The year is 1348. The Black Plague is ravaging Europe. Above the stench of death and the cries of the mourning rise voices demanding answers from the church. The church, feeling their grip on the populace slipping more with every decimated town and hamlet, decides that witchcraft and devilry must be afoot. They mobilize the fiercest warriors under god’s banner to discover the truth. We follow these warriors as they trek through perilous territory. When they arrive at their destination the warriors, played by Ron Pearlman and Nicholas Cage…wait a minute. This isn’t Season of the Witch, this is Black Death. Sorry, I got confused there for a minute. I kid, I kid. Despite their similar premises, they are worlds apart. Season of the Witch sucked despite a few significant strong points. Black Death does the opposite, and is a very good movie despite a couple of serious flaws.
In Black Death, Osmund, a young monk, sends the woman he is in love with away from the disease riddled city. She says she will wait for him, but only for a short time. While he struggles with whether or not leaving the monastery to meet her would be abandoning his obligation to god, Ulrich, a soldier under the church’s command, arrives at the monastery. There are rumors of a village that is untouched by the plague. This, of course, is evidence of witches and necromancers, so he has been sent by the church to get to the bottom of it. He needs a guide through the treacherous swamp and forest. Osmund sees this as his sign, and joins Ulrich. They meet up with Ulrich’s merry band of killers, torturers, and mercenaries. Edmund soon learns that they aren’t just investigating this town, but a little good ‘ol fashioned inquisition fun is in store. Despite losing a few men along the way, they arrive at the mysteriously healthy village. Here they find…well…I’m going to stop there. If I tell you much more it will get into spoiler territory.
This movie was not at all what I was expecting. While the journey to the non-diseased village was taking place, I was expecting it to turn into Mark of the Devil or Conqueror Worm once they got there. Instead, it went in a direction more akin to The Whicker Man. Maybe I’ve just seen one too many inquisition flicks, but when I see devices out of Torquemada’s toy box, I think I know what I’m in for. In a complete reversal of the Monty Python skit, I DID expect the inquisition, and it didn’t show up. Instead it went off in a very different, yet equally intriguing direction. Kudos to this flick for throwing me a curve ball. I like it when a movie can do that. Being unpredictable without resorting to something stupid coming out of far left field is a rarity these days.
The biggest strength of this movie is definitely the acting, which is exceptional. Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, The Hitcher, Silent Hill) as Ulrich is great. It may just be the facial and vocal resemblance, but when Bean grows out the beard and does the “tough guy swagger” thing, he reminds me a lot of the wrestler Triple H. You know, if Trips could act at all. What Trips, you can act? I’ve got two words for ya; Blade Trinity. Anyway, Sean Bean plays the character with a sense that quite a bit about him is left unspoken and it’s better left that way. He’s devout but matter-of-factly violent. Few actors I know of can brood like Bean. Eddie Redmayne is excellent as Osmund. I was worried at first that he was following the Twilight “play emotionally tortured by just not acting at all” technique. He proved later that he can emote very well. It’s nice to see young actors actually acting. That’s how you do inner conflict. Robert Pattinson, pay attention. The rest of their group is also quite entertaining. Andy Nyman (Severance) as the torturer who enjoys his job just a little bit too much, John Lynch as his second in command, and Johnny Harris as the cold blooded killer of the group are particularly enjoyable. The only one of the group that didn’t do it for me was Emun Elliot as a useless emo looking knight. Where does one even get black eyeliner in plague ravaged Middle Ages Europe anyway? I can see how they needed him in the movie towards the end, but they didn’t do a damn thing with the character for the first hour of the flick. Carice van Houten deserves mention for her turn as the leader of the village also.
It has more going for it than the skillful acting, though. The production values were also excellent. The sets, locations, and costumes evoked the feel of a grimy, gritty, hazy pestilence riddled land beautifully. The final twist involving Edmund and the witch is brilliantly executed. On a personal level, one thing I liked about this movie is the ambiguity of who the good guys are. There really aren’t any. Some people have decried having no one to identify with or the film’s so called “heavy handed theological idealism.” I disagree strongly. It does, in the end, come down to Christians against Pagans. I was worried about which side the film would take. Would the righteous Pagans prevail against the tyrannical Christians? Would the violent forces of the church crush the evil Pagans? Would it be a story of good prevailing or martyrdom? I love the fact that it’s neither. I don’t want to give anything away, but no one escapes the flick unscathed. Who prevails is debatable. It also appeals to my anti-religious side that both religions are portrayed in similar lights. In this movie, everyone is religious, everyone is barbaric, and no one is completely right. Religion breeds bloodshed, pure and simple. I enjoyed that.
I really only have two problems with this movie. The first is the violence. I’ve seen other reviewers talk about the film’s “graphic, brutal violence” and “torture scenes that must be seen to be believed.” Either these folks saw a drastically different cut of the film than I did, or they don’t watch many horror flicks. They must not be nearly as jaded to onscreen mayhem as you and I are. Yes, it is a violent movie and yes, there is blood, but I definitely wouldn’t call it graphic. Most of the throat slittings, stabbings, and other medieval combat kills take place just out of frame. Even the “horse scene” that got so much press features a limb removal shot so quickly and in silhouette that it has minimal impact. This is essentially a movie about the savagery that desperation and differences in dogma (try saying that five times fast) brings out in people. Making the violence more graphic would have made this point pack much more of a wallop.
My other issue is something I complain about a lot, the shaking handheld camera. You all know that I think shaky-cam is only acceptable in “found footage” movies, but it feels especially out of place in a period piece with sumptuous scenery and a semi-epic feel like this. Most of the time, filmmakers primarily use this pathetic technique in action sequences under the misconception that it makes the audience “feel the action” more. Actually, it just makes me feel like I’ve got Parkinsons. In Black Death, it is used not only during the action, but in establishing shots, any moving shot, and even dialog scenes. DIALOG SCENES for the love of god! As I’ve said about other flicks, it looks like it was shot by a bobble head doll. Give it a rest!
It appears that English director Christopher Smith is a name to pay attention to. Early in his career, he’s already showing some impressive chops. Triangle was pretty good, and I really dug Severance. I haven’t seen Creep but I’ve heard good things. He may be one to watch in the future. Black Death was a very good flick overall. Both of my quibbles (subdued violence and shaky cam) were more weak stylistic choices than actual errors. He certainly coaxed some great performances out of the cast and maintained a great, tense, grim, foreboding atmosphere throughout. The film looked great too, when they managed to fold the damn camera steady. Black Death gets two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.