Black Death. 2010. Directed by Christopher Smith. Screenplay by Dario Poloni.
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Tim McInnerny, Kimberley Nixon, Andy Nyman, David Warner, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, Jamie Ballard, & Tobias Kasimirowicz. Egoli Tossell Film/HanWay Films/Zephyr Films.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
I’m a big fan of Christopher Smith’s work from his eerie 2004 flick Creep to Severance and Triangle a few years later. All of which have their strengths, weaknesses. Overall, they’re awesome. Smith has a will to try and be original.
We see that break through widest with his 2010 film Black Death; a horror-mystery set in 1348 as the bubonic plague ripped its way through Europe. In England, religious superstition runs high when a small village in the marshes is rumoured to be untouched by the black death, so a group of knights, cobbled together with fundamentalists and psychopaths alike – plus one monk whose love for a woman tests his own faith – are sent to investigate. To mad result.
Being a fan of all things medieval, having studied a great deal of medieval literature, Smith’s film is highly entertaining. I feel like it’s close to being a perfect bit of horror cinema, with some history (not all entirely accurate) and action to make it all the more intriguing. Any medieval film has to at least touch on the brutality of the time. Ingmar Bergman did it. The Name of the Rose, too. Even Monty Python in their infinite comedic wisdom gave us “‘Tis but a scratch!”
The best of what Smith does is give us a savage, genuine reflection of the times, allowing for maximum nastiness and a few excitingly bloody moments. Shooting in the most perfect locations with a grainy sort of aesthetic, his directing makes this feel like something you could have seen 20 years ago. But it’s also refreshingly modern, as Smith brings into question whether anything has changed after so many centuries. Still, one group runs around with fundamentalism in their heart to a deadly extent and the other condemns them with an equally heavy, morally ambiguous hand.
So where does it end? Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, either.
There’s a large juxtaposition of faith in Black Death. Eddie Redmayne’s monk Osmund is unsure of his own at the start. We discover he’s conflicted between the vow of chastity and a woman with whom he’s fallen in love, deeply. This all troubles him, clearly. Everything gets intense when he’s up against men who are so sure of their faith they will kill to honour its tenets. We see various measures of faith, as well. For instance the picture above – a group of flagellants crossing through the river, carrying a cross and brandishing the straps with which they whip themselves religiously (pun intended). Meanwhile, those knights whose faith drives them aren’t exactly pious. They’re murderers. Torturers. Within the shaky faith of Osmund, even he can’t condone what these men are doing. They revel in it, too. Not like their duty is tough. They enjoy almost every last bit. When death comes they smile, as if a reward for their loyal service. Along their journey Osmund discovers a group of villagers about to burn a woman up for supposedly practising witchcraft. When the men fend everybody off, Ulrich (Sean Bean) still kills the woman; one of the first glaring omissions of faith on his part. Through all these men, Ulrich and Osmund included, we’re shown a scale of morality through the eyes of men who believe themselves religious. All the while many of them persecuting people who do not follow their own. On the other side are those in the village, led by the mysterious beauty Langiva (Carice van Houten). They renounce any Christian faith, and in their eyes the knights are nothing more than mercenaries from their God. Part of why I find Smith’s film great is that the atheists are sometimes no less ignorant and brutish than the ruthless knights, which can be the case in real life; some atheists I know are far bigger annoyances than the Catholics and Protestants I know. Many themes are wrapped up in Black Death, although the aim at religious extremism is pretty dominant.
As I mentioned, the blood flows freely in certain scenes. The violence and brutality of the medieval period come across vividly. Practical special effects are the star of the show during the fights we witness. The knights are ruthless, as is everybody else. Those times often necessitated violent conflicts. Some of the nastier moments actually involve early scenes when we see gruesome results of the plague ravaging England; close views of lumps under the skin, bodies wrecked by its spread. Of course, images such as those crop up several times throughout the film. What all out action we get is frenzied, barbaric. There’s a more angry feeling than anything choreographed, as swords fly and gore is spilled on the ground. Later in the plot, the torturers become the tortured, and a few of them are dealt a vicious hand. One in particular involves an amazingly tense, grisly bit of crucifixion. Fantastic. That’s not the end, either. Not by a long shot. Ulrich provides us all with a final showing of macabre entertainment. I won’t ruin it by saying any more.This is one of the best horror films since 2000, by far. I’ll say it loud and proud. Not everything is perfect, not every single bit is tight as possible. Mostly, Smith makes a fantastic piece of horror cinema, one that involves morbid history and a discussion on faith in many senses. Fundamentalism, extremist faith, these sit at the core of the film, and isn’t it great it could bring out these themes in Christianity? Nothing has changed to this day. When you see the finale, how the character of Osmund in particular ends up, you see how people of all walks of life, of all degrees of faith, are tested; it’s how you come out on the other end that matters. Ultimately, we are all judged by the great test of our own personal faiths, whatever that may be. We can either rise to the challenge, or admit ourselves false. Osmund makes his choice, just as many today still make their choices. And they must live with them. You can let religion cloud your judgement. In opposition, you can choose for yourself, judging what you can see, hear, touch for yourself. Black Death is more than horror, action, adventure, any of the tags we pin to its jacket. It is all those things and so much more.