By Jim Slotek
“Staying in your lane,” being one of the decade's worst cliches, it’s cool to see a Canadian horror film like Trench 11 that doesn’t feel constrained by genre rules.
Trench 11 is a zombie film (sort of), it’s a First World War film, it’s a science-run-amok film. But mostly it’s a claustrophobic enterprise about a handful of Americans, Brits and a Canadian (Rossif Sutherland) trying to escape from a 100-foot-deep bunker with ravenous infected German soldiers below and gun-toting Germans with a mission-to-kill above.
It’s not the goriest horror film, beyond a few skull shots (although prepare yourself for a post-mortem scene where a chest is split open, revealing a cavity full of virulent, active vermicelli worms). Historical accuracy-wise, it’s the kind of WWI film that removes a Roman numeral, but otherwise gives us Nazi brutes and mad scientists, but in earlier era uniforms.
But Trench 11 director Leo Scherman takes this simple story and all the atmosphere at his disposal and gives us a gripping 90 minutes of literal escapism.
Sutherland (Hyena Road) is Berton, a Winnipegger and veteran tunneler (a Great War subterranean battle technique wherein one side tries to attack from below, while the other digs down to meet them and destroy their avenue of advance). With the war nearly over, it looks like Berton’s digging is over, and he’s settled in with Veronique (Karine Vanasse), the sweet little French girl he plans to bring home (“If you love Paris, you’re going to love Winnipeg,” he says, delivering the funniest line in an otherwise very serious film.)
Unfortunately for him, and maybe the world, Allied intelligence has discovered frenzied activity around a tunnel that remains nominally behind enemy lines. At the same time, the Germans are suffering a bout of “digger’s remorse” over whatever they’ve left behind at said tunnel installation. Worried about repercussions after the inevitable surrender, they send Reiner (Robert Stadlober), the imperious and snotty scientist who botched the as-yet-hazy experiment, with troops to destroy whatever evidence remains.
This is not Reiner’s plan however (at one point in the movie, he gives what amounts to a “master race” speech that suggests he’s years ahead of the moustachioed German Corporal who’s presumably plugging away on some nearby battlefield). Turns out the Germans, on the heels of their unconscionable experiments with chemical weapons, have gone biological. And whatever is down in the tunnel is Exhibit A in how low the Kaiser’s war efforts could go.
So it is that Berton is called back to duty, under the command of a strutting mountebank Brit (John B. Lowe), and serving with a noble doctor (Charlie Carrick) and some Bronx-y Americans (and later becoming best pals with a “good German,” played by Shaun Benson). Given orders to take the lead, Berton has a tendency to go off on his own, which is a good thing, given the body count that rises the further they progress underground.
This is ultimately Berton’s story. Will he get out of the infected tunnel, destroying it in the process? Will he get home to Winnipeg? Will Veronique really love it as much as Paris?
We’ll save that for the sequel. In the meantime, Trench 11 remains a tension-filled good time.
Trench 11. Directed by Leo Scherman. Starring Rossif Sutherland, Robert Stadlober and Karine Vanasse. Opens Friday, August 31 at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas in Toronto, and across Canada.