Release Date: December, 2002

A well-done low-budget horror film that ... captures the feel of the Great War without fail. It should be required viewing for any Storytellers wanting to run Wraith: the Great War


Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

World War I - once known as the Great War - was also referred to as The War to End All Wars: a hollow hope, given what came of it, but an understandable one when you look at what transpired.

The conflict erupted over things that, seen in hindsight, were trivial and nearly pointless. And once battle was joined, it rapidly bogged down into stalemated trench warfare, creating the terrible spectacle of thousands of young men going "over the top" to try and secure just one more inch of territory. Those who ran at those well-armed enemy lines were more likely to be riddled by machine guns, blown apart by shrapnel or crucified on barbed wire than fulfill their mission; Those who refused to commit suicide in this fashion were shot on the spot as traitors. And if you did make it back, there was always sickness, rats, rain, gangrene and bombardments to make life in the trenches a slow, creeping death of its own.

Deathwatch starts out in this manmade Hell, but by the time the movie is finished we've all gone somewhere entirely different - someplace where these horrors are compounded by something even creepier and more evil, and yet strangely more noble as well...

I "volunteered" for Deathwatch because I was hoping for more inspiration for Wraith: the Great War. I got a lot more than I bargained for, and I think Wraith STs could be no poorer for having a gander at it, themselves. If you are in one of the areas where this movie is being released on DVD, you should pick it up post-haste.


The Story:

It starts out in a British trench in occupied France, with Company Y getting ready to go up and meet the Hun. We're introduced to the characters as they make ready, especially the godly Bradford (Hugh O'Connor from Chocolat) and the ungodly Quinn (Andy Serkis - Gollum in Lord of The Rings) who seems to have gone "over the top" one time too many already.

And then up they go... most of them, anyway. One of them - Charlie Shakespeare (Jaime Bell, last seen in the titular role in Billy Elliot) - needs to be threatened at gunpoint by one fellow, and then eased up by Sgt. Tate (Hugo Speer from The Full Monty). Of course, once he gets up there it's obvious he's wondering if maybe being shot in the forehead would have been better. The enemy strafes them. Bombs whistle through the air. People get stuck on the wire and get sliced to ribbons. And then a bomb strikes close-by...

Next thing we know, it's the day after the battle, and our group is slogging through the fog in their gas masks. One of them is seriously wounded, on a stretcher, and no one looks particularly hale or healthy for what they've just been through.

Under the command of Jennings (Laurence Fox from Gosford Park and The Hole) they stumble across a mostly-abandoned German entrenchment. They deal with all but one of the few Germans still in it, who were - quite oddly - training their guns on something in the trench rather than watching outside of it. Indeed, as the Brits deal with him and explore what they've just taken, they get the odd feeling that the German corpses that litter the mazelike series of trenches weren't caused by the Allies, but by one another...

They secure the trenches and hunker down to wait for reinforcements. As they're going about this, they discover that their watches have stopped, and their compasses are all spinning around. Attempts to try and contact the Allies on the radio become farcical, Catch-22-style cycles of denial: the people on the other end are convinced that Company Y was completely wiped out, and won't listen to what Company Y's survivors have to say.

Then night comes, and the trench starts to show its more sinister side. One man dies in a rather gruesome fashion, which leads the men to figure that another German must be in the trench. But when they interrogate their prisoner, he insists that this is the work of some "evil" thing, and they must all leave before they go mad and kill one another.

Of course, the lads aren't having any of that; When daylight comes they take rational steps to make certain whoever did their mate won't get them so easily. Of course, things start to get a lot stranger - and deadlier - as they do. As time goes by, the group gets whittled down one by one, people start to panic, crack up and make dumb mistakes. But there is to be no talk of leaving the trench - Jenning's orders.

Eventually, the psychological strain takes its course, and - just as the German said they would - the group truly turns on one another. This eventually leads to a nerve-wracking, final confrontation, after which things go quite downhill for the sole survivor. I won't say anything more about it, so as not to spoil the denouement, expect to say there is one more strange twist left in this tale...


The Gen:

In doing the research for my take on this film, I was struck by the number of negative reviews that it received. One chord I kept seeing was that the Director/Scriptwriter - according to these critics, anyway - seemed unsure as to whether to do a horror movie, a war movie, or a psychological exploration of what war and horror will do to people. So he wound up hatching an ill-made, chimerical beast that tried to be all three at once and failed.

Did it fail? Was this, indeed, the "worst" British movie in years, as one critic put it? I don't think so. It's far from perfect, but it's not Ghost Ship, either. It's a first-time director's low budget movie that doesn't stretch itself too far, makes the most with what's available and doesn't let us know what's really going on, leaving us to decide matters for ourselves.

The opening scenes are disappointing. They're rushed and blocky, relying on darkness and close-up deathshots to convey what's going on. I felt that was a bit of a letdown: after the amazingly harrowing job done with the start of Saving Private Ryan, I was hoping to see a good, contemporary take on sending folks off into No Man's Land.

That is the weakest point of the film, right there. But it gets a lot better soon thereafter.

For starters there is the time spent in that German trench. According to the website, they went all out on making it as nasty as possible, complete with tailor-made mud, specially-imported rats and flies bred on site to get them just the right size. They filmed outside, in the rain, in a real trench to capture the awful mess that World War I was.

And as for the time spent in that trench... it's wonderful. Rather than wallow in flimsy crap and cheap thrills, the movie focuses on psychological horror as well as more visceral shocks. Some of the special effects are a little goofy or unnecessary, and some of them - like what some rats get up to at one point, late in the story - are truly unnerving.

But I think the genius in the film is what you don't see. The claustrophobia and darkness of the trenches do wonders in creating fear without having to show a darn thing. In fact, when we actually do see something, sometimes it's nowhere as terrifying as the total absence of something to shoot at. And there are some amazing scenes where sound, alone, is used to amazing effect.

There's also the characters, themselves. We do start to feel for them, which makes their deaths and psychological degeneration all the more meaningful. I must confess that, like some of the film's harsher critics, Shakespeare's character left me feeling a little flat. But most of the rest of them were gems: I loved Quinn's character, especially - but then he was nuts right from the start - and Bradford and Jennings' individual paths down into madness were top-notch. Sgt. Tate does the best job of holding it all together, which makes his own fate all the more sad.

Perfect? No. Like I said, there are some parts that could have been presented better, and others where what was shown was just too much. But all in all this was a fine job, done well.


Wraith/WOD-friendly Content:

I'm sure that, when you see this movie, you'll all guess "what's up" just after the opening credits. Maybe what happens thereafter will make you reconsider if you know just what's going on, though, and that's always a pleasant surprise.

Past that, this movie screams Great War prelude. All of it. I'd be highly surprised if the author/director didn't sneak a peak at a certain green and red RPG book. Either that or it's another case of great minds thinking eerily alike...

Of much inspirational interest are: the barbed wire; mud-logged bodies coming to life; strange things burrowing under the ground; ever present rain; thick fog; squalls of invisible and noisy things; the notion of evil getting inside you and eventually losing yourself to it... etc. etc. etc. The barbed-wire people in particular screamed Mutile to me.

But what was this, exactly? A strange, group Harrowing of some kind? Charlie Shakespeare's Deathdream? A Mutile "factory," somewhere in the Shadowlands, or even the Labyrinth?

Or what if this was all engineered for some purpose? Was this the work of Nephwracks of some stripe trying to lay claim to souls for Oblivion, perhaps? Or is this the work of Demonic-toting Heretics looking for 'worthy' souls to take to "Hell"?

We don't get any really obvious Arcanoi or Dark Arcanoi in use here. What goes on could just be caused by the Tempest - and attendant Spectres - spitting themselves up from the Nihils and streaking above the trench at strategic moments.

As for the evil within, as Bradford puts it, that's as good a simple term for Shadows as any. See if you can spot when Catharsis begins and guess the Archetype.


The Final Cut:

"You know what I really hate about this war? ... It's the fucking officers!" - Quinn

"I'm not dead!" - Shakespeare

A well-done low-budget horror film that makes the most with what's available, and then some, Deathwatch captures the feel of the Great War without fail. It should be required viewing for any Storytellers wanting to run Wraith: the Great War

4 skulls of out 5.


Official site:

You can also drop by the Writer/Director's Page to read some of the same information, and get the fallout and further developments

(I'm sorry to have to report that, as of the last update on the director's webpage, it looks like American audiences will not be watching this film in the theaters or on DVD! So the next time my fellow yanks are abroad, I'd say pick up a copy if you can.)

Reviews on the Wraith Project are the opinions of those reviewers, and are not necessarily those of the Wraith Project themselves. If you disagree with this review, send in another one. If you still feel like strangling the reviewer, see an analyst.