Reviewed by Paul McCannibal
Starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Haouten, David Warner, Kimberly Nixon
Directed by Christopher Smith
The bubonic plague is ravaging the populace of Medieval Europe. The countryside is a grim tableau of decomposing corpses, makeshift outdoor crematoriums, misery, rot, and suffering. No one is safe from the contagion – when it strikes a village it seems only time can stall the eventual spread and agonizing deaths that follow, and in most cases it won’t take long. The living who are unfortunate enough to show symptoms are killed on the spot, and panicked, desperate survivors look for supernatural reasons to both blame and hopefully appease – accused witches, sorcerers, and necromancers are routinely burned at the stake.
In the midst of this, the religious figureheads of England catch wind of a remote village in a marsh where the plague has yet to claim a single victim. Could it be that somewhere out there an antidote has been found? Or is it possible that a true Necromancer using occult means has found a way to stave off the plague? A rag-tag team of medieval mercenaries is set out to find the village and source the means of survival there… with the additional order to slaughter at will should the methods of the village in question pertain to anything other than Christian worship.
And so with Christopher Smith’s Black Death, we have an epic yet very downbeat quest film on our hands… and a very cool one at that. Leading the charge is Sean Bean as a devout Christian Knight, the path forward ensured by a young monk who claims to have had personal experience with the village in question. The rest of the band are a bunch of surly badasses who you wouldn’t want to accidentally spill mead on at the local watering hole. They carry an iron maiden around with them and you can tell they wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
The journey is a descent into darkness, with the mercs facing everything from bandit siege on the road to hysterical villagers torching innocents to the plague itself wiping them out one by one. En route they encounter a few really ghoulish surprises, the most eerie of which is a river procession of self-flagellating hooded men bearing a massive wooden cross. Their message to the mercenaries is simple – turn back!
Of course, the mercenaries don’t turn back. What kind of movie would that be? Upon arrival at the village, the group is warmly welcomed, and everyone who lives in the village is in fact very healthy and chirpy. But something is amiss… it would spoil things to say what happens next, but let’s just say the ending is not a heroic, epic battle scene with the anti-heroes coming out on top. A far gloomier and horrific scenario is in store for all of them.
I’m a big fan of The Conqueror Worm and The Blood on Satan’s Claw. That pair of films had a very specific harsh tone and vibe to them, and Black Death is the first medieval tale I’ve seen in a long time that evokes a comparable feel. There are also echoes of my all-time favourite film The Wicker Man here (the original one – not that abomination of a remake), and I certainly welcome those vibes.
On top of that, Black Death isn’t just a bleak piece with copious amounts of blood, hacking, slashing, burning, iron maiden-ing, and self-flagellating. There is in fact a rationale here, a very timely one about what it might take to turn someone into a sadistic confessor. Torture and interrogation are themes that keep popping up on and off the screen these days, and with Black Death we get a glimpse into how someone who is a essentially good, civilized person might end up being able to look in the mirror and live with themselves after a hard day’s work of bringing excruciating pain to others. Now that is truly scary.
Black Death is smart, classy, and extremely grim. Very good stuff.
4 out of 5
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