Boasting a nifty sense of setting and little else, the Canadian produced and World War I set zombie thriller Trench 11 is a competent, if unmemorable riff on horror classics and historical fiction. It’s not that director and co-writer Leo Scherman’s tale of allied forces doing battle with rage infected monsters is a bad or unwatchable film, but rather that it’s a movie that never lives up to the potential of its premise. The concept of the film is memorable in theory, but the execution and final results will quickly evaporate from memory.
In the dying days of the Great War, intelligence has surfaced to suggest that German forces are hiding something major in a previously undiscovered bunker that’s located curiously far away from the front lines. A joint British and U.S. task force are tasked with investigating the bunker, but they need an experienced tunneler to help complete the mission. Enter Berton (Rossif Sutherland), a Canadian soldier currently on leave and drinking his sorrows away, who was commended for spending twelve days trapped eighty feet underground with no food, water, or materials following a rescue mission gone awry. Dragged away to help and having no say in the matter, Berton assists with the mission, which uncovers a German experiment involving a tapeworm-like organism that turns average human beings into rage-filled killing machines. The British Major in charge of the “observe and report” mission (Ted Atherton) refuses to let the understandably spooked soldiers under his command turn tail and run away, placing his personal ambitions above the safety of the unit. It’s a decision that will prove costly when the experiment’s creator (Robert Stadlober) returns with forces of his own to retrieve the biological weapon.
Appropriately claustrophobic and shadowy, Trench 11 makes the most of its modest budget and tight surroundings. It’s dimly lit by design and function, and the browns, yellows, and olive greens of the film’s overarching colour palate nicely reflect the story’s sickly, ill at ease nature (in a good way). Scherman and co-writer Matt Booi have crafted the film’s story to fit the production’s limited budget, placing more money into special effects, hiring talented actors, and period appropriate details than flashier storytelling gambits and set pieces. It’s a sensible approach from a business standpoint, but creatively it doesn’t offer much in return. It’s like winning three dollars on a one dollar bet.
For a survival thriller set in such a unique location and historical period, Trench 11 is decidedly light on action and suspense. There thankfully aren’t too many cheap jump scares crammed into Trench 11, but the few that pop up are predictable and ineffective. There are some well choreographed moments of hand-to-hand combat that are appropriately brutal, but they’re fleeting. Attacks perpetrated by infected German soldiers boast some top notch gore effects (including a gruesome shotgun blast through a skull, cadaver sawing, painful nose biting, and a squirm inducing machete to the ankles), but these bursts of flashy violence are few and far between. At least the gory bits are the most memorable moments in the film.
Trench 11 never builds or sustains momentum thanks to a desire to slow things down and take the story’s wartime setting more seriously than the horror elements. Such a focus would have been admirable if Scherman and Booi’s script and execution were a bit stronger and smarter than they ultimately are. The characters that comprise the film’s core unit of heroes – except for Sutherland’s leading man, Atherton’s self-centred leader, and Charlie Carrick as the corps’ doctor – are interchangeable, underwritten cannon fodder. The main villain is pitched at a campy level akin to a Christoph Waltz performance, but such levity is wildly out of step with the narrative’s overall fatalist leanings. There’s even an unconscionably long bit where Carrick and Stadlober openly spell out the film’s political and moral subtext that grinds everything to an unbearable halt, even when their argument is intercut with other characters carrying on various side missions. The dialogue frequently goes in one ear and out the other thanks to the story’s pat and predictable nature. The pace of Trench 11 becomes leaden, and although the story is built around a fixed timeline to complete the mission at hand, it never boasts the immediacy and tension such a thriller needs to remain consistently entertaining.
In its worst moments, Trench 11 feels like a horror movie that’s been put on autopilot. In its best moments, there are flashes of a more ambitious and complex feature. Scherman and Sutherland (looking appropriately paunchy and punchy) do what they can to make Trench 11 work, but it ultimately isn’t enough. It’s not smart enough to work as a thoughtful historical thriller, and there’s a lack of intensity that would doom most other horror films instantly. Together, the historical elements and horror beats make for an admirably curious, but ultimately flavourless mixture.
Trench 11 opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, August 31, 2018. It hits on VOD on September 4.
Check out the trailer for Trench 11: