The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, October 1, 2012


It's difficult to imagine the horror that was trench warfare in World War I. Wasting away in the mud with filth, rats and disease all around, soldiers were rewarded with what amounted to suicidal charges into enemy machine guns. In other words, basically the worst environment available. Maybe because of that situation -- and its general uncomfortable quality for viewing -- WWI movies aren't as prevalent as WWII. So how do we tweak that plan? A horror WWI movie, 2002's Deathwatch.

It's 1917 along the Western Front in France, and Pvt. Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell) and the rest of his infantry company take part in a nighttime charge on a heavily guarded German position. The casualties are horrific, and in the morning Shakespeare and a small group of fellow survivors are lost and separated from any other British units in the fog. They stumble upon a maze-like set of trenches held by just a trio of German soldiers so their commander, Capt. Jennings (Laurence Fox), orders them to hold the position, believing they've taken a forward German position. The group settles in, but something isn't right. Something else is in the trenches with them...some sort of evil.

Poorly reviewed/rated since its 2002 release, Deathwatch is still an interesting -- if heavily flawed -- movie. A lot of it appealed to me, and I'm not usually one for horror movies. That might be its biggest positive though, and that would be the ability to combine genres. A war movie meets a horror movie? You don't see many of those around. A WWI trench is an ideal setting for a movie for the look and feel alone. It rains basically the entire movie, turning the trench into one vast mud pit. The walkways are cluttered with debris, dead bodies and who knows what other horrors. Setting the story in an intricate set of maze-like trenches sounds simple, but it is original and gives a great backdrop to an interesting cross-genre plot.

I've made no secret of my typical dislike for horror movies. I don't like being scared watching movies. I want to enjoy them. That said, 'Deathwatch' is an incredibly uncomfortable, unsettling movie that had me on the edge of my seat. What is it that awaits these British soldiers in the trench? No spoilers here, but it is an unseen -- mostly at least -- evil that seems to pit the soldiers against one another. The trench is literally littered with corpses, German soldiers too. Serial killers, slasher movies, yeah, they're scary. But what about an enemy that is evil incarnate? How do you defeat something that is at its base...evil and in theory, can't be defeated? That sense of doom and foreboding is disgustingly effective here because until late, we don't see what these soldiers are actually up against. A twisting, turning maze can hold all sorts of horrors, and no one knows what to do to combat it.

Combining a war story with a horror movie allows director Michael J. Bassett to use the 'unit picture' idea in his casting; a small group of men from one unit working together to survive some sort of hellish war situation. In one of his first roles, 18-year old Jamie Bell is decent but nothing spectacular as Pvt. Shakespeare, the young soldier trying to overcome a fear that cripples him in battle. Fox as Jennings is the new officer who no one quite trusts. The other noteworthy performances include Hugo Speer as Sgt. Tate, the experienced non-com, Andy Serkis as Wilson, the unhinged killer, Matthew Rhys as Fairweather, the medic, Dean Lennox Kelly as McNess, the clear-thinking, worrying Scotsman, and Hugh O'Conor as Bradford, the religious radioman. The other soldiers include Ruaidhri Conroy, Kris Marshall and Hans Matheson. Torben Liebrecht has a creepy part as Friedrich, a German soldier captured in the trenches.

What splits a lot of people -- myself included -- about this movie is the ending. Spoiling it here with no doubt ruin your whole viewing of the movie, but I will say I liked a point. It feels familiar, like other films I've seen with a similar twist. The last scene leaves the story open to interpretations a little, and the final shot is a startling one that sent a shiver up my back. In general, the story is good, but at times it tries to do too much. It explores religion amidst war, the brutality, goodness in a horrific situation, and a will to survive when everything around you is trying to kill you. The story/script could have been a little more pointed, but I still liked this one a lot. Well worth checking out for a creepy change of pace movie.

Deathwatch <---trailer (2002): ***/****     

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