When great cinema releases become a rare commodity, as they have recently, the best approach is to scour all the B-movie buzz at one’s disposal, in hopes of finding a sleeping treasure among all the muck of the previous year. Fortunately, word of mouth came through very nicely this week, and out of respect for those who recommended it to me, I offer you Christopher Smith’s 2010 film Black Death, a surprisingly solid piece of medieval entertainment. It may not exactly be The Seventh Seal, but it boasts a coherence and moral weight that few films about the Middle Ages ever have. And no, Black Death is not a clever nickname for anything. This baby is about bubonic plague, and we even get to see some in action.
Black Death is a bit frustrating for those desperate to defend Nicolas Cage for his transgressions, which by now far outweigh his notable successes. The movie does a fine job with all the themes, atmosphere, plot and characters that two recent major Cage vehicles, Season Of The Witch and the remake of The Wicker Man, bungled so hopelessly.
Sean Bean, a rugged and authoritative Englishman whose screen credits include Patriot Games, Goldeneye, The Fellowship Of The Ring, and Red Riding: 1974, leads the cast as Ulric, a military envoy sent by church officials to sniff out and deal harshly with witchery. His destination is a rumored settlement out in the woods, where there is believed to be no plague. Since everyone else in the country has the plague, the health and prosperity of this community must logically stem from the use of black magic. Accompanied by a band of sinister mercenaries and armed with instruments of torture, Ulric has clearly not been charged with bringing due process to the accused. As in every witch hunt story, his mission is to get confessions, truthful or not, and burn the evidence. Period. That one member of the party is dressed in a dead-on homage to Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God says a lot about the temperament of these particular missionaries.
The party acquires a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as their guide. Osmund is a complicated man, of whom one might say that no one understands him including his woman. He is locked in a struggle with his personal faith, and is on the verge of leaving the monastery to settle down with a nice young wife. He asks God for a sign to point him down the right path, and sure enough a party of witch hunters arrive promptly after, asking for someone to take them to a village quite near the secret meeting spot where his lady love has agreed to wait for him. The dual opportunity to serve both his church and himself seems too good to be true, and indeed it may be. The movie sets up an extremely predictable plot, then delivers quite a different one.
Director Christopher Smith keeps the quest moving at a nice even pace, drawing the story taut and developing the characters just enough to make them matter. He also manages to include every element that belongs in a film like this. Along the way, the party encounters a gang of road brigands, an ominous procession of self-flagellating penitents, and of course a lynch mob poised to burn their village witch. This latter scene serves as an interesting character test for Ulric, who deals with the young woman’s probable innocence in a way which demonstrates his strength of character. He is ruthless but not without intelligence or compassion. Above all, he holds to his faith with an impressive depth of conviction, whether or not the demands of the church put him in the right.
After a goodly measure of hardship, Ulric and company reach their destination, which seems just a bit too ominously cheery and clean when compared with the diseased civilization they left behind them. Meanwhile, Osmund desperately seeks his lover, who seems to have vanished not far from the creepy settlement. The community leader, an eerie siren known as Langiva (Carice van Houten), seems to be hiding the answers they all seek. Whether the absence of plague has to do with isolation and good hygiene, or with the wiles of the devil, becomes the big question of the rest of the film. It is soon clear, however, that Christian religion is a most unwelcome practice in this place.
The ensuing conflict and resolution do not take the form one might expect. Most movies of this kind exploit the historical context to take shots at organized religion with impunity. A select few try to balance the mistakes of the early church with the importance of faith over dogma – an approach that Season Of The Witch admittedly tried, but got lost too far up its own butt to realize. Black Death tends toward the latter type of story, but pushes its acid satire into fairly new territory. Langiva and her pagans reveal a violent sense of devotion to their own shared faith, tipping Ulric’s inquisition back over upon him and his men. The final answers and resolution you must see for yourself, and draw your own conclusions. This may not be your kind of outing, but if you ever in your life felt that there was potential for a really good horror adventure in a tale about plague and witch hunters, your will find your faith rewarded… so to speak. Black Death is a downbeat, grimy, but thrilling piece of work, which every now and then shines beyond its tried and true B-horror trappings.
Special thanks to William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold of the B-Movies Podcast at CraveOnline for their thoughtful and enticing review of Black Death.