A lot of technological developments have come out of war, enough so that it seems odd war movies and horror movies haven’t hooked up more often. Horror does meet the war movie In director Leo Scherman’s Trench 11. Set in the trenches of World War I, a highly contagious biological weapon, created by German forces, is discovered by Allied troops as they explore an abandoned underground bunker. Their mission becomes more desperate when one of their own is infected by the deadly parasite and begins to violently attack them. The soldiers now need to not only save themselves, but must stop the outbreak before it spreads to the rest of the world.
The movie’s young hero, a Canadian tunneler named Berton (Rossif Sutherland), has only recently escaped being trapped in tunnels, and is in no rush to be ripped from the arms of his pretty French lover to be sent back into the dark places of the Earth. Reluctant heroes work well in war movies, and this has been the popular way to make them ever since Hemingway turned war stories on their heads with A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Sutherland’s boy-next-door good looks and sensitive delivery serve him and the movie well.
That war is Hell has been a theme of war movies pretty much since they started making them. Fair enough. War has always been Hell. Horror movies have been rolled in the mix surprisingly seldom. Scherman doesn’t have the budget to do an Alistair MacLean-scale adventure along the lines of The Guns of Navarone, and opts instead for the dark and claustrophobic confines of the tunnel complexes beneath the trenches of World War I’s No Man’s Land.
World War I was a century ago, but it was the first truly modern war. Routine use of the machine gun in combat, flamethrowers, longer range artillery with higher explosives than had ever been seen before, air support and submarine war on merchant shipping all made their unwelcome debuts in the war that was ironically called “The War to End All Wars.” All those, and chemical weapons. Those too. Interestingly, MacLean wrote one of the first popular novels about the dangers of biological weapons, The Satan Bug, under the pseudonym Ian Stuart, in 1962, and that was long after World War I.
The violence-inducing parasites the Germans have lost control of are not the whole story, and part of this movie’s success rises or falls on the audience’s acceptance of the genre hybrid. If there’s a problem it’s because Scherman almost openly prefers the war movie to the horror movie, and it’s the war movie here that has the loftier ambitions. Ongoing dialogue scenes with the movie’s German mad scientist villain, played with a not-quite manic intensity by Robert Stadlober, evoke, probably deliberately, Apocalypse Now.
The movie’s influences pretty much hide in plain sight, and the same can be said of the horror movies that clearly populate its DNA. If the splatter effects are presented with a little too much enthusiasm for a movie about the madness of war (and they are), they’re nonetheless well-executed, reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Scherman also makes full use of the audience’s natural tendency to squirm in dark passageways, something Carpenter exploited to the max in Halloween. Despite the movie’s obvious debts to Carpenter, the synth-score is more reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, than Carpenter’s collaborations with Alan Howarth.
If Trench 11 is a little too ambitious for its own good, it nonetheless deserves credit for milking every penny out of its modest budget, providing some genuine shocks on cue, and solid performances. Intelligent, moody and at least intermittently suspenseful, Trench 11 delivers when it counts.
RJLE Films is releasing Trench 11 on DOD, DVD and VOD on September 4, 2018.