It’s taken three years for teen sensation Jamie Bell to return to the screen after his fabulous debut in Billy Elliot, and in the interim he’s grown up.
In Deathwatch the now 16-year-old Bell is Private Charlie Shakespeare, an underage soldier thrust into the trench warfare of The Great War in Michael Bassett’s tremendous blend of horror film and war movie.
Obviously made on something of a shoestring, but benefiting enormously from a capable ensemble cast that includes Hugo (The Full Monty) Speer and Laurence Fox, son of James, Deathwatch takes audiences for a swift trot through no man’s land as a group of British Tommies find themselves lost during an advance.
They wind up wandering in the mustard gas and mist and stumble across a German trench. They kill two of the enemy they find there and take the third prisoner. And that’s when strange, unaccountable things start to occur.
From the outset it is clear that the trench harbours something… Is it a German soldier, hiding in the shadows? Or does the darkness conceal something far more sinister – something that creates an atmosphere of dread and picks off the Tommies one by one?
Directed with a real sense of the macabre by self-confessed horror buff (and debut feature filmmaker) Bassett, Deathwatch takes an established genre – the war film – and turns it on its head. Coming so soon after two other recent British chillers, Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later, Deathwatch provides the third point in this triangle of terror.
The most telling element of Deathwatch is writer/director Bassett’s success in making an already terrifying situation – the Western Front – even more frightening. He does this by taking away from Shakespeare and his comrades any sense of reality. Before they were fighting the Boche; now there is something else out there, and it’s not taking prisoners.
As in many war films the uniforms and uniformity of soldiers often means some performers fade into the background, and Deathwatch is no different. Kris Marshall and Hans Matheson are the chief victims here, with the lion’s share of the action going to Bell (obviously) as the conscience, Speer as the humanitarian NCO, Fox as the ridiculously young officer and, outstanding as a scalp-collecting psychotic, Andy Serkis.
Bassett also makes fine use of the confines of the mud and water of the labyrinthine trench, as well as the corpses that litter it. Throw in rats, barbed wire and the ghostly shattered trees that poke from the landscape, and this becomes an original, compelling, highly atmospheric and, at times, very frightening tale that belies its low budget.
After the almost universal acclaim that greeted his debut in Billy Elliot Bell could have had his pick of the big scripts. Instead he has chosen a modest rites of passage picture that doubles as an extremely .
Bassett calls Deathwatch “a haunted house movie set in a trench”, and he’s right. For a first movie, and one set firmly within the diminishing genre of the British horror movie, it’s to be applauded. With Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and now Bassett’s offering, we may be about to witness the resurrection of the UK horror flick. Here’s hoping.