DEATHWATCH (Michael J. Bassett, 2002)

British writer-director Michael J. Bassett’s creepy, inflated Deathwatch gives the heart a few real jumps before dissolving into its foggy resolution. It follows a fearful, stressed-out World War I British company on the western front as an unseen enemy, possibly a supernatural force, takes it down soldier by soldier, even turning them murderously against one another. It’s a spooky haunted house thriller, where the “house” is a muddy, corpse-filled German trench, and that genre’s bloodier descendant, the slasher flick, also hovers about. It suggests a great film, John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934), but by way of an incredibly lousy one, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); and, although Bassett’s film shifts sides and world wars, Rob Green’s The Bunker (2001) also comes into play.
     Fog is a recurrent motif; characters appear from and disappear into it, lost souls in some unchartable place. Indeed, they don’t know where they are, and Bassett drops in a dozen hints that the entire company is dead without yet knowing it. Only one of them, an underaged private named Shakespeare(?!), treats their German prisoner with respect and concern. Little do the Brits know that “their prisoner” is actually a cosmic test of their capacity to hold onto their humanity. Pretty much everyone fails the test.
     Bassett, of course, is indicting war; the horror genre is enlisted to give full vision to the theme of war’s horror. Bassett and his cutter, Anne Sopel, have fun mismatching shots so that we lose our bearings and feel, along with the film’s characters, something of the chaos of war. Still, the overall impression made by this gruesome film is one of tackiness.
     In one strikingly good scene, Shakespeare, on guard duty, whistles “Silent Night” in the silent night. In war, silence isn’t peaceful. Nothing is.

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