Somme Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em
Ah, another month, another low-budget British horror film. This time round it's Michael J Bassett's Deathwatch, yet another entry in the currently flourishing war-horror subgenera. Personally I put the current popularity of this down to the fact it comes with social commentary (the class system writ militarily) and guns already built in - plus you can do most of your costume buying down the local army surplus store, always a consideration for the cash-strapped auteur...
Well, anyway. In Bassett's film it's 1917 and - I think I'm spoiling no-one's illusions here - some British Tommies are having a rough time of it on the Western Front. Standard squad composition is being complied with, to wit: one jug-eared underage volunteer (Jamie Bell
from Ballet Idiot - sorry, Billy Elliot), one grizzled fatherly non-com (Hugo Spear from The Full Monty), a few nondescript guys to be cannon-fodder (to continue the dancing theme, a chorus-line of vaguely familiar faces), one psychopathic nutter (Andy Serkis from a certain jewellery-related triptych), one bible-thumping zealot (Hugh O'Conor) and one posh and feckless officer (Lawrence Fox, who's the spitting image of his dad Edward. Or James. One of the two, anyway). After an assault on the German lines goes somewhat awry, the squad find themselves in a fog-shrouded wilderness, but soon come across a German trench complex with only a few soldiers left garrisoning it. Our heroes gallantly seize control and decide to await reinforcements... but amidst the mud and desolation, something evil is stirring...
Well, sort of. I can't really decide how many plot twists Deathwatch is supposed to have in it. The basic plot is similar to one of those short stories that occasionally appeared in comics like Battle or 2000AD or Weird War Tales. I can imagine Bassett reading one as a boy and thinking 'Wow, that'd make a cool film!' The main problem is, I suspect a large chunk of the target audience was reading the same sort of thing and will guess what's going on inside the first ten minutes - it's not exactly subtly presented. The film would probably play much better with the pre-credits sequence of the assault excised - ironic, as it's the movie's biggest set-piece. As it is, the film's big idea - war is hell, literally - lacks the impact it probably deserves.
The other significant problem Deathwatch has is that what works fine in a ten page comic strip is a bit stretched as the story of a ninety-minute movie. Other than the cast slowly being whittled down, not a huge amount happens in plot terms for about an hour and a quarter. There's no sense of rising tension or slow realisation, just a decreasing number of faces delivering the dialogue. Then we're suddenly propelled into a fairly effective climax where the truth of what's been happening is revealed, before it's time for the credits. Actually, Bassett seems a bit undecided as to how to pitch the horror aspect of
his story - the supernatural force at some points seems content to manipulate the characters into killing each other, while at others it wheels out all manner of nasty special effects so it can do the job itself. Coupled to some fairly vague religious and moral themes and the
overriding impression is of a confused mess at the heart of the film.
But, looking on the bright side, it all looks very nice - for a low-budget horror, the production values can't be faulted. Bassett has spent his budget wisely, mainly on the very convincing trench complex. There's also subtle and plausible use of CGI effects in a few
places, most impressively in the form of some alarmingly animated barbed wire. The squalid, soul-destroying nature of trench warfare is well-evoked by atmospheric direction and cinematography; although I suspect the blood and guts aspects have been toned down to get a softer certification. That said, there is lavish use of splattered brains whenever someone gets shot in the head (this happens quite a lot) and an operatically gruesome scene involving a paraplegic and some... no, I can't spoil it.
Filmmaking dogma has it that one should get a star, any star, if one possibly can, so in employing the dancing duo of Spear and Bell the director was only obeying orders - for all that casting them in a film like this in an attempt to draw in the Billy/Monty crowd is a bit like casting Eminem in a costume drama to try and entice that important crossover rap audience. Hugo Spear is actually rather good, but like most of the rest of the cast Jamie Bell flounders a bit. This is mainly the fault of some uninspired (and quite possibly
anachronistic) dialogue. Andy Serkis is, as usual, animated, and Hugh O'Conor is especially good, but this is despite, rather than because of the script.
Deathwatch isn't actually a bad film. It looks good, it's occasionally well-directed, the central idea is strong and the cast are all trying their hardest. But this really isn't enough to make it fly - it needs more grit, more energy, more plot, or even just a better idea of what it's actually supposed to be. Unsure as to what direction it really wants to follow, the result is a movie as stuck in No Man's Land as any of its characters.