Written by: Dario Poloni
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean and Carice van Houten
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
God is invoked a lot in Christopher Smithís Black Death, but he seems conspicuously absent, having left behind a plague-ravaged Medieval world on the verge of tearing itself a part. Itís a movie that doesnít feel like a traditional horror film until you suddenly realize the chaos and despair that suffocate all of the proceedings within this godless world. The film begins as a typical quest, but soon descends into the depths of its charactersí souls, which become corrupted by a sort of spiritual plague.
At the center of it is Osmond (Eddie Redmayne), a friar who has recently fallen in love with girl (Kimberley Nixon). Since his monastery has been consumed by the plague, he sends her into the woods and promises to follow; he gets an excuse to take off when a knight (Sean Bean) is in need of a local to guide him on his quest for a village that supposedly is free of the Black Death. He soon learns that he may receive more than he bargained for, as the village in question is also rumored to be a haven for sorcery and necromancy.
I suppose youíd call this a dark, gritty sword and sorcery flick, with the sword part of the equation being prevalent for the first hour. Itís here that the men encounter various vagabonds and lowlifes, such as witch-hunters and petty thieves in sequences that allow Smith to show off his hack and slash chops. His direction here is swift and perhaps a bit too reliant on quick-cutting and shakiness, but he manages to capture the visceral nature of it as bodies are splayed about. All of this is merely ancillary pulp, mere seasoning to the dreary ambiance that reveals what type of world this is and what kind of men inhabit it: coarse, grimly deterministic individuals serving as guardian angels but sometimes acting like devils.
Most fascinating among them is Beanís Ulric; because Smith essentially presents a world thatís been turned upside down, itís difficult to get a grip on just who Ulric is. The episode with the witch-hunters actually ends with him strangling the life out of the girl he rescues, leaving you to wonder what the devilís work will look like since heís supposedly a man of God. We get our answer once the group reaches their destination: a creepy, isolated marshy abode that is indeed untouched by the plague but seems to be a little bit too inviting. Greeting the men is Langiva (Carice van Houten) an almost elfin woman who is all too eager to let the men rest in her village. Thereís something vaguely dystopian about it all; Smith has already presented a world so far gone and despairing that we question anything that seems too good to be true.
And, of course, we discover that it is indeed; specifically, Osmond stumbles upon the sinister plot thatís seemingly allowed this enclave to remain so kosher. This is where the sorcery aspect finally arises, as black magic and other sort of psychological charms emerge and lead to an intense climax that forces Ulrich, Osmond, and company to either renounce or rejoin their god. Many of them are subjected to physical, inquisition-style torments, but Osmondís torture is more psychological, as heís presented temptations that bring forth his struggle with his earthly love for Averill and his love for the lord. Eventually, the film is Redmayneís to carry, and he brings a perfect, wide-eyed naivety to the role of Osmond; heís the pure lamb among a pack of wolves, and itís his plunge into darkness thatís most disturbing. Like in many films that mix horror and religion, weíre ultimately upset by the evil that good men are forced to perpetrate.
Black Death is a movie with quite a bite to it; while it may not reveal any staggering truths, itís a fine return to that familiar territory that reveals how terror can work in concert with dogmatism to control and grip those in fear. Sometimes, the scariest form of sorcery comes not from a necronomicon, but rather, from the simply cruelty of the human mind. Smith delivers the film with ease; this feels like the work of a filmmaker thatís confident and poised to make a leap. I enjoy how heís mashed up a few genres here, as thereís a little bit of drama and action in the initial quest before it gives way to the occult mysticism that feels straight out of the 70s British cult cycle.
Making pastiche that stands on its own is something a lot of directors often lose sight of, but Smith doesnít. This owes a lot to the sources it cobbles together, but Black Death is ultimately a rather unique excursion into religious-based horror. Crisp and entertaining pulp buoyed by just enough thematic weight, it works on both levels. Despite its relative star power and quality, this one only showed up in a few theaters before Magnet released it to DVD and Blu-ray; from what I can gather, both of those releases are fine--I opted to check it out on Netflix, where itís available in HD and with 5.1 surround sound. Had it not been available there, I would have inevitably plucked it from a store shelf, and I wouldnít have regretted dropping ten bucks on it. Buy it!
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