July 17, 2013

Movie Review: Black Death (2010)

Historical horror isn't an easy film genre to pull off, for the very simple reason that you are dealing with history. You cannot have fantastical bogeymen or indestructible killers. The horror has to come from the time and the people. Black Death may be a bit ragged around the edges, but it is a fine film and definitely is successful in making history horrific.

The year is 1348 and the Plague is decimating all of Europe. In England, a knight named Ulric (Sean Bean)* comes to a monastery with his band of men on orders from the Bishop. They need a guide through the marsh to a village that has remained untouched by the Plague. It is suspected that necromancy is the reason why. A young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) agrees to lead them so he can rendezvous with his secret love, Avrill (Kimberley Nixon), in the woods.

You know no good will come of this.

The band fights through bandits and slogs through the swamp to reach the village. It is free of disease and led by Langiva (Carice van Houten) and her assistant Hob (Tim McInnerny). Ulric and his men pose as weary travelers, but that ruse does not hold up for long and...well, that's where the horror comes in.

What I like about Christopher Smith's direction in this movie is that it doesn't rely on blood and gore and close-ups of evisceration to get you to squirm. It cuts away from that and focuses on the face of the victim. Or it cuts away all together and leaves you with the screaming. It allows your imagination to fill in the blanks. And our minds will almost always create a more frightening and disturbing image. It does allow one moment of on-screen dismemberment towards the end. But it is visually effective and proper for the moment.

Dario Poloni's script feels somewhat rushed to me (the film is just 97 minutes long) but it works well and doesn't have a lot of down time. And the twist at the end is fantastic. It's a dark movie and it ends in that same vein.

The actors aren't asked to stretch too much in their roles. Ulric is a man of God, dour and battle-hardened, and ready to kill anyone who has turned from God. Osmund is a naive young monk who is going into a world he knows nothing about. Langiva is a strong woman in a world of men and that unnerves Ulric's band. But they all play their roles well and that is what counts. Better to have good actors in simple roles than bad actors in complex roles.

One other note: the cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid is good. The film's look is gritty and faded, which is how a film with this content should look.

The film this reminds me of, as I would suspect it reminds others, is Witchfinder General, the 1968 Michael Reeves film starring Vincent Price. Both deal with the inherent falsehoods in hunting witches and blaming events on the supernatural. And how that can corrupt people on either side of the equation.

This film is worth watching if you like the genre. But it is also a well-made film. It's available Netflix streaming.


* Three guesses on the ultimate fate of Bean's Ulric. Let's just say the fate of his film characters is...remarkably consistent.


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