On one hand, Christopher Smith’s Black Death is a terrifically dark medieval horror story, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents set during the bubonic plague with horrific violence and witches snapping at noosebreak. It’s savage, both in temperament and tenacity, a brooding, nasty slog — almost akin to The Things They Carried — gruesome men at a gruesome task full of gallows humor. The man understands for once that the pointy end of the metal weapon makes lots of blood and bits happen, and kudos to him for that. And for the first two thirds of the film, Smith sets up a wonderfully atmospherically bleak quest picture, bleak as all fucking get out. But it’s that tricky last third where Black Death succumbs to its own festering nature and completely loses it, frantically spazzing and twitching like a Pajiba commentor who sees words that offend them acting out The Wicker Man. Black Death loses it by the time it dreadfully stopped kicking, and tacked on an epilogue so wretched it was like a dying man using his final breath to projectile vomit week-old lutefisk in your face. Like most of his previous work, Christopher Smith’s film is an enjoyable ride until it actually gets to where it’s were going.
The bubonic plague is killing everyone and everything. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne, Red), a young monk of an order that has managed to stave off the plague, has fallen in love with young girl Averill (Kimberly Nixon) who has hidden herself in the monastery. Now that the plague is starting to creep into the monastery, and so Osmund sends her back to their home village where he will join her shortly. He prays to God for a sign, and it is delivered in the guise of a group of “soldiers” captained by Ulric (Sean Bean) who seek a guide to lead them to a village in the marshes. Osmund immediately offers his services, against the wishes of The Abbot (David Warner, Tron, Time Bandits), and they are soon trundling into the forests.
Osmund soon discovers that Ulric leads a band of mercenaries who are tasked with hunting down a village supposedly controlled by a necromancer who has discovered a way to keep the village clear of the plague and how to raise the dead. The mercs are a sordid and sinister lot, a true gallery of rogues complete with a nasty little machine that would Torquemada a sinful boner. They tromp somberly through the marshland, dealing with savage highwaymen and plague infestions, until they reach the village, which seems peaceful and kind. And that’s where shit starts going berserker.
On the surface, Black Death is more or less an action film like Predator, but with a wonderful building of tension once they reach the village. Something is not right, this much is clear, and the story begins to gather in shadows and creepiness. But once the reveal is made, it delves into the religious, only backwards. There’s plenty of gruesome tortures — crucifixions and disembowelment and someone even gets drawn and quartered — for people into that sort of thing. And that’s when what was working pops a cog and the whole machineworks goes straight to hell.
Christopher Smith seems destined to be an underappreciated filmmaker; he’s probably made his peace with that. He will forever be labeled with “cult following” and “critically acclaimed.” But Black Death, I was hoping for a continuation on his truly underappreciated Triangle and instead got some more Severance. Severance was another missed opportunity like Black Death, the cinematic equivalent of Tracey Ullman coming out at the end of her sketch show in a bathrobe. We all had fun, and saw a few cool-arious gore effects, but we’re gonna lay a little brooding truth and wisdom on you know. I don’t know how much of that is his fault and how much is in the script by Dario Poloni.
His cast is terrific. He recycles a bunch of folks from Severance, and gets some solid performances — darkly funny badasses. David Warner has what is tantamount to a cameo, and I can’t help but feel he was wasted like Christopher Lee in Season of the Witch. Sean Bean broods like no other actor. If you need someone to look grim — preferably in armor with a big metal pointy thing — accept no substitutes. While he’s been charming on screen, he’s got a face for scowling. And Ulric is his most nasty and scowly best. Eddie Redmayne was fantastic in Red, a nice little underappreciated gem, and he turns in a Nic Cage worth performance here — a boy monk horrified by the outside world. He’s not just a fish out of water, he’s a fish in a frying pan, and has all the accompany flopping and mania associated as such. He’s virtually unbalanced the entire film, and it’s a pretty astonishing performance.
It’s hard to fault Christopher Smith because as a filmmaker, and a horror filmmaker in particular, the man is at least taking some serious risks and making some ballsy movies. I don’t like all of them, but I want him to keep trying. As I’ve said in other reviews, he may be fucking up, but at least he’s moving in the proper direction — upwards. It’s such a bleak film that when it does go bad, it’s easy to fault everything and hate the overall experience. And because I was so supremely let down by the final moments, I sort of pulled the unraveled threads to ruin the entire project rather than just the patchy bits. Black Death is similar to Triangle in that it asks for incredible amounts of patience for its arduous set-up, but unlike Triangle it never pays off in the end. You weather the miserable thunderstorm for the promise of a rainbow, only to find yourself standing in a muddy grey field. Which is a shame, because with only a few minor corrections, this would have been a hell of a film.