Sunday, July 1, 2012

"God is Dead"

THE BUNKER (2001)
DEATHWATCH (2002)

THE BUNKER is rich in flashbacks but low on chills.

ONE of the most popular sub-genres of horror is the supernatural war scenario, particularly if German zombies are involved. A precursor to Nazisploitation, THE FROZEN DEAD resurrected members of the Third Reich by attaching their severed heads to new bodies; spirits of an SS torture ship haunted DEATH SHIP; goggle-wearing undead rose from the depths in SHOCK WAVES; German soldiers killed by the French Resistance were dumped in a ZOMBIE LAKE; and in the recent DEAD SNOW, a group of Norwegian students battle Nazi zombies in search for hidden gold. One of the strongest entries in this category is the previously reviewed OUTPOST, where mercenaries explore a bunker once used by Nazis to conduct experiments on reality manipulation and reanimation. The two horror-war hybrids under consideration here are less sensationalist that these previous films, made by first-time directors and both hampered by flat scripts.

Rob Green's THE BUNKER is set on the German-Belgian border during the death throes of WWII, where German soldiers on the run from swiftly advancing Americans seek refuge in a munitions complex. The Nazi troops - who include intensely devoted Schenke (Andrew Tiernan) and reluctant Captain Baumann (Jason Flemyng) - discover that the bunker is attached to an incomplete series of tunnels. The original tenants warn against venturing into the maze, which is supposedly haunted by Jewish workers killed for refusing to finish their work. Living up to its opening Nietzsche quote "If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you," THE BUNKER is a tediously dull affair. The endless, edgy anguish of the infantrymen - who share a guilty secret that in itself is driving them mad - builds to a payoff which never arrives. Fans of war or horror cinema will feel let down by the distinct lack of violence or gore, though the opening sprint for safety is accompanied by a chilling sound design of bullets travelling through air and flesh. Ultimately it is difficult to view any film where seven German soldiers are all played by actors with a range of British accents.

The trench of DEATHWATCH act as a metaphor of reanimated evil, regurgitating its warring factions.

The British/German co-production DEATHWATCH - shot almost entirely on location in a field in Prague - is by far the stronger of the two films. After the chaos of a battle on the Western Front, 1917, the British soldiers of Y Company find themselves enveloped by a mysterious mist; lost and without communication, they emerge to discover a deserted German trench. Convinced they have broken through enemy lines, they decide to secure the rat-infested network and begin to explore it – only to find mutilated bodies amongst the warren of muddy tunnels. After the rest of the men lose their minds under the influence of supernatural forces and bleeding mud, the underage volunteer of the group enters a hole which suggests that the preceding events are hallucinations of a dying brain.

Director Michael J. Bassett conjures unsettling images such as undead mud-men and corpses covered in barbed wire, and with its constant, rain-soaked pestilence - one character has his gangrenous legs eaten by rats - DEATHWATCH is a sobering reminder of real-life horrors that action-heavy combat movies blind us to. Although the performances are suitably stoic, the narrative is negated by too many character cliches: the underage conscript Private Charlie Shakespeare (Jamie Bell, the BILLY ELLIOT star who was almost blown up during production), the class war evoked by Captain Jennings (Laurence Fox), the thoughtful but sympathetic Sargeant Tate (Hugo Speer), religious fanatic Bradford (Hugh O'Conor) and psychotic Quinn (Andy Serkis in typically scene-devouring mode). As grim as the First World War undoubtedly was, the most horrific moment comes when Starinski (Kris Marshal - light years from his role in MY FAMILY and the BT ads) - masturbates in an isolated part of the trench over some picture cards.