Christopher Smith cements his position as Britain’s leading horror film-maker with this dark tale of fanaticism, temptation and superstition set in a plague-ravaged fourteenth century England. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a bona fide classic in the great folk horror tradition of “The Wicker Man” or “The Witchfinder General”, and although “Black Death” is hardly likely to herald a revival of this distinctly English sub-genre, which more or less confined its influence to a brief period during the early- to mid-seventies, it does a fine job of recreating the ferocious nihilism and the feeling of battle-torn hopelessness, entrenched deep in the rural idylls of England’s verdant landscape, which was at the heart of Michael Reeves’ finest. Smith being the inveterate cineaste that he is though, brings much more to the table than witch-burning and pagan rites amid some pleasing scenery, and also attempts to bring the fundamentalist’s mind-set chillingly to life by eschewing the usual, stately, period film standoffishness of the standard historical epic for a doggedly vérité approach that thrusts the viewer headlong into the fear and turmoil of England in the year 1348, when the bubonic plague literally tore apart the very fabric of manorial-based feudal society, wiping out half of the country’s population in a mere eighteen months. “Black Death” is about how one group of people come to rationalise such an unprecedented catastrophe given the beliefs of the age they live in, and the unremittingly bleak consequences of their dreadful, violent decisions.
Eddie Redmayne plays callow young monk Osmund, a man torn between his love of God and the love of his life as the bubonic plague tears a swath through the community living in and around its main centre, the local monastery. He sends his beloved Averill (Kimberley Nixon) away to the remote village of Dentwich in the hope that she will be safe there from the disease, but cannot bring himself to ‘betray God’ by leaving his brothers and going with her. She tells him she will wait each morning for a week at the martyrs cross outside the village, but if he does not come in that time she will wait no more. Desperate for a sign from the Lord to tell him what to do, his prayers soon seem to have been answered in the shape of a rugged knight by the name of Ulric (Sean Bean), a Bishop’s Envoy who arrives charged with a mission assigned by the Church to investigate reports of necromancy in a nearby village which has remained mysteriously untouched by the all-destroying horror of the buboes.
When he and his band of disreputable followers come with tales of satanic worship and reanimated corpses, looking for a monk guide to lead them to the site of this alleged devilry, Osmund thinks God has favoured his union with Averill after all, since the accursed village turns out to be situated not that far from Dentwich. The Abbot (David Warner) is unwilling to let the unworldly Osmund leave on a trek with such people, though, ominously warning that Ulric is a thousand times more dangerous than the plague itself. But something about Osmund’s faithful determination attracts Ulric to the boy, and he chooses the young monk for the mission even against the wishes of his Abbot. As the group sets out on its long journey through a wasted grey landscape, where the air hangs thick and heavy with the smoke of burning corpses and God seems to have no mercy for his creation, Osmund gradually becomes aware that Ulric and his men are not just here on a fact gathering mission to report back to the Church the increasing abundance of stories of necromancy, but see themselves as knights of the Lord on a mission to destroy all those who have wrought this plague upon humanity through their dabblings with witchcraft and devilry. They plan to destroy this village and bring the necromancer at the heart of it back to face justice. Their journey will not be an easy one, since the plague leaves lawlessness and violence trailing everywhere in its wake: ruthless bandits patrol the woods and forests, and mobs of scared villagers, looking for witches to blame for their woes, are everywhere. Osmund, who is looking only to be reunited with his earthly love, is about to find himself faced with the ultimate crisis of faith and love and brotherhood when he is presented with a choice that could have eternal consequences for the souls of all those he loves.
“Black Death” is a German-made film, so though Smith sets it in England, the German landscape of rich forestry and fog-bound marshlands never really convinces as an authentic representation of rural England in the 1300s. But that ultimately doesn’t matter for the director’s purposes; the film presents characters on a mission into the unknown, who live in a demon-haunted world where necromancy is real and the Earth is a constant battleground between God’s rage and the Devil’s mischief: the atmospheric environment created by these lush and dark, deeply mysterious-looking surroundings enables Smith to give the mental world of the average Medieval witch-burner a vivid reality, while he still gets to retain the immediacy and realism lent by the hand-held camera style the film favours. All the while, Smith cunningly plays with our genre expectations, exploiting our familiarity with the world of “Lord of the Rings” pseudo-medieval fantasy to create the expectation that, at any moment, reanimated zombies really could spring out at us from the forest shadows. The first half of the film is essentially a medieval ‘guys on a mission’ flick in which the disparate band encounter many hazards and dangers as they journey towards their destination, while in doing so they come to form a bond of trust and devotion as all around them society is decaying and collapsing. The film is as much influenced in tone by the mystical fervour of “Aguirre Wrath of God” as it is by the nihilism of “The Witchfinder General” and the wonderfully evocative score of Christian Henson (with its ominous ancient-sounding scraping of strings under a mournfully sonorous melody) combined with Sebastian Edschmid’s smoky-blue cinematography combine to give this first half of the film its unique feel. What happens in the second half is best left for the audience to discover for itself (frustrating for the reviewer, since this is where the film’s real brilliance lies!), and for the most profound effect you should stop reading now and discover it for yourself.
For those still with me though, all I’ll say is that Smith’s agenda is not what it at first appears to be when our protagonists finally do reach the village they’ve been searching for, and discover that, indeed, the place has been entirely untouched by the plague and seems to be a pastoral idyll, benignly led by the cheerful village leader, Hob (Tim McInnerny) and his gentle herbalist consort Langiva (Carice van Houten). The film is more leisurely paced than is usual for genre films, and more concerned with exploring character and issues around faith and superstition -- with implications that still reverberate in our own times -- much more so than it is with promoting gallons of on-screen gore and torture – although there is enough of that also. It’s by far the most serious film from Christopher Smith thus far, and might not find favour with all of the audience who made “Severance” such a success. The film benefits most from a truly stellar cast who each bring something special to their roles no matter how small. Sean Bean was made for the role of Ulric, an immensely complex character – a fundamentalist with an inflexible certainty in his vision of the world who nonetheless achieves a kind of nobility despite his unattractive, uncompromising religiosity. John Lynch plays perhaps the most sympathetic member of Ulric’s band of Satan slayers, Wolfstan – a man driven by guilt for all the lives he’s taken in war, convinced that the plague that is upon them is God’s punishment for such sin. There are also excellent turns by Andy Nyman as Dalywag and Johnny Harris as Mold, the two picaresque vagabonds of the troupe: essentially criminals who see witch persecution as a safe little earner, but who are also brave and unyielding in battle. It’s always good to see David Warner in a horror film, as well.
The film’s second half really works though because of Tim McInnerny and Carice van Houten’s amazing performances as the leaders of the untouched village, who may or may not be in league with ungodly forces. The direction the film takes comes as a genuine surprise, perhaps because Smith had the original screenplay by Dario Poloni competently re-written by the writer in order to remove certain elements of the original story that took it too far into overt fantastical territory. The results are terrifically brutal, uncompromising and devastatingly bleak. Hell and purgatory have become all the more frightening as concepts for being metaphorical rather than literal by the end of the movie.
The Blu-ray from Sony regales the viewer with exactly the kind of rich audio and visual presentation one expects from the medium while the extras are mostly standard fare disc-filler: a twelve minute making of featurette in which everyone says how great Sean Bean is and commends the enthusiasm of Christopher Smith; ten minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; and five minutes of deleted scenes (with Christopher Smith’s always enlightening commentary); and the raw video footage from the interviews of cast and crew that went into making the featurette are also included. The theatrical trailer rounds things off, apart from Christopher Smith’s director’s commentary, which is excellent. I think Smith does some of the best commentary tracks in the business, always informative and giving a real feeling of how it is to make a film with producers breathing down your neck and actors’ schedules to be accommodated. We learn that the film was actually shot in chronological order, so his commentary becomes a sort of diary of the shoot encompassing all of the events the crew had to cope with along the way and explaining in detail his options in the shooting of each scene; how each could have been shot and his reasons for choosing one way above another. It’s a genuinely fascinating listen and should be of value to budding film-makers.
“Black Death” seems to have received some mixed reviews but I thought it was one of the best modern horror films I’ve seen in some considerable time, and there is certainly nothing else like it being made at present. Well worth checking out.