Sean Bean as Ulric
Eddie Redmayne as Osmund
Carice van Houten as Langiva
David Warner as The Abbot
Kimberley Nixon as Averill
Tim McInnerny as Hob
Directed by Christopher Smith
When it comes to delivering a body count, even horror heavyweights like Jason and Freddy look like underachievers next to the savage pestilence known as the bubonic plague. A grittily realized tale of medieval horror, director Christopher Smith's Black Death takes viewers on a tour of a disease-ridden Britain in the carefree year of 1348.
Suggesting what would happen if Witchfinder General (1968) were to be crossed with The Wild Bunch (1969), Smith film's (based on an original screenplay by Dario Poloni) finds a hard-bitten group of mercenaries traveling on the Church's dime to a village rumored to be home to a "necromancer" â€“ described in the film as "someone who plucks the dead from the cold earth and breathes new life in them." This necromancer is believed to be using their dark arts to keep the plague from affecting the people of the village. The Church is concerned that if word should spread of this unholy sanctuary, it might shake the faith of the people and send them looking outside of God for relief from their misery.
Clearly, an example must be made and this intimidating envoy â€“ led by feared knight Ulric (Sean Bean) â€“ will do just that. As we see from various episodes during the course of their journey, Ulric and his no-nonsense team (including Andy Nyman as expert torturer Dalyway, Tygo Gernandt as Klaus Kinski look alike Ivo, and John Lynch â€“ known to genre fans as â€˜Shades' from Richard Stanley's 1990 cult sci-fi fave Hardware â€“ as Wolfstan) are more than ready to meet any adversary they might encounter. Seeing them in action leaves little doubt that this crew will root out the necromancer they seek.
In the company of these men of violence is a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who has volunteered to act as a guide through territories that are unfamiliar to Ulric and his crew. As Osmund is a naÃ¯ve boy, all-too eager to do God's work, one can surmise that the film's events will put his convictions to the test. As the Abbott (David Warner) cautions Osmund before the boy leaves the monastery, "â€¦Even if you survive, the world out there will change you."
Once they arrive at the village, Black Death treads on territory familiar from The Wicker Man (1973). Much like the pagan community that was presided over by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in that earlier film, this village appears inviting on the surface â€“ a bucolic utopia in the midst of the horror that's ravaging the rest of the country. Carice van Houten plays Langiva, a skilled herbalist (and possible witch) that serenely leads the predominatly female village. As opposed to Ulric's grim band of brothers, stubbornly devoted to a harsh and punishing (and apparently absentee) God, Langiva and her people live free of suffering or strife, even as their village church lies in shambles from neglect.
While Ulric bides his time before making his move against these people, Osmund is not convinced there is any wrongdoing to punish. As they enjoy the village's hospitality, the question becomes one of who Osmund believes in more â€“ the unsparing likes of Ulric or the peaceful inhabitants of this village whose only apparent sin is in not yet being striken with the plauge. By the film's climax, Osmund will have found the certainty that he is looking for â€“ although not in a manner that will give him (or viewers) peace of mind.
Bolstered by its excellent cast and handsome production values that belie its modest budget, Black Death is admirable in its ambition. Focused on dramatics rather than serving up jolts, Black Death is never quite scary but it rates as a tale well told. That might sound too modest to be impressive but when one has sat through recent offerings like Season of the Witch, The Rite, and The Roommate, a modicum of intelligence goes a long way.
For the last decade or so, with films like Creep (2004) and Triangle (2009), Smith has been making a name for himself in genre circles. He's like the UK counterpart to Brad Anderson (Session 9, Vanishing on 7th Street) in that they've both been crafting bodies of work comprised of (mostly) well-recieved genre pieces without having sparked greater attention yet outside of their fanbases and the critical community. As accomplished a film as it is, Black Death looks to continue that trend for Smith. Genre fans and critics looking for something brainier to enjoy will herald it but a wider audience looks unlikely.
Black Death may potentially frustrate viewers who come to it looking for a straight-up horror film but this tale of centuries-old suffering will provide some modern relief for those weary of dumbed-down genre offerings.