Thursday, August 28, 2008

Movies: Down to the wire.

The idea behind Deathwatch - the 2002 Michael J Bassett fright flick – is pretty simple: a soldiers versus spooks tale set in a haunted German trench during the height of World War I.

The idea has obvious merits. As a setting, World War I is underused by horror makers. This despite the fact that trenches make for brilliant closed sets. You don't have to build some fortress structure or old musty castle; just dig a ditch in the ground and move props around to give the viewers the sense of a sprawl tunnel network. Nobody can tell one mud hole from the next, so you'll cut costs like nobody's beeswax. Moreover, current pop history consensus on the war writes the whole thing off as a monumental bonfire of tragic human stupidity and waste. Unlike, say, our current protracted struggles abroad, which can always be about money and oil if no particular ideology gives you reason enough, it is hard to find the thread of any intelligible motivation for the Great War. Nearly a century later, people still argue about why it happened and just who caused it. The conflict has an aura of fated tragic doom that fits in nicely into the tone of a modern horror film, especially a ten-little-Indians style ghost pic like Deathwatch.

There is, of course, a downside. No war is ever pretty – though they sure can be photogenic – but it seems to me that World War I was, in some special way, notably crappy. From All's Quiet on the Western Front to Good Soldier Švejk, from In Parenthesis to Johnny Got His Gun the First World War produced horrors rather than heroes and became the seminal point for the modern anti-war protest work. (The irony, of course, is that anti-war works have proven utterly useless. They don't end warfare, but rather simply kill off the idea that war could be heroic. Bereft of heroism, war is now simply an extension of national might, exercised with grim realpolitick brutality. After stripping off the gloss of lies that made war palatable, these works ensured that we'd get used to fighting unpalatable wars.) The war was felt as a collective trauma, not a civilizing triumph. And justly so: chemical warfare, offensive weaponry that far outpaced the defensive strategies of the day, and a suicidal notion of what constituted battlefield honor made the trenches uniquely nightmarish morasses of slaughter. The modern horror director needs to ask himself, "Now why do I think the addition of ay supernatural shenanigans will seem scarier than what already exists?" If you treat your WWI setting with any level of seriousness, then there's a good chance that whatever haints you cook up are going downright timid next to the wholesale carnage that was the everyday reality of the trench.

Somewhat predictably, Deathwatch manages to use its WWI setting effectively, but ultimately it cannot avoid making the supernatural elements of the film seem somewhat trite and unnecessary.

The film starts with a disastrous over-the-top (literally) push that separates a handful British troops from their company. After playing "the lost patrol" for a short time, the group finds a mostly deserted German trench. Despite the enormity of the trench system they've found, there are only three Huns in it, desperately manning a barricade that seems, illogically to the Brits, to be defending the Germans from the rest of the trench structure. In the short battle for control of the trench and its aftermath, two of German's die and one flees into the trench. The Brits secure the trench, recapture the German, and attempt to radio HQ. To their dismay, HQ is announcing that there were no survivors from the push. According to HQ, our heroes are dead.

Over the next two days, somebody or something begins to attack the troops. Inexplicably, soldiers are picked off one by one. Already battle fatigued, paranoia begins to take hold and the soldiers begin to turn on one another. Eventually, the full scope of their inhuman adversary becomes clear to them. But, by that time, it may be too late to save what's left of the unit.

The plot is, to anybody familiar with R-Point, Dog Soldiers, or even Aliens, pretty standard stuff. Army versus The Unknown Thing! Still, personally, I dig that stuff. There's something about using military forces, rather than a gaggle of hapless teens or tourists, that ups the stakes. The army represents the final argument of kings, as it were. They're supposed to be the ones who are trained and equipped to handle threats to our existence. The conflict between armed soldiers and uncontrollable dark forces seems, to me, to bring the conflict between humanity and the uncanny to its ultimate limit. This is humanity at its most pugnacious. If these guys can't hold the line, who can? Also, the cinema of war films has given us a system of archetypal characters that a competent director can tap into, piggybacking on tradition to do get the work of characterization done quickly. In Deathwatch, we get a sampler platter of classic types: the stoic and competent second-in-command, the psycho war-lover, the Bible thumper, the coward, the upper-class twit CO, the subaltern (the Scot being the minority here), the logical and humane medic, and so on. Admittedly, these characters are only slightly more textured than the types populating your holiday-themed-slasher-camp flick (the jock, the slut, the nerd, the good guy, the final girl), but they've been so honed by master filmmakers – if Ford, Fuller, Walsh, and others had made slashers instead of war pictures, those movies' stock characters might be better – that they perform their narrative tasks so well that we don't notice their essential artificiality. Finally, the solution to the problem posed earlier – how do you keep the horrors of war from overwhelming your more ephemeral and ghostly terror? – is to essentially trap the characters in this one trench, far away from the conflict. Barring some quaint slang, the film quickly ceases to be WWI specific and the troops become generic soldiers from any conflict, anywhen.

Really my only issue with the plot has to do with the supernatural elements of the story. Supernatural horror is easy to abuse. Once a screenwriter has introduced non-naturalistic elements into the plot of movie, there's a real tendency to let narrative logic unravel completely. The idea of characters slipping into some non-rational twilight zone is fine, as far as that goes. But the problem is that dramatic conflict requires cause and effect. Too often, supernatural elements in horror stories become deus ex machina that cover up sloppy writing and rob characters of a sense of agency. When characters are simply being pulled this way and that, the idea that they should be striving to master their fate gets thrown out the window. In such as cases, the viewer becomes acutely aware that characters are living and dying simply because the filmmakers have willed it so. There's nothing wrong with supernatural horror, but it is tricky: it's done best by people who refuse to take the easy out it offers. In Deathwatch, the filmmakers don't lose control over their story until the very end. Then, suddenly, spooky stuff starts happening not because the logic of the story demands it, but mainly because the filmmakers need to wrap things up.

The film looks good. Director Bassett lavishes attention on the squalid details of trench life. The thick mud, the rats, the decay – it is enough to make this humble horror host happy that nobody has yet perfected the cinema tech necessary to deliver synchronized smells. There's some clunky CGI, but it is used sparingly, so it goes by without jarring the viewer. The gore effects are minimal, and most have to do with the violence of the war and not the acts of supernatural entities. The acting is solid, if not astounding. Jamie "Billy Elliot" Bell, whose been in everything from the indie post-Dogme 95 Dear Wendy to blockbusters like Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, leads the cast in the role of cowardly Pfc Charlie Shakespeare.

Grim, eerie, and relentless up until its loosely plotted final act, Deathwatch is a solid, but not great, flick.


spacejack said...

Speaking of grim...
"After stripping off the gloss of lies that made war palatable, these works ensured that we'd get used to fighting unpalatable wars."

That's pretty grim. Can't say I disagree though.

It's tough to find a good supernatural horror movie that doesn't self-destruct in its final act.

There seem to be two basic types of endings: The Raiders of the Lost Ark type ending, where the supernatural forces simply tidy everything up in the end, or the Exorcist ending, where someone figures out a "legal loophole" in the laws governing the supernatural forces and takes advantage of it at the last second.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Looking back, that was perhaps too cynical.

More importantly, spot on about the supernatural cop out endings. There's naught wrong with ghost, ghouls, and other spooks and such, but too often they encourage lazy art by allowing authors/artists/filmmakers easy outs.

Sometimes, I almost think it is a "no win" situation. If you've got truly irrational supernatural elements, then the story becomes flat because there's no logic to the conflict. If you make "rules" for the supernatural elements, then they lose that aura of mystery. They become not supernatural, but simply as-yet-unexplained-but-otherwise-rational phenomena.

But I don't think I'm ready to give up on it yet. There's too many successful works with supernatural events at their core to write it off. Clearly it can be done and done well.

Anonymous said...

Hmm.. Didn't you review this one already ? Or am I confusing it with another war related movie that you also reviewed.. (I swear I've read the trench one before.. The other one that rings a bell is the "wounded enemy soldier found" cyclical where the last remaining guy becomes the wounded soldier for the next "group" of soldiers coming in..)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I think you're thinking of R-Point, which has a similar plot but takes place during the Vietnam War and follows a group of South Korean soldiers into a haunted, abandon hospital. We reviewed that before.

spacejack said...

I think part of the appeal of the vampire, werewolf and zombie genres is that they have fairly established rules. Or if the rules are changed, they are usually explained and adhered to. So you have the supernatural, but also the tension of knowing what can or can't be done.

American Werewolf will always be one of my favourites because there was no loophole.

But you're right, there's a fair bit of pure supernatural horror that does work. And there's plenty of non-supernatural horror that fails because it has no internal logic.

Arbogast said...

I think the clock has run out on body count movies - they just seem, ultimately, as if they have too many characters and even the grab bag of interesting deaths can't distinguish one from another. You lose track. You lose interest. I'd love to see "notably crappy" on the slipcase of a future DVD release of this not-bad-but-20,000-leagues-from-good spookshow.

CRwM said...

Mr. Ghast,

The blurb I've wanted to see appear on any war flick, horror-tinged or otherwise, is: "Brought the experience of the soldiers home. All I wanted was for it to end so I could get back home."