Wow, the Film Club deadline snuck up on us, didn't it? Did any of you watch the choice this time around? If you're cool you did.
Michael J Bassett’s 2002 WWI horror film Deathwatch opens much as Peter Weir’s 1981 WWI drama Gallipoli ends: a group of young soldiers are about to emerge from their trench into a battle they’re all but sure to lose. The men charge into a hail of bullets and a gas attack, and somehow, the 11th batallion manages to emerge unscathed. Where exactly they emerge, however, is another matter entirely.
Wandering through a thick fog, the soldiers realize they’re in enemy territory when they come across a massive, labyrinthine German trench. While it’s mostly filled with ooey, gooey rotting corpses, there is still a live enemy soldier here; he’s scared witless and implores the British troops to leave, telling them that the ground is evil.
We wouldn’t have a movie if the soldiers simply replied “Oh, right. Thanks, mate! Cheers. Pip pip.”, now would we? No, we would not, and so the Brits decide to secure and maintain the German trench. They make brief radio contact with Command, who doesn’t believe the men are who they say they are: over the crackle of the airwaves, the soldiers are informed that there were no survivors of the gas attack. Hmm. Curious. No matter! The men must secure their hold and continue to wait for their fellow troops.
However, we wouldn’t have a horror movie if they held this trench and nothing evil actually occurred, now, would we? No, we would not. Over the next few days and nights, the men are subjected to all manner of terrors: barbed wire with a mind of its own, hallucinations of imminent attacks from foreign troops, mental breakdowns that result in lethal shootouts, and a shocking sequence wherein one poor soldier learns that the worst thing to happen to him isn't getting shot in the spine.
Bassett has assembled your usual motley assortment of soldier types: the naïve youngster who doesn’t want to kill anyone, the psychotic thrillseeker who wants to kill everyone, the seasoned career soldier in charge of the boys, and the snooty career officer in charge of everyone who loses his shit in the heat of battle. While we’ve seen these characters countless times, they never felt like tired sterotypes- whether this is the result of the writing or the acting, I’m not sure, though both served the story well. Sure, Andy “Gollum” Serkis might be a wee bit over-the-top in his performance as the maniacal Pvt Quinn, but he’s fun to watch regardless.
Deathwatch is definitely a creepy flick- we’re never quite sure about what exactly is going on in the trenches, what the threat is, or how the men can overcome it. At the film’s end, all is explained- at least in a manner that’s open to interpretation. I’ll most likely bring up my theories about what happened and what it all meant in the comments here- I don’t want to spoil anything for peeps who’ve yet to see this.
The atmosphere and weather contribute hugely to the creepiness of the film: there’s pervasive fog and a near-relentless rain, and I couldn’t help but think the actors must have suffered through quite an uncomfortable shoot. There’s plenty of gore and goo for the folks who enjoy that sort of thing- if there’s anything I’ve learned from Bassett’s two films (read my review of his other film, Wilderness, here), it’s that he’s liberal with the blood.
The one major fault with Deathwatch, I think, is that I never really got a sense of the space occupied by the soldiers, the German trench. It was a confusing layout, and while that notion serves a purpose, I never felt like the setting was another character in the film. In films where the location is essential to the plot, the location needs to be clearly defined and made “real”, no matter the size or layout- think of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the cave system in The Descent, or hell, even the train in Terror Train. In Deathwatch, I could never discern one muddy corner from the next, nor could I figure out the positions of the soldiers planted everywhere in relation to one another. Had there been a better handle on the trenches, the film would have been positively oozing with dread rather than…err…trickling with it.
Overall, I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a wholly original entry into the modern horror scene, and it’s an ambitious (if not entirely successful) feature debut from writer/director Michael Bassett. He’s undoubtedly on my short list of horror makers to watch.
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