“Black Death” is one of those movies that just kind of came and went, with very little hype or marketing, stretched out over a long period of time. Those people who noticed it at all probably (like me) confused it with “Season of the Witch,” since the plots are very similar, and both trailers started showing up around the same time.
It’s too bad that the junkier of the two got the wide release–the relative coolness of Ron Perlman beating up demons aside. Like “Season of the Witch,” “Black Death” is a medieval-set horror movie involving witches and the Black Plague. Unlike that Nicolas Cage bomb, however, “Black Death” is a solid piece of filmmaking, a thematic cousin of “The Wicker Man” that has a lot more going on than scares and swordfights.
It isn’t without flaws, but it is smart, with social commentary and haunting imagery that will stick in your brain for days afterward. Not to mention that it’s a good follow-up for “Game of Thrones” fans anxious to see more of Sean Bean kicking ass in chain mail.
The focus of the film is Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a novice monk who’s going through a difficult spiritual period, both because of the plague, and via temptations of the flesh in the form of his lover, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). When the plague strikes his village, he takes the opportunity to send Averill off to the forest, and sign on to serve as guide to a bunch of soldiers (led by Bean in full-on Ned Stark mode) who are off to investigate a town that’s supposedly using pagan magic to protect itself from the disease. Osmund and the soldiers come upon the town to discover that the townsfolk have, in fact, forsaken God, and that their approach to dealing with Christians is every bit as nasty as the Christian approach to dealing with pagans.
Perhaps the most notable thing about “Black Death” is that it’s a horror movie which goes about its nasty work in a realistic, no-nonsense manner. You’d think given that Bean, Redmayne and their compatriots are essentially on a witch hunt, that there’d be a fair amount of supernatural occurrences. But there’s not a single one—every action is grounded in reality, and the only “magic” in the film is simply the result of deception and manipulation. Director Christopher Smith (director of “Severance,” another underrated horror flick) has a knack for de-glorifying violence and portraying it with a grim nuts-and-bolts simplicity that you just can’t shake, and he displays it to great effect here.
There are plenty of action scenes throughout “Black Death,” but it’s only towards the end, when the stakes are at their height, that we see much blood. This restraint, coupled with a gray color palette and ominous music create a sense of cold dread, making you constantly feel that as bad as things are, they’re about to get a lot worse.
We don’t get to know the characters very much either, getting only enough information about Osmund to set the story in motion, and even less from the men he accompanies. These long-time battle companions, however, seem to care a lot about each other despite their practical knowledge that the ones who don’t die in battle will probably die of disease. It’s a feeling that adds to the downer atmosphere, but feels like it could use more development, especially given the stark, terrifying-in-concept setpiece that makes up the movie’s climax. There are lots of emotions building up on screen here, but it doesn’t hit the audience the way it might if we were more invested in the characters.
But what Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni lack in dramatic development, they make up for in thematic depth. “Black Death” feels like a form of modern-day morality play, presenting some interesting questions regarding religion–not necessarily belief itself, but the people who believe. Early in the film, Osmund’s superior at the monastery warns him that Bean and his crew are “more dangerous than the pestilence,” and while at first you wonder what he’s going on about, it quickly becomes clear that there are some uncomfortable viruslike similarities between the plague and the religious extremism on display from both the Christians and the Pagans.
There’s a volatile mix of narrow-minded conviction and power madness in the interactions between Bean’s Ulrich and village sorceress Langiva (Carice Van Houten). The ensuing violence, cruelty and vengeful trickery leave both sides looking pretty bad, and the survivors shaken and confused.
Unfortunately, “Black Death” is bogged down by a heavy-handed, unnecessary closing narrative that feels tacked-on, and leaves no ambiguity about its message, or what happens after the climactic confrontation with the villagers. Given the intelligent nature of the rest of the film, it’s a little disappointing that Smith doesn’t trust the audience to figure out the meaning themselves.
And as a horror movie, much of the action is lacking—it’s strangely bloodless and over too quickly. But the palpable sense of hopelessness Smith creates here is not to be ignored, nor is the film’s shocking, unsparing climax. “Black Death” definitely isn’t a rollicking, bloody good time, but it is a haunting study in the capacity for cruelty in people when they’re scared, and the lingering effects that cruelty can have.