Directed by Christopher Smith. Starring Lena Heady, Rupert Friend, Sean Bean and Andy Nyman. Historical thriller, Ger/UK, 97 minutes.
We’ve all watched Christopher Smith grow at FrightFest thanks to world premiering each of his movies since he started out on his directing career. Now he delivers spectacularly on the promise shown incrementally from CREEP to SEVERANCE to TRIANGLE.
Smith’s masterfully chilling BLACK DEATH blew me away because it was so not was I was expecting. For it’s a superior interpretation of medieval history and superstition as thought-provoking and compelling horror. Hard to describe in many ways without revealing too much information crucial to its transfixing final reel, but here goes: In 1348 rumours proliferate of a remote rural group of people untouched by the lethal plague decimating Europe. So knight Ulric (a splendidly stoic Sean Bean) and his mercenary band of merry torturers (including Andy Nyman, LONDON TO BRIGHTON’s Johnny Harris and Jon Lynch) are sent by the Church - Abbott David (THE OMEN) Warner - to investigate if necromancy is indeed holding the pestilence at bay. Their guide, plucked from a local monastery, is conflicted novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne giving a hugely affecting performance), whose forbidden love for a fair maiden means his faith will be put to the ultimate test. By playful sorceress Langiva (DOROTHY MILLS’ Carice van Houten) who not only holds the marshland community in some sort of pagan sway but seems to have the power to raise the dead. This route into the heart of absolute darkness can best be described as AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD meets THE DEER HUNTER and then WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Smith’s most personal and mature film is a frightening journey into the social fabric of evil, pathological cruelty and supernatural possibility. With analogies deftly drawn to contemporary issues (religious intolerance, Swine Flu-type global pandemics) and the tone kept purposely insidious, BLACK DEATH overflows with Smith’s signature trademarks (the witch-baiting sideshow, the torture wagon) and cinematic technique (a single shot crucifixion sequence). Some may find the climax rather disconcerting as Smith pulls the rug from under one’s feet. However, the greater percentage will thrill to the way the eerie and puzzling intensity builds up a compelling head of scream as the stark brand of WITCHFINDER GENERAL shock value rears its head in the most startling of codas.
This intelligent original represents a commendable break from the genre norm and is one of the most powerful films made about God, the godless and what the Devil truly represents.
I saw Sean Bean strutting his bubonic stuff in Black Death last night. Not bad. Certainly not as bad as it could have been.
Plot recap: Its 1349. Englands population has been scythed down by the bubonic plague. Word gets around that theres one village untouched by the pestilence. A knight by the name of Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of followers want to check it out. They grab a young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as their guide. Osmund has an ulterior motive in joining them. This involves, predictably if not especially appropriately for a wannabe monk, a hot medieval wench.
Anyway, off they pop to find the village. When they get there, they find a balding bloke called Hob (Tim McInnerny) presiding over a hotbed of necromancy. Since this is a horror film, set in a violent age, bad things soon happen, many of which involve bubonic pustules; some of which involve divorcing innocent people from their limbs.
Good points: for a relatively low-budget film about a medieval disease, Black Death is surprisingly beautiful. The sets and costumes are convincing, and the landscape, shot in a chilly palate of grey-greens and slate, feels just right. The freckled Redmayne is cast very well. He has a startled, supernatural look about him, which works very well here. Sean Bean is all gruff voice and prickly beard: you know what to expect from the Bean, and you get it in spades.
Bad points: this is basically The Wicker Man in tights. But with less Britt Ekland. The horror isnt particularly weird or scary, just a bit gross. The necromancer (Carice van Houten) is pretty but not very sexy which is a crime against the trade of necromancy IMHO. The narrative arc is a bit flat: Ulric and the gang dont have to do much questing to find the plagueless village, and when they get there, things arent really all that mysterious. The ending, in which a disillusioned Osmund wanders the world doing evil of his own, strains for coldhearted brutality, but actually just feels a bit mean.
But overall, this is a decent, well-shot, uncompromising picture. It has a strong sense of place and plague, and although my companion at the screening claims I snorted all the way through at minor anachronisms, I actually thought it was a pretty faithful vision of what fourteenth-century England might have been like. (All except for the weird Anglo-Saxon names, that is.)
Not pestilential cack, then. Lord have mercy on us all.
Black Death is released in May