Dir: Michael J Bassett. UK. 2002. 95 mins.
The old maxim that war is hell gets dusted down yet again for Deathwatch, a horror film set in the trenches of World War I which will attract attention as Jamie Bell's first role since his applauded and awarded performance in Billy Elliott two years ago. Technically polished but cursed with a thoroughly formulaic script and thinly drawn characters unworthy of a cast of this calibre, the film is likely to meet a cool reception from critics when it opens in Britain on 6 December.
Its mix of genres is also awkward, with the long, rather old-fashioned opening section likely to turn off a young male audience attracted by the promise of an effects-based supernatural thriller. But Deathwatch's bombshell success in Hong Kong earlier last month [November], when it notched up impressive business after a campaign starring a real trench in the middle of the Hong Kong Convention Centre, indicates that, with clever marketing, all bets still remain open as to its international box-office prospects.
In his first (semi-) adult role, Bell, now 16, at least deserves credit for choosing such a different project from the movie which made his name, and for opting for a story in which he's just one of an ensemble cast. He plays Charlie Shakespeare, a young private who has lied about his age in order to join up but is thoroughly terrified by the atrocities he has witnessed on the Western Front in 1917.
Forced over the top at gunpoint, he and eight other members of his company are separated from their fellow soldiers during a dreadful battle. They hide in an abandoned trench somewhere in enemy territory, a foul swamp of mud, rain, rats and barbed-wire, where, as they realise the near-impossibility of being rescued, they are soon at each others' throats. But prospects of survival really plummet when some baleful subterranean demons eventually put in an appearance.
Described by co-producer Mile Downey as "a cross between All Quiet On The Western Front and Evil Dead... the first supernatural war movie," Deathwatch (previously known as No Man's Land before Danis Tanovic nabbed the title for his own trench movie) is not quite as groundbreaking as it thinks it is. In fact, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to The Bunker, released in Britain only two months ago, as well as to earlier films such as Michael Mann's The Keep (1983).
Shooting on location in the Czech Republic, the first-time writer-director Michael J Bassett and his DOP, Hubert Taczanowski, create some very striking wide-screen compositions and, working on a limited budget, make assured use of a panoply of special effects. And the cast is never less than competent, with Bell confirming himself as an extremely engaging screen presence.
But their characters are dull, stock types (bluff sergeant, ineffectual officer, religious nut and, inevitably, the company's resident psycho) whom Bassett never succeeds either in bringing to life or making the audience care about. The proceedings are drenched throughout in a bombastic orchestral score which only enhances the overall sense of pumped-up self-importance.
Prod cos: Film And Music Entertainment, ApolloMedia, Wilma.
UK distributor: Pathe.
Int'l Sales: Odyssey Entertainment.
Exec prod: Dan Maag
Prods: Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Frank Huebner.
Scr: Michael J Bassett.
Dop: Hubert Taczanowski.
Prod des: Aleksandar Denic.
Ed: Anne Sopel.
Music: Curt Cress
Main cast: Jamie Bell, Hugo Speer, Matthew Rhys, Andy Serkis, Dean Lennox Kelly.