It is a tragedy of modern British cinema that home grown movies struggle so much to get shown at any screens across the country. So many decent UK films come and go with hardly a trace and the ones that do are usually quirky comedies, almost never horror. Deathwatch came out over a decade ago and has already been forgotten by the general public, if it was even noticed at all. And yet the thing is it bucked the trend and was (in relative terms) a box office success making just shy of £900k at the UK box office. Okay that doesn’t sound like much compared to all the Hollywood blockbusters, but this is an oblique horror movie set in the trenches of World War One. Its not exactly mainstream and it should be dug up again and remembered for smart little feature it is.
First thing you will notice about Deathwatch is the quality of the cast – Jamie Bell, fresh from Billy Elliot, is great as the young innocent frozen in fear at the horrors of war. He’s surrounded by lots of solid up-and-comers like Laurence Fox, Matthew Rhys and Kris Marshall, who gets to wank on screen, which is nice. The soldiers, while not exactly deep character-wise, are all played fairly naturally, especially by Hugo Speer as the sergent, who’s maturity adds an autentic feel to the troops lost in muddy fields of France. The opening shots of their collective faces, lit by fires and explosions as they prepare to go “over-the-top” captures the hopes and fears of all the young men sent to their deaths in that awful folly of humanity. In fact the whole opening segment of the film is a beautifully filmed and haunting action sequence, as the men run into a hail of bullets to their deaths. But of course many of them don’t die (or this would be a short film) and emerging from the gases the next moring, the troop find themselves in a mysterious German trench where all the soldiers are dead except one…
From here on in things take a turn for the worse for the soldiers as they are potentially being picked of by some form of evil, or are they just turning on each other? Okay, I have to say after the promise of the opening act things don’t hold up quite so well for the rest of the film. It becomes a little bit unfocused as to who or what the threat actually is. This is surely the point as there a descent-into-madness vibe going on, but it gets a bit too much as we end up with a lot of scenes of men screaming at each other and rolling around in the mud. The guiltiest party of this is Andy Serkis’s character. That’s no criticism of the great man himself, he does a good job, its just that his character, with all his scalpings and hairy jacket and club with spikes in it, is so broadly drawn he’s like a cartoon character from a diffeerent movie. In fact for a while I was convinced the whole story was beginning to fall apart on itself with all Serkis’s bashings and men screaming at nothing in the darkness. But actually it does pull itself together by the end, wrapping itself up much better than I expected.
There is much to admire here. It looks amazingly grim and authentic. The trench itself is a sprawling maze of filthy horrors, with corpses trampled into the dirt, rats climbing everywhere, and evidence of previous awful events abound. The attention to detail is amazing, with German flags and photos of loves and lusts dangling in doorways. The imagery is also unique and hauntingly perfect for the setting, with some unpleasent stuff involving barbed wire being a highlight. And the mud and the rain are contants throughout the film, it almost never stops pouring down and the unfortunate actors must have suffered for their art, up to their necks in shit and squalor, its hardly surprising they shout at each other so much, they must have been screaming with real madness by half way through the shoot. The filth and fury is relentless.
So maybe the story and character wobbles on second thought are problems of my own personal taste. While its billed as “soldiers being stalked by evil in the trenches”, it is quite a lot more than that. The men here are literally screaming out about their own fears and self loathing of their experiences in the Great War. They are lost in a place they don’t understand and have hardly any control over. Their morals have been corrupted and the evil that is killing them really is of their own making, whether its their own commanders or something much closer, the punishment they give themselves for their actions. It is still a lot of mud and shouting, but you really should track this one down. Its a unique and uniquely British film that’s not afraid to take the viewer to dark places in human history to witness the dark places of the human soul.