Let’s get this out of the way first: Black Death is by no means an enjoyable movie due to its bleak and unflinching depiction of the 14th Century. Be that as it may, it is a riveting, dramatic horror picture that’s as brilliant as it is challenging. Coming from director Christopher Smith (Severance, Triangle), Black Death is many styles wrapped into one. The director himself has described it as a “men on a mission” yarn, and it is, but Smith’s picture is far more than that – it’s also a pensive character study and a religious thriller with deeper themes that viewers are given the chance to ponder. Horrifying and haunting, Black Death dissects fundamentalism in an uncompromising fashion while depicting the ghastly madness that occurred during one of mankind’s darkest periods.
The story takes place in 1348. The bubonic plague is sweeping across Europe, ravaging villages and killing millions. In the midst of this, conflicted monk Osmund (Redmayne) is secretly in a forbidden relationship with young villager Averill (Nixon), weakening his allegiance to the church and leaving him disillusioned. Word soon reaches Osmund’s village that a remote community lies in the marsh that’s not affected by the plague, meaning that either an antidote has been discovered or that a Necromancer using the occult may have found a way to starve off the infection. Bishop envoy Ulric (Bean) and his team of medieval mercenaries plan to find this rumoured sanctuary, and seek a guide through the plague-ravaged lands. Sensing a sign from God, Osmund volunteers his services as Ulric’s guide.
Black Death is not a preposterous fantasy adventure like Season of the Witch or any similar CG-heavy production – it’s a story about men brutally slaughtering other men. The violence is not exploitative, though, as it was required to accurately portray this dark era. And on top of being an unforgiving portrayal of gruesome violence, Black Death is imbued with themes that are explored with real density and maturity, posing thought-provoking questions regarding religion and faith. More pertinently, Black Death provocatively examines the insanity of the 14th Century, when the bubonic plague led to innocents and accused witches being killed without fair trial. Furthermore, the movie provides a glimpse at how a civilised, fundamentally good person can transform into somewhat of a barbarian, blindly hurting others after being permanently changed by a traumatic ordeal. Now that is the stuff of horror.
This is definitely a slow-burner of a horror movie; it’s in no rush to get anywhere as it provides a methodical journey through this harsh world. Nevertheless, it is gripping. Laden with detail, the 14th Century truly comes alive here, with era-specific costumes, detailed production design, and authentic-feeling locations thick in fog and mood. Filmed in Germany, the sprawling vistas and eerie forests lend an epic quality to Black Death, allowing the picture to feel like far more than the low-budget, almost straight-to-video flick that it is. Kudos is also due to Sebastian Edschmid, whose cinematography is drenched in grittiness and washed out to borderline monochromic proportions. At times the hand-held photography is a bit too shaky, but otherwise the movie is marvellously shot and edited. Christopher Smith is a competent helmer, too; the brutality here has been orchestrated with a sure hand, and there’s a constant, suffocating sense of dread which suits the material. And to Smith’s credit, he chose to not always capture the story’s goriest aspects; instead, he let the graphic sound effects speak for themselves. After all, images that are conjured up by the human mind are far more horrifying than anything that can be committed to celluloid.
Unfortunately, though, the characters are for the most part only distinguishable due to their physical appearances rather than personality traits or actual names. Considering how rich some of the central characters are, it’s a shame that the less important characters were left as two-dimensional plot pawns. On a more positive note, however, the actors are all spot-on. This is not an A-list cast – this is a case where the right stars were chosen regardless of their profitability. Leading the ensemble is Sean Bean, who’s brilliantly intimidating as Ulric and who competently carries the weight of the film on his shoulders. Bean’s intensity is particularly riveting. (As a side note, due to his imposing look and the way he wields a sword, one can’t help but evoke memories of Bean as Boromir in Lord of the Rings.) Alongside Bean, as Osmund, Eddie Redmayne is ideal; he nailed all of the various emotions that the role required. Meanwhile, Ulric’s band of dangerous men were portrayed by a sublime bunch of tough guys, all of whom carried out their duties to a high standard.
Enthralling, well-made, and with impressive production values, Black Death is a haunting horror film that conveys a dark tale and provides a provocative look at the 14th Century. While it’s more of a film you admire than conventionally enjoy, it’s hard to deny that this is an incredibly scary and intelligent thriller. If you have the stomach for disturbing motion pictures and can appreciate meditative material, then this visionary masterpiece is definitely worth a watch.