On the twenty-sixth day of Halloween, The Long Fuse gave to me: Deathwatch (Michael J. Bassett, 2002)
Look, another piece of period horror!
Today’s Is this Real or Not? comes from Britain, and is one of the few WWI movies I’ve ever seen, much less a WWI horror movie.
Deathwatch engages the historical reality of trench warfare with a “horror” slant, all to make a harrowing statement about human nature. Without spoiling anything, Deathwatch emphasizes that war, is in fact, hell.
NO PLOTS FOR YOU:
British Y Company becomes mysteriously separated from the larger army during a battle in the middle of what they believe to be a gas attack. Stumbling forward, the company finds a trench occupied by three visibly upset German soldiers, and quickly discover evidence that there was German-on-German violence. As they move to secure the seemingly-endless trench, they discover a series of horribly mutilated bodies. Attempting to force information from the single captured German, the soldier tells the British troops that the Germans are not the enemy here. As Y Company continues to attempt to hold the forsaken earthworks, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not the Germans who are the problem: it’s the trench itself.
For those who are unfamiliar with WWI, a great deal of it was fought in trenches: deep furrows in the earth that served as battlements for rival armies. Dug into cold ground, trenches were filthy, constantly wet, and a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty diseases. They were often a solider’s home for far longer than they should have been, and “no-man’s land” was a real issue in WWI.
That’s what Deathwatch capitalizes on: the nature of the trench. Y Company gets stuck in a mysterious trench that has no end, and what is above ground is constantly covered by a mysterious fog. They are isolated, in an endless maze of earthworks- and yet the set feels claustrophobic. There is nowhere to go beyond the trench. All of the action of Deathwatch happens in this singular location, with nothing but fog and darkness and mud surrounding Company Y.
The only bright color in Deathwatch is the bright red of blood: other than that it’s slate-grey wet earth or military greens. The constant rain, the lack of any real sunlight- it all casts a sickly pallor over the film, and gives the action a constant sense of dread. The barbed wire, the mud, the rain: all becomes tools for what’s in the trench. This movie is about as eerie as they get, and has an ending that will leave you thinking.I’ll discuss the specifics of the “reveal” at the end under a cut, but needless to say that the nature of reality in the trench is very much up for debate.
—-SPOILERS FOR THE END—-
So this is how I interpret Deathwatch.
A trench is just a trench, right?
Not really: this trench is not really “earthly,” if you will. Y Company are all in purgatory or hell, and Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) is the only one to make it out because he consistently showed compassion. The trench is a unique- however apt- depiction of an unfavorable afterlife. The cast of characters is stuck in some strange “no-man’s land” between heaven and earth, and their choices have dictated their fates. All of the company turns on each other in some way except for Shakespeare, and he is the only one who “leaves” the trench.
Of course, a new group enters after Y Company has either “died” or “passed through”, implying that this specific trench is a supernatural testing grounds of sorts. It’s a “food for though” ending that has broader implications. Good stuff, I’d say.
—-Spoilers be gone!—-
It’s not a perfect film
The movie certainly feels disjointed at times, and a lot of the action is confusing. While I personally believe this adds to the themes Deathwatch is trying to tease out, I agree that at times it makes for a film that’s difficult to watch. The special effects are also very cheesy at times, but those moments are very brief and didn’t bother me very much.
As a whole, I think the atmosphere and uniqueness of the story outweighs the cons. Deathwatch is 50% psychological drama and 50% horror, and uses a very unique setting to make a very specific point. While it isn’t the most well-written or well-paced horror movie I’ve seen, I think it was a ballsy concept that delivers creeps and thrills really well. So if you’re looking for something a little off the beaten path, I’d recommend Deathwatch. It stuck in my craw for a while after watching, and maybe it’ll do something for you.
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