As further proof of the sad state of horror films nowadays, I give you the British movie “Deathwatch” and the recently reviewed Spanish/U.S. collaboration “Darkness”. Two films, made by very competent directors using super slick visuals, a big budget, a competent cast, and from their own screenplay. And yet both films are as scary as watching cats walk around my apartment complex. Which is to say I didn’t feel a single chill throughout the whole movie.
“Deathwatch” succeeds a bit more than “Darkness” because it has a simple premise — World War I British soldiers get stuck in a trench occupied by an evil force — and offers no more than that. The build up is fast and the characters are written as so over-the-top that it’s impossible to see them as real people. And best of all, the film kept my attention, mostly because of writer/director Michael J. Bassett’s uncanny eye for detail. (I can only say that if the real-life conditions during the shoot were as bad as it looked onscreen, these people deserve medals for surviving the production.)
The best thing about “Deathwatch” isn’t the story or the cookie cutter characters, but the rain-drenched, blood-smeared, covered-in-mud look of the World War I trenches. It’s dirty, filthy, covered in water, and rats run amok. There are bodies everywhere stinking up the place, and the trench line seems to extend forever for no apparent reason. In a place like this, at a time like this, it’s easy to see how someone can go crazy from just the sight or smell of it. Unfortunately for “Deathwatch”, the screenplay calls for a supernatural force to kill off the characters rather than the characters’ own murderous paranoia.
Unlike another British horror filmed called “The Bunker”, about German soldiers stuck in a haunted bunker during World War II, “Deathwatch” never makes the viewer think the trench is anything but haunted. There is no sense of paranoia or that the whole thing might be a product of overactive imagination coupled with the realities of a bloody war. Instead, it’s clearly made known up front that the perpetrator is of supernatural origin, and just in case we don’t “get” it, CGI barbwires come out of the ground and kills a soldier at one point.
The characters in “Deathwatch” are so forgettable that it wasn’t even worth my time to remember their names. The only character whose name I can think of at the top of my head is lead Jamie Bell, who plays the cowardly Charlie Shakespeare. The only reason I even remember Charlie’s name is because of his recognizable last name, and the fact that all the other characters kept calling him by it.
The rest of the cast consists of disposable faces and personality traits. There’s the murderous psycho, who seems to be murderous and psychotic because, well, just because. There’s the inexperienced Captain, who we all know is just waiting to “lose it.” And of course no war movie would be complete without the tough and dependable Sergeant, who is clearly the heart and soul of the unit. Then there are these guys: the compassionate doctor, the wounded soldier he’s caring for, the foreign outsider, the carefree guy who always bites on a bullet, the unit chaplain, and a couple of other forgettable faces thrown in to build up the bodycount.
Horror movies like “Deathwatch”, which declares itself not to be a thoughtful “ghost story” but a bloody shocker, lives and dies by its kill scenes. “Deathwatch” offers a couple of nice ones, but for the most part the movie is rather weak when it comes to knocking off its many characters. The best scene is the aforementioned sequence with the CGI barbwire. The rest of the deaths come by way of gunshots, bayonet impalements, and good ol fashion blunt force trauma.
“Deathwatch” is visually stunning and the conditions of real trench life during World War I have obviously been meticulously researched and recreated. But “Deathwatch” has no real characters for us to root, and on top of that, these guys don’t look or act like soldiers. If anything, they look like hoodlums in uniform. Also, lead Jamie Bell is tiresome as the nagging and cowardly Charlie, who seems to get more people killed than he saves.
“Deathwatch” is a filthy movie and appropriately so. It has some nice moments, but for the most part it might have worked better as a straight War Movie. Actually, I would have loved to see a movie about the living conditions of soldiers in World War I, known as the first major war to extensively use trench warfare. Give “Deathwatch” some better “soldiers” and make it about men trying to survive the elements as well as the enemy in a rain-drenched stretch of dirt, and this would be one terrific movie.
(See the Finnish War Movie “Winter War” for a good movie about trench warfare.)
Michael J. Bassett (director) / Michael J. Bassett (screenplay)
CAST: Jamie Bell …. Charlie Shakespeare
RÃºaidhrÃ Conroy …. Pvt Chevasse
Laurence Fox …. Captain Jennings
Dean Lennox Kelly …. Pvt McNess