UK (UK/Ger) 2002 : Michael J Bassett : 94-5mins

The Western Front, 1917: a handful of British troops find themselves stranded behind enemy lines. In desperation, they take over a partially-abandoned trench, killing all but one of the German occupants and waiting for help to arrive. Led by ineffectual officer Capt. Jennings (Laurence Fox), they include teenager Shakespeare (Jamie Bell), gruff Sgt. Tate (Hugo Speer) and the unstable Quinn (Andy Serkis). As the men start to experience bizarre supernatural phenomena, the terrified German survivor (Torben Liebrecht) warns that a mysterious evil power residing in the trench will kill them all.

Leaving aside whether it’s appropriate to make exploitative fright-movies about WWI – a subject quite horrific on its own terms without the injection of cheesy supernatural elements – Deathwatch is a reasonably watchable, economic, claustrophobic little shocker. The premise is intriguing and straightforward, and first-timer Bassett sets his scene well enough: the rat-infested, rain-sodden trench is so convincingly hellish that one doesn’t envy the actors (or the rats) enduring what must have been an especially unpleasant shoot.

They cope well under the difficult circumstances, and their efforts (Bassett’s script wisely assigns each a different regional accent) ensure the characters are all clearly differentiated from each other, despite the inevitable similarities of their filthy uniforms and faces. Top-billed Bell – in a radical change of pace after Billy Elliot – does his best with what’s essentially a one-note character, while a Sean-Bean-ish, no-nonsense Speer, Hans Matheson (TV’s Dr Zhivago) and Dean Lennox Kelly (from Mike Bassett, England Manager) provide strong support as his sympathetic comrades-in-arms.

But perhaps inevitably it’s the ranting-and-raving Serkis who steals the show as the demented, goggle-eyed Quinn – a wildly OTT characterisation by most actors’s standards but a relatively ‘normal’ role for this performer after his more outre “appearances” in 24 Hour Party People (where he wore a mountainous fat-suit) and The Two Towers (where he provided the voice and movements for CGI-creation Gollum.) Serkis invests Quinn with a genuinely disturbing edge of murderous volatility – setting the tone for what is a refreshingly downbeat, unusally grim type of straight-faced Brit horror. Despite the occasional touch of barrack-room gallows humour, we’re about as far from the larky laddishness of Dog Soldiers as it’s possible to imagine.

But while many of the individual scenes are queasily tense affairs, there’s no sense that they’re building towards any kind of coherent whole. Like his characters, Bassett seems to lose his bearings somewhere around the mid-point, and Deathwatch becomes just a rickety, intermittently tedious compendium of spooky scenes in which the men succumb to various degrees of paranoia and/or madness without a great deal actually happening. Then, with five minutes to go, we finally get the gory FX-showcase death that featured so prominently in the movie’s trailers: a soldier is attacked by barbed wire that comes poking out of the mud like tendrils of a vicious weed. or is he?

Soon after, Bassett casts everything we’ve seen in a new light when he unveils his Big Twist – one which even casual genre fans will probably have been able to guess from a mile off. Even so, it does feel like quite a neat finale – and ending on such a striking close-up of the charismatic Liebrecht (who displays real star quality in his very limited screen-time) is an inspired choice. On reflection, however, it becomes rapidly clear that Bassett’s ‘explanations’ make absolutely no sense at all.

23rd December, 2003
(seen December 22nd, Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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