The trenches, 1917: Charlie Shakespeare is an under-age recruit who’s rapidly discovering that war isn’t as glorious as it’s made out to be. When his platoon takes a wrong turn during an advance and ‘captures’ a deserted enemy position, their captain decides to hold it until reinforcements arrive. But the few radio messages they pick up suggest that they’re all presumed dead – and with the lone enemy survivor babbling about evil lurking underground, and the tension between the soldiers mounting by the minute, it isn’t long before the brutal deaths begin. What is driving them to turn on one another? Can they ever escape the trench – and, if so, to what?
With weapons, enemies, and deep psychological trauma round every corner; the battlefield ought to be the ideal setting for horror movies. The problem is that, for sheer shock value, the supernatural can rarely compete with man’s inhumanity to man. For all its clever effects and brutal ingenuity, the most stomach-churning moment in Deathwatch is a horribly plausible detail of battlefield medicine.
Despite valiant efforts by a good cast, the soldiers barely rise above the level of stock characters – brave NCO, toffee-nosed Captain, raw recruit, deeply religious type. The only exception is Andy Serkis, who not only chews the scenery, but positively devours it, as a soldier obviously a few bullets short of a Gatling-gun even before the madness sets in.
Jamie Bell shakes off his Billy Elliot stereotyping as the unfortunately named Shakespeare, but is required mostly to look cold and worried, or shout, “I’m not dead,” at apparitions. (If they’d only had the opportunity to view The Sixth Sense before heading to the frontline, they could have saved themselves a lot of anguish, since it’s blatantly obvious from about three minutes in that they’re all a bit Bruce Willis…)
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All the horror staples are present and correct, and its use of barbed wire is pretty ingenious, but Deathwatch never quite finds the spark of originality it so desperately needs. At one point, it almost spirals off into the bitter insanity it’s always hinting at – the Captain blithely lines his men up for an inspection as if they were safe on the parade ground, while a deranged private is noisily crucifying their prisoner in ‘no man’s land’ – but alas, it can’t sustain it. The ‘meaningful’ ending manages to be both heavy-handed and irritatingly vague – Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? A big cosmic joke… Who knows?
If you’re a real horror fan, this might find a place on your ‘interesting but flawed’ shelf; otherwise, I’m afraid it’s a fairly forgettable Saturday night’s entertainment.