"Billy Elliot" discovery Jamie Bell, now 16, makes a brave career choice for his second outing with "Deathwatch," a psycho-horror movie set amid the muddy, rat-infested trenches of WW1 in which he's surrounded by a strong Brit cast all chewing the scenery. Tale about a group of soldiers driven crazy by some unseen evil is a tour-de-force.

“Billy Elliot” discovery Jamie Bell, now 16, makes a brave career choice for his second outing with “Deathwatch,” a psycho-horror movie set amid the muddy, rat-infested trenches of WW1 in which he’s surrounded by a strong Brit cast all chewing the scenery. Relentlessly grim, rain-drenched tale about a group of soldiers driven crazy by some unseen evil is a tour-de-force of production design and lensing that only really delivers the genre goods in its final reel. Clever marketing and fast play-off will decide pic’s B.O. fortunes, which should enjoy a comfortable second coming on ancillary. Following its release in Hong Kong early November, film went out wide in the U.K. Dec. 6.

Set in an unspecified part of the Western Front in 1917, movie starts with a chaotic nighttime battle in which the 10 members of Y Company end up next day lost behind enemy lines. After taking one terrified Hun (Torben Liebrecht) prisoner, they set about securing their position in the maze of trenches and tunnels, while radioing for help.

Commanded by an upper-crust milquetoast, Capt. Jennings (Laurence Fox), the company is a surly mixture of disparate types. Youngest of the group is Shakespeare (Bell), a 16-year-old who lied about his age when signing up; the nuttiest is Quinn (Andy Serkis), who wanders around with a club of nails and collects German scalps. Others include a whey-faced priest (Hugh O’Conor), a dedicated doctor (Matthew Rhys) and a pragmatic sergeant (Hugo Speer).

When one of the mud-covered corpses comes to life, and is shot by a spooked-out private (Hans Matheson), it gradually dawns on the group that there’s something strange out there. And after three bodies covered in barbwire suddenly become murderous, the German prisoner tells them they’re all going to turn on each other and die.

That’s basically all that happens in the script by Michael J. Bassett, here making his big-screen helming debut after TV work. Amid all the rain and sludge, lovingly detailed in widescreen by d.p. Hubert Taczanowski, character development remains largely waterlogged, and subservient to physical action. Best stuff is saved for the end, as Quinn crucifies the German above ground and goes completely off the rails.

As the voice of reason and common sense among all the escalating madness, Bell holds his own against colorful competition, gradually moving into the foreground. Rhys, too, is noteworthy as the quiet doc. Rest of the cast play it grim-faced or in top gear, with Serkis dominating the going as the lunatic Quinn.

However, for a drama that is more about an abstract conception of evil than a tangible force, the film is light on real shocks and any sense of engulfing doom. Though p.d. Aleksandar Denic’s warren of slippery, blood’n’rain-soaked trenches is impressive, and Bassett’s nimble direction makes the most of the samey settings, the picture is largely kept going by its physical mechanics rather than any dramatic revelations.

Other technical credits are fine, from Anne Sopel’s fluid editing to Lucinda Wright’s lived-in costumes. Score by Curt Cress and Chris Weller adds little except background noise. Originally titled “No Man’s Land,” pic was entirely shot outside Prague.

Deathwatch

Germany-U.K.

Production

A Pathe Pictures release (in U.K.) of an Odyssey Entertainment presentation of an ApolloMedia, ApolloProMedia (Germany)/Film & Music Entertainment (U.K.) production. (International sales: Odyssey, London.) Produced by Sam Taylor, Mike Downey, Frank Huebner. Executive producers, Caroline Hewitt, Sam Lavender. Directed, written by Michael J. Bassett.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Anne Sopel; music, Curt Cress, Chris Weller; additional music, Rob Lane; production designer, Aleksandar Denic; art director, Martin Martinec; costume designer, Lucinda Wright; sound (Dolby Digital), Jiri Kriz, Paul Carr, Andy Thompson; sound designer, Nick Adams; special effects co-ordinator, Pavel Sagner; associate producers, Michael Bischoff, Dan Maag, Ralph Kamp; assistant director, Hendrik Holler; casting, Liora Reich. Reviewed at Odeon Wimbledon 2, London, Dec. 9, 2002. Running time: 95 min.

With

Charlie Shakespeare - Jamie Bell Chevasse - Ruaidhri Conroy Capt. Jennings - Laurence Fox Friedrich - Torben Liebrecht McNess - Dean Lennox Kelly Starinski - Kris Marshall Hawkstone - Hans Matheson Bradford - Hugh O'Conor "Doc" Fairweather - Matthew Rhys Quinn - Andy Serkis Sgt. Tate - Hugo Speer
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