Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Deathwatch: War, What Is It Good For?

You don’t see a ton of horror movies set during wartime. This is probably for a couple of reasons - first, it’s hard to foster an atmosphere of dread and helplessness when your protagonists are trained to kill and armed to the teeth. Second, it’s hard to compete with wartime in the scary and disturbing stakes. If you’re going to make a horror movie set during a war, you might as well just make a documentary because what the fuck can you come up with that is worse than what these people are going through on a daily basis? Sure, there are exceptions, especially if we cast a wide enough net to call Apocalypse Now a horror movie, but not many. Most of the ones I’ve seen have ended up falling flat because they try to impose a supernatural threat onto a natural one that’s so much worse, trivializing it in the process.

Deathwatch is ostensibly a movie about the horrors of war, but it doesn't have the confidence to let war be the horror that it is

We open on World War I, which seems to be the point in history after which people stopped even trying to convince themselves and others that war was a noble endeavor conducted by gentlemen. That was always a myth, but it was a myth that died hard. World War I was a point in history when killing technology considerably outpaced strategy and tactics, so pretty much every battle was just throwing soldiers into a meat grinder made out of bombs, gas, tanks, and automatic weapons. And that’s where this movie begins - with a bunch of British soldiers in a trench, about ready to go over the top, where they are most certainly going to die.

There’s a bunch of them, and not a lot of time to get to know them as people. The unit is pretty much described at its extremes by underage, naive Shakespeare, who is sixteen years old and freezes when ordered to leave the trench, and near-bestial Quinn, who wears animal pelts, German medals, dog tags, and scalps on his uniform. Everyone else sort of falls in between the two - the competent sergeant, the posh captain out of his depth, and then others might have a defining characteristic or two, but they aren't the point of the movie. They're soldiers, by nature they should be undifferentiated, as monochrome as the smoke-choked sky and muddy trenches. And they’ve been ordered to go over the top, to leave their trench and charge to occupy the enemy trench. This is how the old ways of waging war run headlong into the new ways. Most of them will die, blown to bits by artillery or gunfire, tangled and bleeding out in nests of barbed wire, choking out on poison gas. But they are ordered to go, and they go. Many die, but not all, and when they see the thick fog advancing toward them, they know it’s probably a gas attack and grab their masks...

...only to find themselves in the forest, under an uneasy gray light, surrounded by fog instead.

Lost and a little confused (it was night and there was gas, now it’s day and there’s no gas), nine remaining soldiers make their way through the forest to an enemy encampment, abandoned except for three German soldiers who appear to be trying to warn them away. From what, they can’t really tell, but they all seem far more worried about something other than the nine soldiers holding them at gunpoint.

If my description feels a little vague and clumsy, that’s a reflection of how things play out. The transition from the battlefield to wherever they are now is sudden enough to feel like a continuity error given only passing consideration by the protagonists, and the remainder of the film squanders a lot of the opportunities afforded by the setting. WWI lends itself especially well to nightmare hellscapes - endless, blasted fields of trenches and mud and blood and bodies and barbed wire, and Deathwatch works best when it lets those things exist alongside the characters, just sitting there alongside piles of mud that upon closer examination turn out to be corpses, rats crawling all over everything. It's terrifying to us but it's business as usual for them. It’s all very evocative, and is probably the best thing about the movie - it feels appropriately nightmarish, so the casual way the characters move through it makes it nicely disconcerting. They aren't stupid teenagers ignoring danger signs right in front of them, this is their reality.

The horror, then, should emerge organically from the surroundings so that the protagonists don't realize anything is wrong until it's too late, but instead we're sort of fed this narrative of this being a fundamentally evil place where they will turn on each other, and sure enough that's what happens (when it's not other, completely unrelated things) more or less, so there's not a lot of surprise. The movie tells us what's going to happen, and then it happens, and not all that convincingly at that, so there’s no shock or dread or uncertainty. The mostly-undefined, context-less “evil” manifests itself at different times as walking corpses (sort of), disembodied voices, and a really artificial-looking red mist. There's no internal logic to it - it's just "evil" and that's supposed to mean something, and none of the manifestations are convincing enough to be frightening, so what should be a unit descending into madness is a bunch of guys running around and yelling.

In the end, everyone does what it's sort of telegraphed they're going to do, and there's no real surprise or point to be made apart from the obvious futility, pointlessness, and inevitability of war. It feels like a purgatory, and that's exactly what it is, no surprises there either, and so trite and on-the-nose in its resolution as to be a little insulting. Given how much of WWI as we sort of understand it today is the clash between the belief in war as a noble enterprise and the ugly reality of it on the battlefield, that we get exactly what we expect is a real disappointment.

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Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix


  1. I do think you've missed the point. They're all dead - they were killed in the original attack, and you can actually see Shakespeare being buried by a shell blast. The rest of the film is supposed to be an allegory of purgatory; who's going where. They weren't subtle about it either; remember the scene of the others in a dark place underground sitting around a fire while Charlie alone gets to ascend into the mist and light. How much heavier-handed could they get?

    I don't dislike the film, primarily because of the set design. I would hope the people remaking All Quiet On The Western Front do at least as well in their trench sets.

  2. No, I got that bit just fine, it was obviously a purgatory.