Black Death – Christopher Smith

 

Black Death (2010) – Rated R

“Sean Bean stars in this historically rooted horror-thriller as Ulric, a church-appointed knight in the age of the Bubonic Plague’s first wave who’s tasked with investigating rumors of a woman (Carice van Houten) who can bring the dead back to life. A young monk (Eddie Redmayne) named Osmund is aiding Ulric on his quest to root out the necromancer — and to determine whether or not she has ties to Satan.

“The fumes of the dead hung in the air like poison. The plague, more cruel and pitiless than war, descended upon us. A pestilence that would leave half our kingdom dead.”

I love the prologue to this movie. As it goes on about demons and witchcraft carrying the plague, you see a rat scurrying about – the true carrier of the plague. Okay it was actually fleas but that is a much harder visual to pull off.

I was lucky enough to catch Black Death in the theater at a promotional showing for Actionfest 2011. I had really been looking forward to it since every Christopher Smith film I’ve seen has been better than the last. He did the underground horror Creep, the horror comedy Severance, and the horror sci-fi Triangle – all of which I’ve enjoyed.

The only trepidation I had was that this was coming out at the same time as the extremely similarly themed Season of the Witch. Here is the Netflix description for Season – “In 14th-century Europe, a courageous knight leads a group of weary warriors across impossibly treacherous terrain in order to transport a suspected witch believed to be responsible for spreading the devastating Black Plague.

Now Hollywood often has sets of movies like that (Deep Impact, Armageddon) and often one is very good (Dangerous Liaisons) and the other not so much (Valmont). In fact next year we get no less than three Snow White adaptations, not counting the currently popular TV show Once Upon a Time.

Not only are both films about the possibility of a witch causing the Black Plague but both feature an action star as a knight (Sean Bean, Nicolas Cage) with an innocent religious sidekick. Both have former 70s horror stars as high level clergymen (David Warner, Christopher Lee). To be fair Black Death was done and released in the UK well before Season of the Witch but I think it got short shrift here in the States because of Season of the Witch. As before one is very good (Black Death), the other not so much (Season of the Witch).

I found the script to be excellent and a nice bit of a history lesson vis a vis early Christianity (though my wife thought the script beat you over the head with it – my head must be thicker). The one problem is that there is an unbelievably ridiculous plot twist that almost ruins the movie. It’s a case of Ulric’s party doing something they would never do simply because it says so in the script.

I loved a lot of the small touches. One of my favorites was how not everyone rode on horseback. The company is not comprised of a troop of knights but of a knight with a number of men-at-arms. The men are pretty rough and tumble with a fair number of scars and functional rather than pretty armor. Combat, like life, is nasty, brutish and short.

People Watch: Look for Black Adder comedian Tim McInnerny in a far more serious role as Hob. Also not only did Sean Bean go on to appear in Game of Thrones but so did Carice van Houten. In this she plays Langiva (no character name should have an anagram like that) and in Game of Thrones, she is Melisandre. Also Emun Elliott who is Swire here is Marillion in Game of Thrones.

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