At the beginning before the credits, a naked woman (a prostitute), wrapped in a bath towel, greets an unseen male client at night. The scene is a creepy one as she does all of the talking while the camera angle is of the eyes of the guest. Before climbing onto a table, she asks her customer if he still wants her to play dead. The unseen man pulls out a large knife and stabs her to death.
Martin Bells (Ewan McGregor), a law student, has just taken a job as a night watchman (8 pm-4 am) in an eerie city morgue. A strange and eccentric retiring night watchman (Lonny Chapman) escorts Bells throughout the main premises, telling him anecdotes and advising him to "get a radio." The building, unoccupied at night, houses not just a morgue but also a forensics lab where dismembered human body parts are preserved in jars filled with formaldehyde. The hallway is long. In the morgue's cold room, above each covered body is an alarm cord, in case the corpse rises (!) (according to the retiring watchman). The room door has no inside handles. The watchman's rounds include a time clock on the far wall of the cold room, so that he has to enter the entire room to get to it. The night watchman himself works alone in an office at a large lobby unlit after hours. Moths trapped in the office lighting provide a flickering look. On the office wall is a 19th century photo of Lewis Powell (a/k/a Lewis Payne), one of the assassins of Abraham Lincoln. The creaky elevator sticks while strange noises sometimes emanate from the building. The morgue is indeed an ominous place. And for the first part of the film there is genuine eeriness; in the second half the movie collapses.
In the city a serial murderer is on the loose; he kills prostitutes. Police inspector Tom Cray (Nick Nolte) stops into the morgue to advise Bells that a fresh body, a murdered young lady, is being delivered. The killer removes the eyes of the dead women. The cop might have added that a molester of corpses is also running amok. One night the emergency red light in the watchman's office flickers. Bells has to check it out alone as the night doctor is not available for 30 minutes. It turns out that Bells' unhinged friend James (Josh Brolin) has made one of his practical jokes. He had somehow slipped into the morgue one evening and hidden under a sheet on a gurney in the cold room and slowly raised himself as from the dead. Boo! I scared you! Other strange events also occur, and they make little sense. One of these involves the body of a dead prostitute that was dragged down the corridor to the exit door, leaving a trail of smeared blood everywhere. "Why," one may ask? And how could the killer sneak in and do what he did, including clean-up? And how did Martin miss seeing it the first time he was there, in the well-lit cold room? When I first saw this, I thought it could be the watchman dreaming, but no. Anyway, soon Bells realizes that he is being framed by the killer. By the way, the murderer once worked in the medical examiner's office years ago and was dismissed for necrophilia. How can Bells trap the real killer?
The script is below par. Character development is weak, and we never know the motivations of McGregor, Patricia Arquette (his girlfriend Katherine), Brad Dourif (the duty doctor), Nolte, or anybody else. Brolin's purpose is to serve as the red herring. The use of "This Old Man (Knick-Knack Paddy-Whack)" song has a reason that will escape many, although during the denouement the killer whistles the tune, alerting the Patricia Arquette character to her precarious situation. We never do discover the significance of Powell's photo in the watchman's office. The main achievement of the movie is the creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere of the morgue. But the film could have been done so much better! Remade from the Danish film, "Nattevagten" (1994).