Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Review: Deathwatch (2002)

    A WWI movie about a haunted trench that's boring and tedious? What exactly went wrong here?

    The problem with the majority of horror films is a lack of originality. The setting is always the same; whether it’s a summer camp, a house in the suburbs or a cabin in the woods, the same demons and masked murderers pick off the same promiscuous teenagers again and again. Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch attempts to shake the formula up by setting his horror story in a WWI trench haunted by some unseen force, which slowly picks off the British soldiers trapped therein one by one. It’s not a terrible concept - the trenches where already like something out of a horror movie, so the idea is ripe for commentary. But a stilted presentation and the nebulous threat keep the film from being anything other than tedious.

    The cast is fairly decent throughout, albeit wasted. Concerning a British platoon stranded in a German trench behind enemy lines, we spend the majority of the time with Pvt. Shakespeare, the fresh-faced, sixteen year-old recruit played by Jamie Bell. We don’t learn a whole lot about Shakespeare, other than he doesn’t like violence and he likes to ask questions in an increasingly high-pitched voice. The film is filled with other such empty, stock characters: the green, inexperienced captain, the sergeant who follows orders no matter what, the religious one, the athiest who argues with the religious one, the crazy one, etc. Whatever originality might be gleaned from the setting is instantly thrown out the window by populating the film with such empty characters. Not even Andy Serkis can do much with the part he’s given, as the character is enslaved to the shifting motivations of the shaky script.

    One thing Bassett does do well with his film is accurately capture the WWI trenches. There’s mud and blood and rats everywhere, and you can feel the cold and wetness of it all. But despite the admirable production design, the film’s look is flat and uninteresting. There are major lighting issues, and at times it looks like the film was never properly color-balanced. The washed-out look the film ultimately has helps in creating a believable environment, but the overall dullness makes the tedious script all the harder to bear.

    The biggest problem is the supernatural presence that terrorizes the soldiers throughout. We never learn exactly what it is, how it works or why it’s so intent on killing everyone in the trench. Normally I don’t have a problem with such ambiguity - being a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I’m all about demonic entities that operate on levels that mere human perception can only vaguely understand. But the force feels less like an otherworldly threat and more like Bassett making up stuff the thing can do as it’s convenient to the plot. There are some nice ideas at play, such as when the entity tortures the soldiers by mimicking an enemy attack, thus tricking them into killing each other - but again there’s a lack of focus. One minute the presence is possessing the soldiers, the next it’s shooting out barbed wire from the ground to strangle them. It’s clear Bassett wants to make an allegory for the war, but the delivery is so jumbled and confused that any thematic content therein arrives stillborn. A simpler threat would have made the conflict more immediate, and allowed Bassett to focus more on his characters and the weighty themes he clearly wanted the film to be about.

    By the film’s end, when the dust has settled and the final twist is screwed into the plot, it’s hard to muster up the will to even care to figure out what it all means. In the hands of someone like Neil Marshall, we could have really had something here… But as it is, I’m afraid Deathwatch is a snoozer.  

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