Deathwatch (2002)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 23, 2008  | 
Pathe (UK). Region 2, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. English (FHI). 91 minutes
The Movie
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Starring: Jamie Bell, Ruaidhri Conroy, Laurence Fox, Torben Liebrecht, Dean Lennox Kelly, Kris Marshall, Hans Matheson, Hugh O'Connor, Matthew Rhys, Andy Sirkis, Hugo Speer
Screenplay: Michael J. Bassett
Country: UK
External Links
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Before I begin, some brief words about military horror movies: I FUCKING LOVE THEM!!! There is no more favoured genre at my place, probably due to the rarity of such films, and the general high quality of them. You'll never get boring extraneous drivel in these films, like a shoehorned in romantic subplot, because women weren't in the front line in World Wars One and Two – well, okay, they were on the Russian Front in WW2 and in Spain as well during the Spanish Civil War, but that's not important right now. These films generally focus on building up the plot, generating the horror, and hurling the violence our way – after all, these are soldiers, they have guns – let's tool up and fight horror! There's normally a whole bunch of macho tough guy back and forth, and the films are quite normally character-driven, often peopled by a dependable range of really solid actors, even if there ain't necessarily any A-list stars.

World War One – a time when the world really lost its innocence to the whole concept of, as Wilfred Own put it at the time in the greatest anti-war poem ever written: "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori" ("Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country") – soldiers were coming back from the front in their tens of thousands maimed or dead; death, no, mass slaughter on an industrial scale. In such an instance, making a supernatural horror film based in the trenches of World War One might seem like gilding the lily a bit – the horror was already there, and it was very fucking real indeed.

The Western Front, 1917, and our boys have been invited to a massacre by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Despite years of letting the Germans know when our lads were going to attack and nevertheless sending them marching to their deaths going "over the top", the brass-hats still kept wiping out an entire generation of English youth. They hadn't quite reached the French extreme of actually raining artillery shells down on their own men to make them get out and fight (what a morale-booster that must have been), but they weren't exactly a million miles away. Our point of reference character, or the one we are meant to identify with is Private Shakespeare, who at the outset of the film is being forced out of his trench at gunpoint. He's a scared teenager who lied about his age, having bought into the whole lie about the war being a great adventure.

The opening scene of combat is a frenzied, mayhemic ride, never descending into the over-the-top (if probably realistic) carnage of Saving Private Ryan's opening twenty minutes, but the hammering machine guns, the constant artillery, the screams and the rifle fire, when coupled with the mud, the blood and the barbed wire, make for a pretty abject view of war. The terror young Shakespeare feels is palpable.

Shakespeare's company make it through the battle, and the abnormality begins – night has turned to day, the phosgene gas they've been attacked with turns out to be only fog, and when the boys get to a German trench (the soldier on point treading through the rotting corpse of a German soldier on the way), the weirdness gets weirder. At the other end of the soldier spectrum from Shakespeare is Quinn (Andy Serkis – that's right, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings), a certifiable nutcase who seems to revel in the violence. He's meant to represent the kind of soldier who in Vietnam kept a necklace of ears from everyone he'd killed in combat; Quinn scalps victims. You don't actually realise from his star turn as Gollum just how big, mean and vicious he can look. Here, he's menace and casual violence personified.

The fellas have to hold the trench, despite the fact that one of their number is grievously wounded, and will probably die without further medical attention. This would be that old-fashioned notion of duty that the British used to be so fond of. This war knocked that idea out of them pretty solidly. The trench itself is a maze, with no discernable front line – bit of a drawback in a war – and the Germans (all but one were slain in the initial discovery of the trench) were trying to fight something that was actually in the trench with them, and yet no bodies besides that of other Germans were found. And the trench itself is littered with German corpses, all in an advanced state of decomposition, many having killed each other. The soldiers close down half the trench system with explosive charges, and settle down to wait to be rescued, in the almost constantly pouring rain (60000 gallons a day, according to one of the special features, kids – that's a fuck of a lotta water).     

If Shakespeare is us, horrified by what he sees, and Quinn is a man utterly desensitised to violence, then Captain Jennings, the company commander is the "stiff upper lip" British officer of the day, authoritarian, oblivious to anything but what he perceives as his duty, despite what inhumanity must be committed, or what human dignity might be lost. When the company God-botherer Bradford (the same fella who played the Graham Masters mass-poisoner character in The Young Poisoner's Handbook and who we know is going to turn into a serious mental) raises British HQ, the boys upstairs seem to think that Y Company have been wiped out – and that basically spells the end of any potential help for our fellas. Jennings tells Bradford to keep this a secret from the troops. McNess, our resident Scot, asks the very practical question of why haven't the German soldiers come back for the trench? Shakespeare responds with the equally practical question, will the British soldiers come back for them? Both pretty good questions, if you ask me.

Night has fallen, and guard duty must be set – Starinski, who looks frankly to me like the kind of fella I wouldn't trust around 14 year old girls, draws the short straw. He decides that, when responsible for the life and death of his whole unit, what's the best idea? Simple: get out the dirty postcards you stole off a German soldier's corpse and have a wank. I mean, there's a time and place for everything… Starinski gets surprised during his ménage a moi, and goes to investigate – now I'm not going to tell you what happens, but I will say it was pretty unexpected, and was certainly a novel use of barbed wire.

Jennings and the men are ludicrously convinced, given the evidence, that there's a German soldier still at large in the trenches, and gather all of the corpses together, so as to give him one less place to hide. Bradford is hearing things on the crystal radio set they've found, Quinn is getting more unhinged, Jennings is proving to be utterly inept at being a commander and Shakespeare's growing a pair. He's also asking some very 21st and un-early 20th century questions about why they're doing what they're doing. That kind of inquiry into the nature of warfare would have been rather unlikely from a young working class lad, back in the day, given the English class system being what it was. Talk about directorial intrusion…

There's an assault made on the trench – or isn't there? And the strangeness goes even further. Paranoia and claustrophobia mount rapidly. Jennings makes it very apparent that he's totally unfit for command – shooting one of your own men through the head while in a state of total panic will do that – again with the directorial intrusion; surely not everybody who was an officer in the English army in WW1 was a complete incompetent? Similarly the British class system has a few jabs aimed at it. The unquestioning obedience to those above us is attacked in the character of Sergeant Tate, a hardened veteran who knows better than to stay here in the trench, but steadfastly remains, because Jennings tells him to do so, despite the fact that Jennings just drilled a .45 calibre hole through Hawkstone's head.

Events progress and the company disintegrates like blowing on a dandelion – McNess simply heads for the hills, Quinn beats up Jennings when the Captain was threatening murder on McNess, Tate kicks Quinn's arse to the kerb, Bradford's gone berserk, Quinn escapes – that sense of order and duty has been flung out of a window, baby along with bathwater. At our base level, when the chips are down, we go with our animal instincts. And the instinct to survive is the strongest one we've got.

Mind you, the second most strong is our fear of the unknown. And that has certainly taken hold here. Like in the superb WW2 military horror film, The Bunker, we never know for sure what the force is that is doing the killing – I could extemporise with you about it, but I'd prefer that you make up your own mind; that's what the film is asking you to do. All I will say is that sometimes places take on the feeling of what happened at them – a mate of mine went to the Buchenwald extermination camp (now a silent reminder of the atrocities that took place there, and a warning to not let them happen again) and told me that the feeling of evil was palpable there; birds don't sing in the forest and there's a silence that is uncanny to the point of being fearsome. The same kind of feeling is being evoked here. With so much death around, isn't it inevitable that the landscape itself would start to reflect it? For a more objective cinematic reference, think The Shining. I'll say no more.

Things get worse at an exponential rate – everyone has turned on each other, and the mortality rate quickens; I'm sorry to get all abbreviated on you here, but it'd spoil the ending badly if I were any more precise – what I will tell you is that one character gets a line that actually explains everything, but it's only apparent at the end of the film, or on a second watching. That sense of claustrophobia and paranoia I was mentioning before escalate wildly, and the movie builds very efficiently to a brutal and unexpected climax. End of synopsis.

The setting of Deathwatch is as much a character as any walking about in it – a cold, barren muddy, rain-drenched wasteland. The only things still standing after 3 years of constant bombardment are the stanchions holding up the barbed wire. There's no life in this place, only death. It's almost like Nature died. The colour palette of the film is primarily what used to be called in the 17th century, "the Sadd Colours"; greys, blacks and browns. It gives the whole film a muted, sombre tone. I feel for the actors who performed here – this must have been physically one of the most unpleasant and quite demanding shoots of all time. The cold, the wet, the mud – to say it would have been uncomfortable would be the understatement of the century.

The performances power this film – with a lesser cast (and I realise that none of them are household names) this would have fallen as flat as a pancake. As an ensemble piece, it's pretty impressive given what would be by Hollywood standards a low budget. This isn't one of my reviews where I praise the low budget Z-grade schlock-buster trash films I so dearly love, and which are so totally fucking entertaining, like the Matteis, the Castellaris or the D'Amatos – this is totally gripping top-shelf cinema. The fact that Deathwatch isn't a better known film is a fucking crime. I won't say it's entirely historically accurate (Quinn's barbarian approach to WW1 combat dress is a little dubious), but it is gripping, tense and quite unnerving – and totally worth your time watching. Do yourself a favour.   
A crystal clear anamorphic 2.35:1 presentation. You can feel each drop of rain, every step in the muddy earth, every bit of screen violence on display. A very good quality transfer.
This definitely makes the most of a 5.1 sound-system – the strange noises heard in the trench, the battle-noises; things sound like they're happening all around you. And when the tension starts to mount, that becomes very spooky indeed. At one point of the film I got so freaked out that when a noise on the soundtrack happened, I leapt out of my armchair and span around, expecting something to be behind me. You get immersed in this film.
Extra Features
Okay, I think that three commentary tracks are a little excessive (not to mention annoying for a reviewer). There's one with Jamie Bell, Laurence Fox and Michael J Bassett, one just with Andy Serkis (which I'm thinking might have been cashing in a little on the success of a certain big budget trilogy Serkis had just been involved in…), and one just with director Michael J Bassett (the double dip!). We also get some on-set interviews with the cast and crew – these are never usually all that interesting. Quite often what you get is: "I'm blah-blah. I play this character you've never heard of. I try to do this thing which sounds ridiculous when it's told to you out of context." Thanks very much. By the way, don't watch these interviews first – quite a few spoilers are contained within, and also some interesting information, if you dig the film. There's also a featurette on the making of the film – meh, not bad, not great. A nice touch – some parts of the film, it's the director talking direct to a digital handheld camera; makes it a bit more personal.   

There's also a behind the scenes featurette which is a complete "why bother" kind of experience. It certainly adds nothing to the viewing experience. It's an un-narrated barrage of shots from the film, but from behind the camera. Umm…I just watched the movie – what purpose is this serving?

The original theatrical trailer – didn't I say I'd just watched the film?

Deleted/alternate scenes – there's quite often a reason why these were deleted. Sure, to have them for completism's sake is good, but meh… Mind you, that said, there is one that I wish could have been properly finished and inserted into the film. It would have been brutal.

What's also cool is that my copy of the film came with a free promo disc for Neil Marshall's The Descent. No, it's not the movie, but seeing as I stupidly bought the R4 bare-bones disc as soon as it came off the rental shelves, it was nice to finally get some special features. There's not a great deal – what you get is a "key scene from the feature with exclusive insights from director Neil Marshall", an exclusive behind the scenes featurette, some material on the production design, and the theatrical trailer. Like I said, not a lot, but nice to see UK horror working together to cross-promote, particularly when these are two of the best English language horror films (and two of the best English horror films) of the last ten years. Plus, any time I get to see Alex Reid, one of the hottest women I've ever laid an eye on, is a red letter day on my calendar.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This is a film that just keeps on giving. It gets meaner, more paranoid, more brutal, and more horrifying as it winds its way to the end of its 91 minute run time – there is not a wasted second. If you want a taut, tense, claustrophobic, grim piece of psychological/supernatural terror with excellent performances, I can't recommend this one highly enough. I fear that maybe I've talked it up too much, but you know what? Watching it now for the fourth time, I don't think I have. Sure, the messages about the class system, the anti-war thing, human nature leading to almost constant conflict and loyalty and so forth get a little laboured, but this is good quality viewing.

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