Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch is an interesting specimen. The feature-length debut for its writer-director, Deathwatch is a low-budget English horror picture set in the trenches of World War I. In other words, it mixes action/war with outright horror, resulting in something altogether unique and conceptually sound. If the genres are taken singularly, Deathwatch breaks no new ground, but by juxtaposing the genres and developing a thoughtful subtext, writer-director Bassett had an ideal platform on which to express anti-war sentiments in an innovative fashion. With that said, though, Bassett lacked the fundamental screenwriting skills to entirely capitalise on the potential of the delicious ideas he cooked up.
The story begins in France during World War I, as British soldiers from Y-Company are forced into a fierce battle. Among them is terrified young rookie soldier Charlie Shakespeare (Bell), who follows his unit as they charge against a German trench defended by machine gun placements. The morning after the battle, Shakespeare and the men find themselves lost and blinded by thick fog. Soon, they happen upon a shoddily-guarded, corpse-laden German trench, which they secure while waiting for reinforcements. However, it fast becomes clear that there is something inherently evil about the trench, and supernatural attacks begin to drive the men insane, leading them to murder one another.
Where most horror/slasher flicks concern a gang of substance-abusing, sexually active teens who are ripe for the picking, Deathwatch centres on a crew of hardened soldiers. Unfortunately, despite the change, the characters are not a great deal smarter than the average horror victims, and are not immune to being picked off by a marauding killer. On the positive side, the protagonist at the centre of the film is an interesting twist on most genre heroes – he is a coy, reluctant soldier with virtues seen all too rarely in wartime: mercy and empathy. Throughout the film, Bassett took advantage of all opportunities for thoughtful anti-war posturing, while there are also a few sly jabs at the messy British class system. However, the main metaphoric message of the film – that all soldiers in war are already dead and are facing judgment – is easy to overlook because it’s poorly delineated. And if one does not glean Deathwatch‘s message, it loses a great deal of impact, so this is a big issue. It’s no help that the ending is laughable.
Deathwatch was Michael J. Bassett’s first screenplay, and his inexperience is obvious in the dull dialogue and general failure to explore the film’s themes to their fullest extent. It is also obvious that Bassett had not directed a movie before, as the pacing is generally sloppy. Not to mention, the murky photography makes it difficult to distinguish what’s happening in the trenches, and the dialogue is difficult to make out due to poor sound mixing. With that said, though, the production values are to be commended. The period details are remarkable, with mud, corpses, rats and barbed wire contributing to the atmosphere, while the costuming adds authenticity. Deathwatch‘s colour palette is muted for the most part; giving the film a sombre tone. It’s a shame that a better director was not at the helm here, as the production values could have yielded a remarkable horror movie if only Bassett exuded more passion and skill.
Jamie Bell’s breakout performance was in the acclaimed Billy Elliot. It was therefore a rather curious choice for the actor to star in this WWI ghost story as his next starring vehicle. Alas, Bell is not especially good or memorable. Maybe it had more to do with the demands of his character, but Bell simply lacks presence – he’s forgettable and underwhelming. The other actors carried out their duties well enough, but the majority of them are too interchangeable and lacking in characterisation, which is all the more baffling since the film begins with a curtain call. Furthermore, most of them were saddled with two-dimensional soldier stereotypes, though the use of such stereotypes does admittedly assist in the conveyance of Deathwatch‘s anti-war message. The standout in the cast as Andy Serkis, who relished the chance to go over-the-top with his Kurtz-like character.
In final analysis, Deathwatch is a mixed bag. If taken as a low-budget supernatural horror movie, it is at least watchable, and its intentions are to be lauded. But considering the fascinating ideas, the film could have been a lot more. Horror junkies will probably get the most out of Deathwatch, but casual movie watchers and film buffs should probably look elsewhere for entertainment.