I can hardly think of another horror director out there at the moment, whose body of work is as diversified as that of England’s Christopher Smith. While his debut CREEP is a claustrophobic underworld shocker in the style of THE DESCENT and THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (though it’s gotta be mentioned that CREEP pre-dated both of these films), his second work SEVERANCE is one of the finest and most hilarious horror comedies of the new millennium and his third flick TRIANGLE is a supernatural thriller that might as well be the most mean-spirited and macabre take on the old GROUNDHOG DAY-formula I’ve ever seen. With his new movie BLACK DEATH, which is playing the festival circuit in Europe at the moment, he stayed true to the afore-mentioned tradition of never repeating himself and delivered a film that couldn’t be any more different from his older works.
Set in medieval England during the time of the pestilence, the film tells the story of a young monk named Osmond (Eddie Redmayne), who leads a group of mercenaries under the command of the religious zealot Ulric (Sean Bean) through the dark woods and damp swamps of the English midlands to find a mysterious village of whom rumor says that it has not been struck by the black death yet. In the eyes of the church, who believe the pestilence to be God’s punishment for man’s sinfulness and disobedience, these people’s wondrous immunity to the devastating disease can only be the work of a dark and godless sorcerer—a so called necromancer. Hence, they’ve send their most faithful knight, Ulric, and a party of courageous swordsmen and torturers out to catch the evil wizard and bring him back to the bishop who’s gonna make him pay for his ungodly deeds. But once their arduous journey has come to an end and—after many dangerous encounters with highwaymen, witchburners and savages—they’ve finally crossed the ghastly marsh that surrounds the fabled village, everything at their destination seems to be almost too peaceful and harmonious to be true… have they really gone there in vein or is this perfidious quietude rather the work of the necromancer who tries to beguile his enemies?
In his realisation of this epic tale of bravery, faith and violence, Christopher Smith has combined the best elements of the fantasy film and the horror movie in equal shares and created a modern masterpiece which is not only very well directed, acted and scripted, but which also hints more than once at the magnificence of vintage classics such as THE WICKERMAN (1973) or BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971). Shot entirely in Eastern Germany, BLACK DEATH features some truly jaw-dropping locations in the form of age-old abbeys, dense forests, thunderous hills and eerie swamps which look as if no human being has set foot there in ages. Beautiful and haunting in equal measure, these awe-inspiring settings convey a very ominous atmosphere because you never know what danger might lurk inside the dark caves or behind the huge trees which the fearless mercenaries have to pass in order to reach their target.
The acting, in turn, is very good and convincing throughout most parts of the movie too and I especially enjoyed Eddie Redmayne’s stirring performance as a young monk, who is torn between the promise he made to God on the one hand and his affection for the woman he loves on the other, as well as Sean Bean’s tough depiction of a rough-edged but not unmerciful swordsman of the Lord. If I’m not mistaken, this has been the first time the latter has put on a medieval harness again after his alter ego Boromir died in a cloud of orcish arrows in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but yet you never have the impression that Bean is merely repeating his classic role from the popular Peter Jackson movie. Though there are of course certain parallels between the two characters, the deeply religious Ulric is very much a personality of his own and has some truly memorable and affecting scenes in BLACK DEATH.
The other mercenaries are almost equally as well cast and hence the dynamic, perfectly balanced group contains a lot of top-notch actors like Andy Nyman (SEVERANCE), John Lynch (THE TOURNAMENT), and Johnny Harris (ROCKNROLLA), whom I hadn’t even recognized at first with their dirty faces, long beards and wild hairdos. What makes their performances particularly great, in my opinion, is the fact that they are totally into their roles and embody the deep faith of these men with such an eagerness that even as a rather nonreligious person like me, you can’t help but feel a certain awe and amazement when you see how they would rather die a horrible death than abandon the God they believe in.
Furthermore, the killings deserve a special mention as well, because their execution is quite uncommon but all the more effective. Though we also get to see a good dose of gore throughout the movie, most death and torture scenes take place outside of the camera but are still presented very vividly through horrible sound effects which inevitably lead to gruesome images of sliced flesh and broken bones in the audience’s minds. After the movie my girlfriend told me she’s been covering her ears way more often than her eyes during the brutal battle scenes and harsh torture sequences, which appear all the more real due to the fact that they are not overdone in any kind of way but realized in a very rough, dirty, intensive and believable way. Sometimes, during the fight scenes, the shaky hand camera and fast cuts were a bit too hectic for my taste, but apart from that minor flaw, there’s nothing for me to complain about at all and there were quite a few occasions when BLACK DEATH got me by the throat to the point that I almost forgot to breathe!
One last point, that I would like to bring up, is the ending. If Christopher Smith had rolled on the credits five or six minutes earlier, BLACK DEATH would still have been a very clever, atmospheric, enthralling and unique medieval horror movie. The film’s actual epilogue, however, is so powerful and comes so unexpected that it single-handedly lifts the whole flick to an even higher level. I don’t wanna spoil anything, of course, so all I’m gonna say is that the last few minutes of BLACK DEATH were like a hammer blow straight to my face and even today, two days after I’ve seen the film’s German premiere at Fantasy Film Fest in Hamburg, I still feel confused, agitated and even devastated whenever I think of the unforeseeable turn that the events of this uncompromising tale of terror took at the very last second…
Before the movie, Christopher Smith said that this is the best film he’s done so far and even though I liked CREEP, loved SEVERANCE and was deeply impressed by TRIANGLE, I think I have to agree with him! BLACK DEATH is one helluva enthralling, disturbing and simply breathtaking film which is so intensive at times that you almost think you’re lying on a torture rack instead of sitting in a theater seat!