Akin to his contemporary Neil Marshall, Christopher Smith began his career in genre cinema with competent horror entries (‘Creep’, ‘Severance’ and ‘Triangle’) and then moved into what could loosely be described as ‘medieval thriller’ territory. Therefore banish any comparisons to previous entries. ‘Black Death’ is an altogether different beast.
Set in plague-ravaged England (actual shoot location: Germany) ‘Black Death’ concerns the emotional plight of young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who is torn between the love of God and the forbidden love of a girl named Averill (Kimberley Nixon). Anticipating a spiritual sign Osmund joins a group of Satanist-banishing mercenaries (led by Sean Bean‘s Ulic) who infiltrate a suspiciously plague-free community ruled by the mysterious matriarchic Langiva (Carice van Houten).
Part historical epic, part horror story, part road movie, human drama and fantasy adventure ‘Black Death’ attempts to cover so much generic ground it’s disorientating. Events commence from suitably gritty outset in monk monastery territory, where Osmund confers with his superior (an aptly cast David Warner) and mingles with his repented love Averill. Then events are spiced up further when Sean Bean’s rugged mercenary leader turns up to whisk the young boy on what promises to be a journey of exciting deadly proportions.
Unfortunately, bar a jarring would-be witch burning, (staying on the right side of ‘Monty Pyphon and the Holy Grail’), it’s all a bit of a dead end street. We never really get to neither know or respect the would-be wild bunch of mercenaries nor really come to care about Osmund’s transgressive emotional journey. Equally disappointing is the isolated community that the group finally happen upon, which shamefully evokes comparisons to ‘The Wicker Man’ remake thus conjuring up very little of the potential threat and terror you’re supposed to feel at this juncture in the film.
Luckily Bean is a resourcefully enough presence to lift the film to watchable proportions and the numerous fight sequences are encouragingly brutal and visceral, due in part to Smith’s pleasingly organic direction, which makes commendable use of handheld cinéma vérité style cinematography.
‘Black Death’ certainly looks aesthetically pleasing enough and there are moments of gut-wrenching brilliance but the misjudged emotional journey, predictable character consequences and ambitiously wayward epilogue distance the film from its blatant high-end genre aspirations ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘`The Wicker Man’ and ‘Aguire Wraith of God’.
Never has a film felt so undernourished when the potentials have been so high. Don’t avoid like the plague but instead approach with considerable caution.
A good round up of pat-on-each-others-back interviews with cast and crew, the usual brisk featurette (where Christopher Smith is compared to the likes of David Lean, Terry Gilliam and err Russ Meyer), disposable deleted scenes and a well intentioned but brain-dead director’s commentary whose only saving grace is the snarky comparison of a similarly helmet-clad cast member to that of Klaus Kinski in ‘Wraith of God’.