Any film set in the time of the bubonic plague is unlikely to be filled with sunshine and rainbows, and unsurprisingly, Black Death is quite possibly the most doom-laden film I’ve seen all year.
Director Christopher Smith is no stranger to blood and grime, having directed the London subway horror Creep (which was rather good) and the team-building gore of Severance (which starred Danny Dyer).
Set among the pestilent misery of 14th Century England, Black Death tells the story of a novice monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who accompanies a fanatical knight “more dangerous than pestilence”, Ulric (Sean Bean) on a hunt for a heretical necromancer. Together with a group of hairy mercenaries, the pair trudge through mile after mile of corpses and gloom to the remote village where the blasphemer lurks, fending off thieves and killing the occasional witch along the way.
For the first half of the film, Black Death is essentially a road movie with beards and horses. Sean Bean is dependably dour and grumpy as the knight who slaughters in the name of the Church, and of the colourful band of mercenaries, Irish actor John Lynch is great value as Wolfstan, a jaded and battle-weary ex-soldier.
It’s when the group finally arrive at their destination that the intrigue really begins. Far from the demon-infested vision of hell Ulric had been expecting, the village is quiet and idyllic, its populace apparently untouched by plague. Gradually, however, Osmund and Ulric realise that all is not as it seems, and Black Death builds to a climax that is bleak, yet horribly believable.
Shot realistically and without the distraction of CGI, Black Death is filled with texture and an almost palpable sense of disease. Its German locations seldom convince as a stand-in for medieval England, but there are moments of stunning pastoral beauty that contrast the frequent scenes of brutality.
If you can overlook some implausible moments early on in the plot (Osmund, anxious for his childhood sweetheart to avoid the plague, sends her off on her own to hide in a forest full of criminals), the remainder of the film is well constructed and thought provoking.
It tackles themes of superstition and religious fanaticism, and how the two can result in acts of terrible cruelty and corruption, giving the film far more depth and intelligence than Smith’s earlier films. There’s also an occasional line of sparkling dialogue in Dario Poloni’s script, including “You’re a Christian. You should understand the concept of betrayal,” while John Lynch’s closing monologue ends the film with an uneasy chill.
Black Death is a tricky film to categorise. Those expecting a medieval horror film will be sorely disappointed. While there are undoubtedly horror elements here, it slips more into the historical thriller genre, like a bloodier, more violent The Name Of The Rose.
It’s a film in the tradition of such British pagan classics as Witchfinder General or Blood On Satan’s Claw, with added elements from Apocalypse Now and distant echoes of, oddly, Star Wars.
And while it’s not in the league of those classic movies, Black Death is well made and engrossing, its conclusion undeniably powerful. As Smith demonstrates, religious zeal and fanaticism really are more dangerous than pestilence.
A film as low budget and low key as Black Death is perhaps an unlikely choice for a Blu-ray purchase, but the texture in Sebastian Edschmid’s photography, from the shimmering leaves in its forest locations to the crumbling stone of its monastery, is just about worth the extra cash.
The disc also contains one of the most chipper ‘making-of’ featurettes I’ve ever seen, in which cast and crew express their love for Chris Smith’s style of directing in glowing terms.
There are also a few deleted scenes, an amusing but perfunctory feature commentary from Smith, and separate interviews with Smith, Sean Bean and producers Phil Robertson and Jens Meurer, which are essentially lengthier versions of those in the featurette. Of these, Meurer is the most interesting, and explains how Black Death‘s themes resonate with events in the present day.
As look into how Black Death was written and conceived, the extras are disappointingly flimsy, and it’s a pity that such an intelligently made film couldn’t be accompanied with something with a little more insight.
Black Death is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.