30 Days of Fright – 03: Deathwatch

The horror of war is a cliché that like most clichés, catchphrases, and stereotypes, has some basis in truth no matter how small. In the case of warfare there is no doubting just how horrific the experience is even for those who luckily have no direct exposure to such violence. Considering how awful the concept of war is it’s no surprise that there are so few actual horror films with a wartime setting. There’s no real need for them. Just make a regular war film and you have all the elements necessary – oftentimes including a supernatural disregard for life on behalf of most involved.

Deathwatch (2002) is set in the final part of World War 1 and tells of a squad of British soldiers getting ready to go “over the top” one night. The squad is under the direct command of a snooty officer and contains all the other usual suspects for a bunch of soldiers; there’s the gritty world-weary sergeant, the religious one, the smooth one, the psychotic one, and the young innocent one who happens to be the main character, and a few others to fill out the numbers. The young innocent one, Shakespeare (Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot), is only 16 and like so many eejits of his generation lied about his age so he could sign up with the notion of fighting for King and Country (whereas King and Country had the notion of slaughtering as many 16 – 30 year olds they could get their hands on). On the night in question young Shakespeare loses what little nerve he had and turns coward, unable to climb up the ladder into almost certain death (what a wuss) until his good old sarge promises to stick with him.
Once up and over the squad face into heavy fire from machine guns, motor explosions, and then the dreaded gas. Sometime later and after much confusion the squad find themselves roaming around in no-man’s land in a cloud of gas that mercifully turns out to only be fog. Wandering around aimlessly for a while they come across a German trench occupied by a handful of soldiers all apparently more afraid of something in the trench then they are of the British. Easily capturing the trench after murdering the surrendering soldiers the squad settle in to await rescue.
The lads quickly discover that all is not right in the trench, from the large number of dead bodies, to the radio that occasionally mistakenly reports the squads’ death and the strange feelings of rage and paranoia that grip the men. A surviving German soldier is discovered and he reveals that similar trouble befell his men too and that eventually the squad will all turn on themselves to the point of killing each other to prevent anyone ever leaving the trench…
World War One came to an end once both sides realised it was quicker to just shoot 50,000 of their own men every day*
Like I said, I think the reason no one bothers with a horror film set during a war is that war is so bad already there’s no way you can really make it any more horrific then it already is. Deathwatch tries and falls flat. Not only is the film cursed with all the difficulties of making a horror but it also had to contend with trying to make a war movie at the same time, and as any military strategist will tell you, you should never try to fight on two fronts at the same time unless you’re very, very sure of what you’re doing.
Firstly the war film problems: Anytime you make a film about a bunch of men fighting together on the same side you run into severe character development problems because when you want to use an ensemble cast in a film you need to find ways for the audience to easily tell people apart and then to relate to those people. Deathwatch cracks out all the old tricks to try to accomplish this, using the opening scene to show each man displaying his particular character trait – the smooth one combing his hair as bombs drop, the religious one having a good old pray, the innocent one being scared, and the psycho one being a psycho (what else could he do?). Each of these lads are all in the same basic uniform but each has added his own little twist like the tartan on the Scottish lad to the weird barbarian style waistcoat the nutter prefers. But, once the action kicks off, you’ll be lucky to keep track of one or two out of the whole bunch. When things get quiet again you can pick them apart but you’re so busy doing that that you miss what’s going on.
The issues with ensemble casts in uniform are so great and dealt with in such an unsophisticated manner in Deathwatch that you see the inevitable end coming a mile away as those you had trouble following (and really didn’t give a shit about) are killed off one by one.
As for the horror problems there are two biggies worth mentioning and they’re among the worst failings of horror films. Firstly, it’s very hard to determine what the hell is meant to be happening. The lads are in a creepy trench. It’s weird in the trench and there are scary noises. The boys turn on each other. Um, the end! What the fuck? What was the point? That’s worse than an episode of Lost! Deathwatch fails the fundamental test of any film, it’s impossible to retell the whole story as I just don’t know what happened. I guess that the film-makers wanted to leave as much up to the audience as possible but by the end of the film all you’ve seen is some soldiers killed with little in the line of reason behind it. As a metaphor for war it’s not bad, but as a horror film it’s shite.
The second horror failing however is the unforgivable sin of not making the film scary. Deathwatch is eerie which is not something you see too often but it’s not frightening at all. At points it’s cool and at other times gross (there’s one brilliant effect where an injured man has been attacked by rats) but there are too many times where it’s confusing or silly. It’s never scary and you never fear for anyone in the film, most of the time you’re glad when someone gets killed, which makes you no better than every other warmonger out there.
Two Thumbs Down for Deathwatch
*I nicked that joke from Blackadder – someone who knew a truckload about World War One

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