Thursday, September 11, 2008

Deathwatch (2002)

A while back I reviewed the K-Horror / Military Horror offering, R-Point, for our beloved blog. This inspired me to track down some of the other war-related horror material out there and to my dismay, I found that the genre is really lacking in content.

Some of the more familiar titles most horror buffs will quickly identify are The Keep and Below, as well as the obvious ones such as Dog Soldiers and Aliens.

I've managed to track down a couple of the more obscure war / horror movies out there and to my dismay, found out that there is quite a sliding scale between the good, the bad, and the ugly titles of this particular genre.

Deathwatch takes place during World War I somewhere on the Western Front and drops us off smackdab in the middle of "everybattle." We're hastily introduced to Pte. Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) and seven more British soldiers in the near ritualized process of girding their courage and preparing their souls for the coming assault on German machine gun nests.

The battle is as bloody as one could imagine, and then inexplicably the shooting stops and night turns into day. The members of Y Company soon find themselves behind enemy lines, only to discover that everyone is dead save for two German soldiers. In their haste, the Brits kill the Germans despite the fact that the Germans are clearly trying to warn the British that something bad is going on.

But, horror movies wouldn't be horror movies if people actually listened to cautionary advice.

Like R-Point, the assault on the soldiers is dual in nature.

Not only is Y Company in physical peril from supernatural forces, but the stress accompanied by trying to comprehend something they're unable to understand and destroy something that they're unable to kill pushes the unfortunate soldiers beyond the limits of their mental and physical endurance.

The fate of these eight men is to either perish or go insane.

On the DVD commentary, director Michael Bassett sheepishly admits that Deathwatch was his first motion picture and the film definitely suffers more than its share of freshman gaffes.

The soldiers wander aimlessly around an apparently endless trench towards predictable encounters with the unknown but even when things become tense, neither the tempo of the musical score nor the pacing of the action speeds up all that much.

It's almost as if this is a stage play or a spoken word version of a Wilfred Owen poem masquerading as a movie.

To his credit, Bassett does his best to save the best stuff for last but once again, the pacing is so deliberate that there are more "war is hell" philosophical blows to the back of your head than there are actual shocks to your system. In the attempt to follow the "never show the monster" rule of thumb, Bassett only succeeds in playing his hand too early rather than adding a sense of dread.

The ending is very clever but thanks to the aforemention deliberate pacing coupled with a morality play focus, it is totally expected.

If there is anything that this film gets spot on, it is the scenery. Absolutely everything and everyone is covered in mud, leaving you no doubt that you are in the middle of some dairy pasture turned hellhole somewhere in France. The "Trench" seems a bit stagy at first but that quickly turns into a non-issue. As events unfold, you quickly realize that the "Trench" is less of a place and more of a metaphor.

The themes Deathwatch explores are universal and relevant, but not presented in such a holier than thou manner as to make the movie unwatchable.

If you're worried about the directorial future of Michael Bassett, fear not. Mr. Bassett certainly learned from the shortcomings of this movie, because I've seen his second film entitled Wilderness (2005), and it is quite the effective, mean-spirited thriller.

This leaves me hopeful that Bassett's next project, a full-blown screen presentation of Conan creator Robert E Howard's lesser known pulp icon, Solomon Kane, will be even better.

1 comment:

Doug Tilley said...

From the films i've seen, i'm not sure that there has been a war/horror film yet that *really* manages to meld the two genres fully successfully. Maybe supernatural elements don't really meld well with the real life horrors of war, or maybe I just haven't seen the right films.

I really like Jamie Bell as an actor, and I find World War I to be undervalued in terms of cinema, so i'm definitely going to check this one out.