Monday, September 5, 2011

All Quiet (Because They’re Dead) On the Western Front

(And no, that’s not one of those Sixth Sense-like spoilers I tossed in for a headline. There are soldiers in this movie and lots of them die. Settle down.)

It’s an odd thing to say, but there truly aren’t enough war-set horror films. You would think that the very nature of mankind’s most powerful, negative, and scarily constant action would breed a richer subgenre than torture porn or giant creature portmanteaus, yet the output is surprisingly small. I imagine there are a lot of buried treasures of war hidden under mobs of slashers and zombie overpopulation, but considering the ripe themes and simple terror of battle, there just simply should be more.
Thusly do we have Deathwatch, a 2002 British ghost story of sorts set in the trenches of World War I. Is there a scarier place to set your film?
Quick Plot: It’s a rough day at the Western Front as a troop of English soldiers chaotically flee their trench in a shrapnel storm. Without them knowing when night turned to day, the group finds themselves in eerily abandoned territory, eventually discovering a German trench filled with three soldiers. The men shoot two and imprison the third as each Brit develops his own slow descent into cabin fever.

The soldiers are a mixed bag, ranging from the innocent and bright eyed 16 year old Charlie ‘Shakespeare’ (Jamie Bell) to the grizzled, one-step-away-from-going-Gollum sadist Quinn (Gollum himself, Andy Serkis) who may find world war the best excuse to blow off steam since the invention of the stress ball. In the middle are an edgy chaplain, sympathetic doctor, dying (and oft forgotten) private, stuffy and bureaucratic captain, and token horndog played by the token horndog in Love Actually.

Some people get typecast in any genre.
Deathwatch is essentially a haunted house film...just a haunted house film placed in a rat-infested, mud-covered trench that’s already overflowing with corpses of war. It’s a brilliant and all-too perfect premise for a horror film, one that writer/director Michael J. Bassett doesn’t waste. Opening in the middle of gunfire is hugely effective as we instantly feel the horrors these men are living every day. The transition to the foggy, ghost-like world set in the trench is creepy without being overly obvious, slowly revealing some mini-nightmares waiting to wake up. Though some of the CGI effects stand out in a bad way, Bassett makes excellent use of much of his imagery. A camouflaged soldier in mud, the barbed wire-imprisoned dead, and the no holds barred approach to showing the human body as it deteriorates from battle go far in making Deathwatch something that horrifies from several angles.

Performances help immensely, with each British thespian doing a solid job. The film doesn’t quite have the same male fraternity as, say, Dog Soldiers, but that’s more because the nature of the horror here is more divisive than uniting. A few go a little mad,  but in different ways and for different reasons, making their descents interesting in their own ways. Others find their haunting from more physical--and blatantly evil--manners, including one truly nasty rat-inspired death that will probably make even a cousin of Splinter squirm.

High Points
Somewhere in the third act, as the action was exploding in every which way, I found myself a tad frustrated, wondering if there’d be any explanation other than the tried and true ‘war is hell.’ Without spoiling anything, I can assure you that the final beat of the film won me over by putting the whole story in a specific moral context that felt earned and effective.
Low Points
It’s natural for a film that primarily takes place at night to be quite, you know, dark, but sometimes the whole ‘I can’t really see anything’ness can be irksome
Lessons Learned
All it really takes is a single cloth mask to protect oneself from poisonous gas

Always be kind to bilingual German soldiers
Chekhov’s Law: If a homemade mace is introduced in the first reel, you best use that homemade mace by the fifth
Deathwatch is a refreshingly solid horror film that isn’t really perfect, but sure makes the most out of its vast potential. Currently streaming on Netflix Instant, it’s a great turn-the-lights-off kind of evening for a different and occasionally rather frightening time. I’d make some kind of cute military call to watch it here, but I feel like such a pun would warrant my face to be wrapped in barbed wire or for Gollum to wave a mace at my head, so just go watch it and save me the trouble.


  1. Yes, it does seem that the battleground setting would be a perfect fit for supernatural horror but outside of The Keep, Outpost and a few other movies that sort of mix the genres, there ain't a lot out there. There is an interesting sounding one in production called The 4th Reich with Sean Pertwee, Tom Savini and Doug Bradley. Unfortunately, it's another (sigh) zombie movie, but you never know. I stumbled across Deathwatch awhile back and really liked the atmosphere created and the solid acting by the English cast. It's definitely one of the better films in a select sub-genre and well worth an Instant watching.

  2. "Deathwatch" makes good use of what is certainly an underused horror setting, but then I guess the war was already horrific enough to begin with. Still it seems that this film has been pretty much under the radar since it's minimal release.
    It has some good twists and even a couple of truly chilling moments, thanks to the psycho Andy Serkis, who always seems to be playing crazies when not hiding behind the latest CGI creation.

  3. I'll keep my eyes open for those titles Shiftless. A zombie in combat film sounds like a decent idea, since so many zombie films start thigh the idea of undead soldiers gone wrong.

    And Elwood, great point about Serkis. I forget that he's a genuinely good and interesting actor, even without pixelations.

  4. Sure, war is hell and everything, but the real thing stopping me from ever enlisting is the tyranny of NAZI-ZOMBIES! Either that or confederate zombies, hunting for their lost gold which was stolen by Hitler's secret SS time-travel unit! (that may or may not be describing an actual movie)

  5. I hope it's real! Your description suddenly REALLY made me want a Confederate Nazi film!

  6. DON'T, really, DON'T, there are two confederate zombie films in existence, both of them made by the same guy. The later one was Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, which despite being boring (and having a near-identical plot to Dead Snow), actually has STUFF happening at certain parts of the film. You see, CotCC is a remake. This guy originally made this film Night of Horror about those good ol' slavery-lovin' zombies! It starts off with one guy (presumably the film's sole survivor) recounting the film's events in flashback to some random guy in a bar. A full HOUR AND A HALF LATER of the film's characters stumbling around in near pitch-black darkness and nothing happening (along with terrible film quality), the man's flashback ends...with him and all of the characters ALIVE! Holy crap, so if you just give the zombies their gold, they'll just let you go free, no question! Haha! (I've seen Night of Horror, kill me now)

  7. I like the idea that this one director reallllllly wanted to tell the tale of Confederate zombies so he did it twice. Damnit, the more I think about this, the more I feel like it deserves a double feature!

  8. The Supernaturals (1986) apparently has confederate zombies.. but i hear its no great shakes either.

    Deathwatch sounds like a must watch!

  9. Why can't I find a decent COnfederate zombie film? What kind of conspiracy is this?

  10. ten points for using portmanteaus ;)

  11. I think it's a side effect of watching too much Glee and SyFy.