by Sally Hales
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At the end of Deathwatch, Andy Serkis, as psychotic-caveman-soldier Quinn, is eaten by barbed wire: malevolent barbed wire controlled by the unknown forces of evil permeating from the abandoned German trench Serkis and friends find themselves in after becoming mysteriously separated from their battalion.
This could have been a good - even great - film. Imagine the pitch: classic first world war buddy flick meets structured stick ‘em all together and scare ‘em horror as an intelligent allegory for the psychological horror of war. Add to this a promising first-time feature director, a quality all-male Brit cast (read: best buddy identification or eye candy for all palates) and stir in the right direction for cinema dynamite.
Stuck in a big hole in the ground going mad this talented cast - Jamie Billy Elliot Bell, Hugo Full Monty Spears, Andy “Gollum” Serkis, Kris Love Actually Marshall, Matthew RSC’s Romeo Rhys and some others less-identifiable - goes to waste. With so many characters jammed in together none of this undoubted quality is given the opportunity to flex its actorly muscles and scare us silly. As they’re picked off at regular intervals, our lack of involvement with the soldiers results in indifference to their fate and a pace as plodding as the gore is authentic. Even Serkis’s camped-up psycho-soldier can’t rise to more than a fleeting moment of terrifying lunacy when met with such normalcy from his better-adjusted compatriots.
None of which would matter if Deathwatch was aiming itself at the straight schlock-horror market; but Deathwatch wants to be so much more than this. If the film is to be read as an allegory of the horror of war, which it seems to suggest, then shouldn’t we have some idea of the feelings, fears, failings of the characters? There isn’t time. It seems bizarre to be criticising a film for its higher ambition but the allegory simply goes nowhere. The vague implication of a collective psychotic episode is undermined by the very real manner in which we see their messy demises and the messages are ultimately confused. Maybe the director wants us to make up our own mind, but the film lacks the necessary subtlety.
To jump to Deathwatch’s defence, great things have been done with the film’s small budget. The set design may be meticulous but drowned in mud and rain the film looks exactly as it should: the horrible, swarming, muddy horror of a first world war trench visually realised. Completed with bleach bypass process the film has a thoroughly sodden feel that will leaving you feeling damp and chilly in your seat.
Deathwatch, as an attempt to make an intelligent horror film, is as interesting for its failures as its successes. There’s plenty of exploding body parts to go around and, happily, plenty of potential for the future from this director. All of which makes Deathwatch still worth seeing.
Sally Hales works in publishing in south Wales but doesn’t like Tom Jones or Catherine Zeta Jones.
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