efficient method if you are operating on a shoe-string budget.

Also, there is an at times extensive use of gore elements, which is probably an effort to hide the fact that as a viewer you never feel any suspense in this film.

 

I am not even going to talk about the acting. It is mostly bad, but there is simply very little the actors could have done with this script, so its likely not their fault. Shaky González did not only direct this film, but he is also the co-writer, so he is doubly to blame for the unnatural interaction between the characters. But I guess with a guy named Shaky we should be thankful that he was not operating the cameras as well.

This film features some Danish performers in minor roles who would later come to fame as great actors, e. g. Thomas Bo Larsen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Ulrich Thomsen, Mads Mikkelsen – but I guess they all would very much prefer to forget that Nattens Engel is part of their filmography.

 

I have seen many bad films in my life, arguably even some that are worse than this one. But I have rarely seen a film with such bad writing and such shoddy dialogue, not to mention the dumb ending. After only four (!) minutes of running time, I found the frame narrative’s characters so annoying that I was desperately hoping they would die soon. This film should be avoided, but it might hold some potential for “bad film” enthusiasts.

Although I respect what the film-makers were trying to do, and realise that there was apparently quite some effort going into various elements of the production, the end result for me is a mere 2 out of 10.

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