Black Death (2011)
Directed by Christopher Smith
"The twist of Black Death is there is no twist"
-Director Chris Smith in a Q&A after the NYC premiere of Black Death
Let me give you some context of where that quote came from. I was lucky enough to attend the NYC premiere of Black Death, the latest film from British director Christopher Smith who has given us some gems as Triangle (its #10 on my Top 10 Horror Movies of 2010) and Severance.
He was in attendance and gave an opening speech before the film and a Q&A after the film which was hosted by UGO.com. One of the LOLs he told the packed theater was the mercenaries in the film got to pick their weapons based on there rankings on IMDB. Hence Sean Bean getting an awesome sword. I got to talk to him after the film which was kind of all sorts of awesome.
But let's talk about Black Death.
Black Death is a medieval throwback that stabs and slices with intense battle scenes and also challenges your cerebral with religious themes and the quest for power. It's an unbelievably constructed film that stays true to being a 14 century story without going into the ridiculous of being Monty Python. Smith takes the setting of the times of the bubonic plague and spins a story that you'll think about weeks after you've seen the film while balancing it out with characters that you empathize with. Only a master storyteller can keep you interested in such a tale and Smith just does that.
I had no idea what I was going to get going in. Would it be filled with ridiculous scenes of gore and splatter ala Severance? Would it be a thinking man's film like Triangle? Somehow Smith somehow takes both worlds and blends a thinking man's LOTR. Black Death is seriously entertaining and when you get to the end, you'll be mesmerized by the journey you've just seen.
The year is 1348. Europe has fallen under the shadow of the Black Death. As the plague decimates all in its path, fear and superstition are rife. In this apocalyptic environment, the church is losing its grip on the people. There are rumors of a village, hidden in marshland that the plague cannot reach. There is even talk of a necromancer who leads the village and is able to bring the dead back to life.
Ulric (Sean Bean), a fearsome knight, is charged by the church to investigate these rumors. He enlists the guidance of a novice monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to lead him and his band of mercenary soldiers to the marshland, but Osmund has other motives for leaving his monastery. Their journey to the village and events that unfold take them into the heart of darkness and to horrors that will put Osmund’s faith in himself and his love for God to the ultimate test.
Clearly the film has to establish we're in a time of pestilence and we get to see the havoc wrought by the plague. Boiled littered bodies, burnt and barely alive litter the streets of a small English town. We meet Osmund, a young monk who is not as virtuous as he seems. Later, a knight, Ulric (Sean Bean) visits the monastery and tells the Abott ("It's that guy!", David Warner) he needs a guide to investigate a town that has not been ravaged by the plague. Osmund volunteers and they begin their journey into the marsh within the forest.
Ulric is accompanied by a band of misfits who are only on this mission for money. The mission? Find an evil necromancer where claims of the dead coming back to life have been heard and bring him back to the bishop. The gang is filled with a variety of weirdos. A former executioner, a Frenchman and a few rogues.
They soon see villagers who are about to burn a witch. Ulric takes matters into his own hands and kills her. The film starts to reveal the men on this journey. They all reveal their motives to the monk, who also has his own motive for being on this mission. When one of their team falls to the plague, Hob a sort of 2nd in command does the dirty deed of executing the sick man. It's this development of character that shows Black Death is not just a quest flick but one that develops the emotional impact the pestilence has on the people it surrounds.
But what's a medieval movie without some random violence and slaughter? Smith makes sure we get a meal full as a group of bandits attacks them. Sword play is the main attraction but we get even more brutality than an iron maiden. Your Gore-ipedia includes necks snappage, sliced throats, arms are severed, heads decapped and spiky hammers trauma. Oh it's damn glorious all of it. And there isn't much CGI blood thank goodness. The civil savagery of it all is a ballet of splatter. Good times.
They finally get to the village and are greeted with open arms. What they see is a village without any signs of the plague and where the women outnumber the men. A woman, Langiva is the leader and she takes a liking to our young monk, as she heals his wounds. They go all Medieval Times and drink some mead and Ulric notices something isn't right. This leads to frenetic reveal that this village is not of God but worships something else.
The men are soon tortured and are given a choice to denounce their God or die. And die they will. Oh my. Some of the men seek death and do not betray their God. The torture our mercenaries endure is insanely awesome. Let me say it just involves rope and horses. It's not until we see what the monk does and what our hot Langiva reveals do we get the full impact of Black Death.
The themes within Black Death are complicated and layered. Smith wants you to pick a side but endorses neither of them. It's a skilled manipulation of the film to tug your emotions one way and then give you a different POV the next. Christianity is portrayed not as the "good" religion compared to the necromancer's "evil" belief, but a way to show you man's control for power. And it goes both ways. Christianity or Necromancy is but a quest for power by the people who seek it. In a time of despair and hopelessness, one man's religion is anothers blinded folly.
Our monk sees the magic involved when he witnesses his true love Averill "risen" from the grave. Is this magic or something else? Higher beings, sorcery and magic are staples of medieval films. Black Death shows us humanity faced with challenges and given the option of living or dying, many may select the option you don't necessarily think they'll make. Many of these themes hold true today which is why Black Death echoes so well.
The ending will make your jaw drop and you won't see it coming. Well I didn't. It's an ending that fits the atmosphere of the movie and everything that came before it. Smith later revealed in the Q&A that the completed ending was not what was originally scripted. The original ending involved a battle in hell?!? Jeez. Thank goodness Smith took over this film.
Sean Bean plays the noble knight solidly but its Eddie Redmayne as the young monk who's evolution we relate to the most. He fell in love with a woman Averill and has to prioritize who he loves more, God or her. It's a intense emotional journey for Osmund and Redmayne does a phenomenal job. Performances by Carice Van Houten as Langiva are also strong.
The only gripe I would say is we did not see more of the POV of the villagers and of Langiva. I wanted to see what the villagers conflict of denouncing God and choosing their new belief system.
Black Death is a conflict waiting for you to see. A conflict of the body vs disease, man vs man and belief vs non belief. The contradictions man has to endure are as brutal as the battles and Black Death makes you experience all of these. There is no twist in Black Death. The only curveball is that it's brutally honest right up to the very end about the plight of humanity during one of the worst periods in history.
The Jaded Viewer's Final Prognosis
Black Death is currently on Video in Demand and comes out in theaters March 11th. Don't miss this epic film. It's clearly one of the best films of 2011. And if you want to complete your Smith filmography check out Triangle, Severance and Creep as well.
- The official site
- Facebook Page
- UGO.com coverage of Black Death premiere
- Black Death Review from Planet of Terror
Check out the trailer.