Lionsgate // 2002 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 5th, 2004
Deliver them from evil.
Although it's doesn't become what it could have been, Deathwatch is a reasonably creepy little chiller that finds a fresh location for the old "characters are killed off one at a time by a supernatural force" routine.
A group from British Y-Company gets lost after a fierce battle and find themselves in a strange labyrinthine German trench, cut off from their own reinforcements. Before they are able to get away, mysterious things begin to happen that threaten to tear the group of men apart. The survivors of Y company are led by Capt. Bramwell Jennings (Laurence Fox, The Hole), a young and not especially competent member of the upper class. The real man in charge is second in command Sgt. David Tate (Hugo Speer, The Full Monty). His attempt to maintain order is made almost impossible thanks to the psychopathic Pvt. Quinn (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings), the bitter Scotsman Pvt. McNess (Dean Lennox Kelly), and the weak-stomached and underage Pfc. Shakespeare (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot, Nicholas Nickleby). Between trying to contact home base, controlling the surviving German prisoner, securing the trench, and surviving the invisible enemy that's killing anyone, they are sure to be in for a couple busy days.
Before I get into all the things I like about Deathwatch, I am going to get the biggest problem with it out of the way. There is absolutely nothing about this film that hasn't been done countless times before. At times, it seems almost like Predator, with an invisible enemy stalking them. At other times, it seems more like The Thing, with a group of isolated soldiers gradually turning on each other. Just as often, it feels like Event Horizon, with a clearly supernatural force leading them all to an unavoidable and surprising fate.
The good news is that they do all these things reasonably well. The film has a thick, dark atmosphere and a grim look. The scary moments are handled with flair and ingenuity, and the gorehounds won't be disappointed by the juicy deaths. The script does a good job of hinting at where the film is going without making it too obvious until near the end. The other truly impressive aspect is the cinematography. The film is increasingly dark as it goes on, but the use of shadow and color is truly remarkable. Fog is used carefully, with things appearing and disappearing again as if in a nightmare.
The script is brought to life by a number of solid performances. Jamie Bell is continuing to prove that he is well on his way to becoming a great actor, and this role puts him far away from anything he has ever done before. Hugo Speer is also particularly good, holding the rest of the cast together during their descent into fear and death. Andy Serkis tends to overact a bit, but he goes about his psychopathic business with such relish that it's impossible to blame him for it. The other roles work as well, although most of them just seem like war movie stereotypes suddenly dropped into a horror flick.
The most original element of Deathwatch is the attempt to make some kind of statement about what happens when human nature is combined with war. Each of the characters has responded differently to the fear of death and constant stress that is associated with the war, which is a fascinating thing to observe and consider. In the end, though, the inclusion of the supernatural element of the horror sort of takes away from the military aspect of the film. The stress of trench warfare should be enough to drive people mad without having to deal with an evil force.
There are a few things that prevent Deathwatch from being placed in the same category as Dog Soldiers and The Hole. Although it's meant to be disorienting, the audience never gets a sense of the geography of the trench. One of the things that made Alien so incredible is that the ship really did feel like a spaceship, and it was possible to get a sense of how it was laid out. Here, the trench just seems like randomly piled mud. At times throughout the film, it just felt like cardboard cutout characters wandering through a maze of mud, and I think it would have been more effective if the characters and space had been better defined. The trench never truly becomes the trench, it always remains a trench instead.
The disc is about the same as film itself: perfectly acceptable without standing out. The film has been presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and it looks great for a low budget horror flick. The dark levels work well, though some of the darker scenes do tend to be a tad grainy. The color reproduction seems all right, but it's hard to tell since the entire palette consists of browns and grays (with the occasional spurt of red). Other than the grain, there are no digital flaws or artifacts.
Somewhat less impressive is the sound transfer. Although it is in Dolby 5.1, the sound seems somewhat thin. The dialogue, beside the fact that it was all shot on location and the accents are stiff, is sometimes hard to understand. It's mixed a little low, and there are no English subtitles on the disc, which doesn't help matters. In fact, there aren't any subtitles whatsoever on this disc, and closed captioning doesn't count. The surrounds start to kick in a little more as the film progresses, but it's a long way from being a reference track. The explosions and gunshots sound pretty pathetic, and the sound stage is far narrower than it should be for this type of film.
The disc houses a decent array of special features. The most interesting of these are several deleted scenes, with explanations for why they were removed or never finished. While the addition of these scenes would have damaged the pacing of the film, including them would have solved some of the space issue I complained about before. There are also two commentary tracks: one production commentary and one actor commentary. Oddly enough, the production commentary features Andy Serkis, who acted in the film. His track does focus largely on the making of the film, the experiences they had on set, and some insight into the choices that were made during production. It's an occasionally dry track, but he has a number of interesting things to say. The other track features Jamie Bell, Lawrence Fox, and director Michael J. Bassett. They joke around a lot on this track, but don't tend to say many interesting or valuable things. I'm sure they had fun recording it though.
If taken as a low budget supernatural horror film, many viewers will be very happy with Deathwatch. Considering the talent involved and the fascinating premise, it probably could have been a lot more, but it could have been a lot worse as well. Horror junkies will probably want to pick this one up, though war movie buffs are advised to look elsewhere for entertainment. Casual viewers may want to give it a rent rather than a purchase, because it doesn't really stand out from the numerous other horror offerings that come out each year. It's a fun way to spend an hour and a half, but it's a journey I don't imagine I will want to go on again.
Everyone involved in this project is free to go. Michael J. Bassett is advised to take better advantage of his excellent cast and crew next time.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Producer Commentary
* Actor Commentary