16 June 2008


Written & Directed by: Michael J. Bassett
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Rather than a gang of substance-abusing, sexually promiscuous teens, the ripe-for-the-picking-off in Deathwatch, an English horror film set during WWI, is a crew of savage soldiers; but like the standard gaggle of high-schoolers, they too must be punished for their immorality—in this case, their bloodthirst. Our hero, then, the last-boy-standing to be, isn’t the sober virgin but the reluctant soldier who possesses those rarest—particularly during wartime—of human virtues: empathy and clemency.

Along those (front?) lines, Bassett’s directorial debut hews closely to horror conventions while also bucking them, albeit lightly; as war movie and as horror movie, the film breaks no new ground, but in juxtaposing the two it at least finds a latent subtext ripe for exploiting. It takes the horror movie form for Bassett to express his anti-war sentiments.

Deathwatch opens in 1917, on the Western Front, and all is not quiet in His Majesty’s trenches: shells whiz by, bombs explode and the sky is alight with orange flares. The camera slowly passes over our heroes, a team of sensible cowards and aggressive deathwishers, each an overactor in their own way. After an expensive-looking firefight, that team is winnowed down to a stock crew of ragtag soldiers without a unit, trudging through fog, mud and singed corpses until they make it to a German trench with a mere three soldiers standing guard. Two are quickly killed, the other beaten unsparingly. “Just doing my job,” mutters the one doing the beating.

Stuffed with man-eating rats and perpetual rainfall—and sketched with a palette composed entirely of shades of gray—Deathwatch plays out as a persistent stream of despondence and violence. The soldiers are contemptuous of one another and take a perverse joy in slaughtering their enemy—they eventually crucify their beaten prisoner. Presenting an unapologetically unromantic and downright cynical view of both war and soldierhood (no magnetic yellow ribbons here), Deathwatch, released in the U.K. in December 2002 (during the build-up to the Iraq invasion) looks now like an vehement counterpoint to the era’s dominant strain of Anglo-American sisboombah warmongering.

During their stint in the captured trench, the soldiers are attacked by a corpse bound in barbed wire, a crimson puff of bloodsmoke, subterranean superworms, and the disembodied sounds of battle: explosions, gun fire, howls of death—a possible collective manifestation of the men’s consciences. The supernatural attacks drive the surviving soldiers mad, leading them to murder one another. The nationalist fighters of Deathwatch aren’t battling an opposing country’s forces—they seem to be at war with the Spirit of War itself.

Unless, perhaps, they’re fighting a vengeful God. “He brought us here,” the Chaplain says, “didn’t He?” Only if it’s that smiteful Old Testament Lord, one who abhors the mortal violation of the Fifth Commandment so deeply that He sees it necessary to take an eye for an eye—or in this case, a soldier for a soldier. Imagine that—an antiwar God.

Watch the trailer:

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