"Deliver them from evil"
In the middle of the First World War, nine British soldiers caught behind enemy lines seek refuge in a complex network of German trenches. They soon discover that they aren't alone in the trench and what is hunting them down isn’t a German soldier.
I do like a good war-based horror film, partly because the real horrors of war are far scarier than anything a writer could dream up for the screen, but also partly due to the sense of man vs monster that such outings can conjure up. Soldiers form a unique bond serving with each other during war time, as they know they have to depend on each other in life-or-death situations. They are a tight-knit group, closer than family in many respects, so it makes filmic sense (even if it is exploitative) to pit this type of cohesive unit up against perils even more deadly than the human enemies they face. How does discipline, bravery and masculine bravado deal with supernatural or monstrous forces?
There’s a real lack of decent horror outings based upon the First and Second World Wars – filmmakers just don’t seem to get it right. The likes of The Bunker and The Keep promise much but for various reasons, they just failed to completely click. Deathwatch is another – it has some great potential but just doesn’t anything decent thing with it. The introduction is all guns blazing, with the soldiers going over-the-top and experiencing the agony of no man’s land. The film is very disorientating here with the editing, the noise and the smoke but it’s designed like that for a purpose to replicate the sheer chaos of going over-the-top. Anyone with even half a brain can spot the big plot twist ending coming a mile away from a certain point in the introduction and it’s a pity it was signposted so blatantly as it detracts from the ensuing narrative.
Deathwatch is shot with a bleak colour palette, with greys and browns dominating the screen and reflecting the grim realities of trench warfare. This is a world where mud is about the only thing there is an abundance of. The trench sets look realistic and very claustrophobic, and the weather is constantly raining or foggy, adding to the bleak atmosphere. This must have been awful to shoot as an actor. The film also does a great of conveying the fact that there’s something amiss about this place, which is a task in itself as we all know how horrific trench warfare was, and the signs for them successfully leaving are ominous. But then the film proceeds to do very little with it – it’s all well and good in creating some decent atmosphere but it needs to serve a purpose.
Deathwatch does a decent job in catering to the horror crowd with some of the basics. There are red mists of blood, wailing and moaning noises, piles of dead bodies (some wrapped gruesomely in barbed wire), blood dripping down the sides of trenches and copious amounts of rats – the well-crafted visual nightmare is clear to see. However, there’s no real sense of narrative linking it all together. It’s not quite a ghost story. It’s not quite a slasher. There’s no hint of zombies. No real monstrous menace. Just a lot of things happening that can’t quite be explained by the characters, as one-by-one they succumb to various incidents. It’s very much a cycle of each character falling victim to paranoia or madness before they’re killed off by something. Things make a bit more sense (to some degree) with the ambiguous ending but the morality-play twist just reeks of desperation on the part of the writers as if they had no other way to conclude the story.
The characters do drift off a bit too much into stereotype: the upper class captain who doesn’t have the respect of his men; the aggressive psychotic who just wants to kill Germans anyway he can; the Bible-thumping believer who feels they are part of a bigger plan; the pasty-faced rookie who is too naive; the tough sergeant who the men look up to more than the captain; and the cynical doom monger. The easiest way to distinguish them is by their accents, as each one is conveniently given a regional accent to not only allow the audience to tell them apart, but also use our knowledge of accents to put two and two together in regards to potential character traits. It’s fairly cheap characterisation but it works as well as it needs to.
In his first post-Billy Elliot role, Jamie Bell is awkward in the lead and needs the help of some reliable character actors to support him. Laurence Fox is decent as the foppish Captain Jennings, whilst most UK viewers will recognise Kris Marshall from the old BT adverts. Andy Serkis steals the show (when doesn’t he?) as the slightly-deranged Quinn, hamming it up to no end in a trademark nut-job performance. The cast is decent all round, it’s a shame they don’t have much to work with - sitting around looking glum in a grim trench can get a little repetitive.
Deathwatch is highly atmospheric and very creepy, doing a great job in setting up what could have been a fantastically devilish horror. Sadly, there’s so much wasted potential here but this kind of goes along with the film’s period setting. The film works as a metaphor for the bleakness, pointlessness and futility of the First World War, with the expectations of the soldiers going off to fight in the glorious war suddenly dashed with the reality of trench warfare and a life of hardship a nice companion for Deathwatch raising hopes with the audience, only to dash it with little end result.
Director(s): M. J. Bassett
Writer(s): M. J. Bassett
Actor(s): Jamie Bell, Rúaidhrí Conroy, Mike Downey, Laurence Fox, Torben Liebrecht, Kris Marshall, Hans Matheson
Duration: 94 mins