About twenty minutes or so into this film, I got the impression that Sean Bean is only interested in roles that involved swords and dressing up – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Also early on, a few clichés of all sorts of genres – historical, horror, fantasy – were lining up in a row, and I didn’t think this was going to pan out well. I rolled with it, and found Black Death to be a very rewarding and impressive movie. It’s a lo-fi flick. Grainy. Gritty. There are no CGI shenanigans here, which makes for a rather creepy and retro feel. It’s directed by Christopher Smith, who has a pedigree in horror cinema, and the structure of this film borrows heavily on the tricks of that genre.
The plot is basically this: set in 14th Century England, a bunch of religious warriors, along with a novice monk who acts as their guide, are dispatched on behalf of a bishop to find a specific village – one that has reported no incidences of the plague, whereas nearly everyone else across the country is up to their armpits in boils. There is talk of devilry and necromancy and witches – not your everyday heretics – being the causes of this apparent immunity. So the warriors lead by Ulrich (Sean Bean), head off on a bit of a jaunt to find this village. They’re attacked (of course) in a forest en route, and there is a remarkably grim fight scene – this is where the lo-fi production values really shine, as the narrative becomes unflinchingly and unapologetically violent. Shortly after, the warriors arrive at the village in question, which possesses a creepy yet idyllic vibe – that reliable horror set-up.
The villagers seem clean, healthy – too perfect, in fact – and there is a fatidic nature to their actions, speech and mannerisms. The village is led by what at first appears to be Token Beautiful Witch (played by Carice van Houten), who, along with a man called Hob (played by Tim McInnerny, no less), accept the warriors into their community for one night. We’re shown pretty soon that these villagers are not Good Christians, and it’s so painfully obvious that Shit is About To Happen. The rest of the film deals with the shit happening – and hell does shit happen. Big time.
From hereon there’s a definite Wicker Man tone to this, and I suggest that film not purely on how the plot unfolds, but on the questions of faith raised throughout. The religious warriors are all tested. The novice monk, in particular, has his faith challenged in many ways. In some respects this film echoes the Wicker Man a little too much for my liking: the pagan rituals, the erotic suggestions, the witch / temptress, and even the opportunity to reject one’s faith. There is nothing original here – is that what we’re really after? – though the fall-out of one of these tests of faith does add some nice texture. One thing that did irk me was that there’s a strange tapped-on ending: one of the lead characters is rapidly shown a few years down the line, and I’m not actually sure of the purpose of this, since it adds little to his character or the film.
All in all, once you put aside a few generic set-ups and occasionally awkward dialogue from the supporting cast, Black Death grows into something more sophisticated, eerie, and depressing. Well worth it – especially if you like swords and dressing up.