In Deathwatch, a ragtag group of British soldiers suffer through a brutal battle on the Western Front of World War I. After somehow emerging through the explosive skirmish, the band of men wander the European countryside, severely disoriented, until they stumble onto a nearly-abandoned German bunker. The men take the single occupant prisoner, a frightened enemy who babbles in frantic German, which none of the British soldiers are able to understand.
The bunker and accompanying trenches are a desolate, Grand Guignol-style display of corpses, mud, blood, and barbed wire. Although the shell-shocked Captain is forced to admit that he is absolutely lost, and is unable to pinpoint their location on any map, a radio is discovered and he decides to hold the bunker while attempting to contact HQ for reinforcements.
As the soldiers spend first hours, and then days, ensconced within the stifling isolation of the bunker, the tension of the situation begins to escalate as cabin fever begins to set in, and several soldiers question the validity of the decision to stay and hold a bunker that is obviously abandoned. The German soldier is terrified of the bunker and attempts to express his fears, but no one will listen, even when he tries to communicate in French. As the soldiers begin to disappear one-by-one, raw emotion and frustration bubble to the surface, relationships deteriorate, and the film cruises violently toward a last minute twist that can be seen coming from the 20-minute mark.
The characters are interchangeable for the most part, anonymous actors all similarly muddy and wearing the same clothes, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. Jamie Bell, who gave a stellar performance in Undertow, plays the timid, 16-year-old Private Shakespeare, and he manages to hold your attention with his redeeming sincerity. Lord of the Rings’ Andy Serkis gives an over-the-top performance as the humorously hirsute, club wielding fanatic, Private Quinn, and he manages to effectively scream his way through several scenes, lips peeled back in Gollum-like hatred.
Writer/director Michael J. Bassett makes the most of his low budget, with the wet, miserable atmosphere of the bunker captured beautifully via spare overhead shots and tight close-ups of wood, mud, and wire. A few of the soldiers’ corpses are discovered bound in barbed wire, coils of it erupting from their mouths and empty eye sockets; it is a haunting image that Bassett brilliantly refuses to overplay.
Deathwatch has a twist-ending that has been utilized in horror movies often enough, it almost deserves to be categorized and filed (Horror Film Twist Type 32B, e.g., Carnival of Souls, Dead End); any astute horror fan will be able to spot the twist from across the Marne River, so one feels simultaneously relieved and disappointed when it finally arrives. But ultimately, thankfully, Deathwatch fulfils its early promise as a moody, high-quality horror film that should not be missed by fans of the genre.