Deathwatch (2004)

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 05/08/05 06:04:47

"NOT the Terri Schiavo story (Yes, I know - I'm going to Hell)"
3 stars (Average)

Films that combine military-themed drama and action with elements of the Horror genre have been few and far between, and yet a handfull of movies that managed to pull it off brilliantly come to mind (DOG SOLDIERS, THE KEEP, or even James Cameron's ALIENS). Recently, a couple of new ones popped up onto my radar: THE BUNKER, and this film, DEATHWATCH, and while I found much to admire in both of them, I also found that they shared the same weaknesses.

DEATHWATCH begins by showing us a group of rather nervous-looking British soldiers, hunkered down in a trench on the front lines of World War 1 - and nervous with good reason, as they're expected to get up any minute and charge the German forces through a field of barbed wire, mortar rounds, and machine gun fire. Included among them is Private Shakespeare (Jamie Bell), a green recruit who is in mortal terror of going up over that trench wall. The squad is led by Captain Jennings (Laurence Fox), a by-the-book officer with no clue how to lead his men, and Sargeant Tate (Hugo Speer) the more even-keeled authority figure who actually holds the group together. But if the Germans aren't bad enough, they also must contend with Private Quinn, a nasty little fellow who seems to take extreme pleasure in the act of killing (and who is played brilliantly by Andy Serkis of "Gollum" fame), and would just as soon kill one of his squad mates as he would the Germans, given enough provocation.

As they charge the enemy in a nighttime engagement, dozens of soldiers on either side of the fray are cut down, but the following morning finds a group of survivors wandering around lost in the fog. They stumble across a network of German trenches, only to find them poorly defended by a few downtrodden enemy soldiers and easily captured. They quickly dig in and fortify their tenuous position, then attempt to raise any friendly forces on a captured German radio. The trench base isn't the most comforting of places to hole up in, though - and in fact, the gritty nature of the setting is one of the film's strongest points. Muddy and full of water, the grungy trenches are crawling with rats and littered with mangled corpses in various states of decomposition. Home sweet home, eh?

As day wears on into night, however, it becomes readily apparent that something is very wrong with the place. Bizarre radio transmissions, compasses that spin around endlessly, captured German soldiers that are mortally terrified of something other than the prospect of death at the hands of their captors, and sounds of a raging battle all around them when no evidence of a battle can be seen - Yup, you've definitely stepped off into the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, Lads!

I reference those two classic old Television shows because in many ways DEATHWATCH feels like it could belong in either of their respective universes. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, because while the film serves up a lot of the same deliciously creepy atmosphere, it also relies on plot elements that are just far too familiar to any semi-savvy horror fan. This is a shame, because there's a lot to like about this film. The cast is solid, and the characters are well-developed and believable, with each posessing a unique quality and voice. Likewise, writer-director Michael J. Bassett shows a steady hand behind the camera and in the editing room, taking the very limited setting of a few muddy trenches and turning it into a pretty effective cinematic spookhouse.

So acting, directing, and production values - all very solid. But there are a couple of major problems that keep DEATHWATCH from reaching it's full potential - primarily the fact that the film tips its hand just way too soon. Anyone whose been paying attention will figure out ten minutes into the film what's going on. I found myself hoping against hope that I would be proven wrong by the third act, but alas, my fears were justified. And when you've already pretty much figured out the mystery 80 minutes before the characters do, it just isn't that much fun to watch them going through the motions. This plays into the film's other problem - it just isn't that scary. Oh sure, it's definitely spooky in places. The atmosphere is there . . . but the payoff just feels too light. While I admire a film for not resorting to the cheap "Cat jumps out of the shadows to a shrill musical crescendo" tactic, DEATHWATCH just needed something more, something that would make me flinch in my seat, or at least say "Whoa, now that is fucking creepy". There are a few moments that come close, but close, as they say, is no cigar. But the best kind of horror comes from a palpable and mounting sense of dread, and once again, the film makes great efforts to try and sustain that dread, but is ultimately unable to do so because of its telegraphed punch in the opening scenes.

Both DEATHWATCH and THE BUNKER have their notable weaknesses, but that's not to say that neither of them is worth checking out. For the horror fan who likes something a little more thought provoking than teen slasher horror (or inferior teen slasher horror remakes, fuck you very much Michael Bay), they will find plenty to like about either film. Unfortunately, they will also most likely find themselves bemoaning each of those films' untapped potential.

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