Brit horror director Christopher Smith has managed thus far to avoid being pigeonholed as any one kind of horror helmer. In Severance, he mixed comedy with yuppie angst to create a unique and timely survival thriller. In Triangle, he tackled existentialist horror in the middle of the ocean. And in his debut film, Creep, he simply unleashed a cannibalistic ghoul on a bunch of commuters in the London Underground.
In his latest effort – the bone-crunchingly bleak historical horror Black Death – Smith seems determined to stake a claim as a legit dramatic director. The result is an uncommonly staid horror picture whose scenes of graphic medieval torture nonetheless fail to leave much of a mark.
Death begins smack in the middle of the plague years (with the image of a rat scuttling across a stone floor, prophetically enough), as Europe’s population was in the middle of being decimated by a germ. Of course, it would be ages before anyone actually knew what the plague actually was, and a desperate people began turning to the supernatural to explain the staggering death toll. Witches are burned, heretics tortured, etc. etc.
In the middle of all of this is Osmund, a young monk (Savage Grace‘s eerie Eddie Redmayne, who at times is a dead ringer for Mia Farrow) who volunteers to help a squad of papal knights charged with finding a remote village rumored to be untouched by the plague due to the machinations of a powerful necromancer.
The squad is led by Ulric, played to the molar-grinding hilt by Sean Bean – or, as he has been known in our house for the last decade, “Boromir”. (Between this and HBO’s upcoming Game of Thrones, Bean probably hasn’t worn a pair of pants in about 3 years.) As Ulric and his band of Manly Men drag Osmund’s lily-white monk hide through the moors and the muck, we are treated to a journey into the heart of darkness, Medieval Times-style.
As far as capturing the tedium of pre-industrial life goes, Black Death does an admirable job – it reminded me of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac in the way that it deromanticizes what it must have been like to suffer the elements and rampant superstitions of such a desperate time. Thanks to handheld camera and an admirable lack of gloss (even the rarely-employed score is a dull drone), we can almost smell Ulrich and his mob of brutes as they trudge onward through witch-crazed villages toward the rumored pagan enclave.
Stevie Nicks Carice van Houten
Eventually the band reaches the oddly quiet and idyllic little hamlet, and things from there progress predictably enough. Scenes of graphic and prolonged torture ensue, all presented quite matter-of-factly and with a minimum of fanfare. Is it unpleasant? Sure, I guess. Is it interesting? Not really.
In fact, my overwhelming response to all of Black Death‘s somber gore and gritty realism was a shrug and a “huh.” There’s nothing wrong with any of it – and in the hands of a less savvy director it likely would have devolved into a mess of smash-cuts and industrial techno that would have had me jumping into the nearest iron maiden.
But in the end, Black Death more of a drama with some unpleasant historical realities than a horror movie that’s out to grab you by the throat and shake the evil out of you. Sean Bean completists and fans of neck-beards may find lots to like here, but overall Black Death is an atmospheric but ultimately unaffecting exercise in medieval misery.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Black Death is Rated R for scenes of graphic torture, gratuitous teeth-gnashing, and a total disregard for manscaping. It opens today in limited release.
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