Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Poloni
Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, David Warner, Carice Van Houten, Kimbereley Nixon
Tagline: Journey into Hell.
Release Date: Currently on Video-On-Demand, In Theaters March 2011
Official Site: www.blackdeathfilm.com
As the premise of Christopher Smith’s latest film, Black Death, the bubonic plague is is perhaps “one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.” Spreading across much of Europe in the mid-1300s, the plague killed countless people as it spread and is thought to be the impetus behind many religous unrest during that period. It is this unrest that the film’s story really focuses on, following a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who ventures into the world outside of the church in search of his lost love only the find it largely filled with pain and suffering.
Osmund is joined (or rather joins) by a company of seven (Ulric, Wolfstan, Dalywag, Mold, Ivo, Griff, and Hob), mercenaries on a quest for God (some more genuine than others) in a small Marsh village a few days away. Each man is given enough characterization to make them different from one another, but it’s made clear from the beginning that this film is about Osmund and his “journey into hell.” Aside from Osmund, I most enjoyed the performance of Andy Nyman (Severance, Death at a Funeral) as Dalywag, the a torturer whose mobile torture device seems like a twisted mix of the Iron Maiden and a guillotine.
The story unfolds slowly like a kalidescope of familiar film tropes, but one that ultimately blurs together well enough to yeild a cohesive narrative. In fact, it’s very likely to draw comparisons to films like Michael Reeves’ The Witchfinder General or Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (though similatities to the former would be most accurate). Black Death also flirts with Cannibal Holocaust and The Wicker Man territory in terms of its well-designed and unsettingly set pieces, but overall is too tempered by an inhibited brutality for any further similarities to be true.
Unlike Witchfinder General, however, which offers us a calculating and cold-hearted witch hunter from the very start, Black Death gives us something closer to a witch hunter in the making. This means the film’s medieval-horror pretense is built more with a slow dread wrought by an oppressive atmosphere of religion than bloody violence and in the end seems like a lost opportunity. The greatest tragedy is that we never even get to see Dalywag’s ominous contraption in action despite the attention granted to it.
In fact, Dario Poloni’s script even seems to realize this in the film’s final three minutes which see a surprising transformation occur in one of the characters. It’s quite an unexpected twist, yet one that feels more natural to the universe Smith has committed to film. Having seen another of Smith’s films a few years back, the horror-comedy Severance, I find that most of the film’s flaws lie in its script. That being said, Black Death is a solid period piece and certainly better than most medieval horror movies I’ve seen, but the ending may leave some scratching their heads while others will simply wish the film had started there from the beginning.