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Night Watchmen, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Rent-a-cops versus vampire clowns seems like it has potential."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's telling that this movie isn't named "Vampire Clowns", because if you're going to tell your friends about the crazy horror comedy you saw the other night, the vampire clowns are what they're going to pick up on even if you purposefully don't lead with that. It's certainly a bigger hook than night watchmen, but ultimately the name is honest, because this movie does wind up being more about the wacky antics between the inept security guards than the actual vampires trying to suck their blood.

They're guarding the Baltimore Gazette, with a new guy(Max Gray Wilbur) - whose last job was fronting a heavy-metal band but seems to be going for something more grounded now - starting and doing all the grunt work for tough-talking Ken (Ken Arnold), dorky Jiggetts (Kevin Jiggetts), and mysterious Sicilian immigrant Luca (Dan DeLuca). There aren't a whole lot of people working the night shift; aside from Willy the janitor (Matter Servitto), just some folks working on the magazine section, and it says something that Ken using the security cameras to follow his crush Karen (Kara Luiz) while ignoring her friend Penny (Diona Reasonover) isn't nearly as off-putting as nearly everything Randall (James Remar) is doing. It's a quiet night even when delivery men drop a crate meant for the biological research lab down the road off. Never mind the question of why such a place would be awaiting the coffin of Blimpo the Clown, the popular local entertainer whose entire troupe mysteriously vanished in Romania.

Whether the filmmakers are going for extra-gory splatter or just having everybody call the new guy "Rajeeve" because that's what the nametag on the uniform he's given says despite his being pretty darn white (although it's arguable that the African-American Jiggetts is even more whitebread), it's really, really, really broad humor. The writers will go for the easy joke at every opportunity that presents itself, but that's not the worst thing a comedy can do: If a joke is just sitting there, these guys don't feel too proud to pick it up and run with it, especially if it's not going to get in the way of the really good one that might take a little more work. And while director Mitchell Altieri has mostly done straight horror, he's got the rhythms of this sort of rapid-fire comedy down. It's briskly-paced enough and filled with enough splatstick that if one joke doesn't land, one of the next three might, and he's willing to move along to the next one quickly rather than something hang in the air with the stink of death on it.

The cast also does a good job of selling it, feeling like a group that knows each other well and can bounce off each other like a well-oiled machine. Given that two of the writers are also members of the cast playing characters likely close enough to their own personae that they might as well use the same names (Kevin Jiggetts joins writers Ken Arnold and Dan DeLuca in that club), that's quite possibly the case, and the ones that are working with each other for the first time fit in like they've been together for years. They are all good at physical comedy, and can make repetition work for them rather than seem like they've only got a few jokes to work with.

You don't need a whole lot of cash to do banter - just charisma, which they've generally got - which is good, because while this isn't quite a micro-budget film, it can get a bit stretched when trying to get serious and put its characters in danger. Altieri, Arnold, DeLuca, and co-writer Jamie Nash aren't bad at making the vampire stuff work and occasionally throwing in a clever detail or two, but it's the sort of movie that scares its audience less than it has the characters scream, and will pour a bunch of vampires into a cube farm where there's no room to move but leave open spaces very empty, making the scale of the threat ambiguous, which only gets worse when it tries to expand beyond its enclosed space. It will claim a crisis and show a containable nuisance, and then tends to be a little too goofy and fond of its characters for the audience to actually feel much danger.

"The Night Watchmen" has a number of issues with the horror part of horror comedy, squandering some opportunities early to get a quick vampire horde and only hinting at clown-based creepiness.. It gets more laughs than it outright missed, though, and doesn't string things out past the point where they're not funny anymore.

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originally posted: 08/11/17 13:54:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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