Black Death, the latest horror film from ‘Severance’ director Christopher Smith, tells the story of a young monk in 14th century England (Eddie Redmayne) who travels with a group of soldiers to a remote village that has been left mysteriously untouched by the Black Plague. Once there, they must contend with a beautiful necromancer (Carice van Houten) who it is rumored possesses the ability to raise the dead.
B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently got on the phone with Smith to discuss the historical horror movie, which is now playing on home-viewing formats (On-Demand, Xbox, Playstation, Vudu, Amazon.com and iTunes) and debuts on March 11th in limited theaters. During their talk the director addressed comparisons to the similarly-themed ‘Season of the Witch’, why he decided to veer away from the more supernatural direction that was present in the original script, and the fine line he had to walk to both satisfy gore-hounds and present a more grounded type of violence that was true to his vision for the film.
See inside for the full interview.
If you’re still feeling burned by the cinematic abomination known as ‘Season of the Witch’ – the Dominic Sena-directed film featuring a sleepwalking Nicolas Cage that debuted earlier this year – Christopher Smith’s similarly-themed ‘Black Death’ might just succeed in washing the bad taste of creatively stunted big-studio filmmaking from your mouth. At the very least, the latter film – which premiered on home-viewing formats (On-Demand, Xbox, Playstation, Vudu, Amazon.com and iTunes) on February 4th and begins a limited theatrical run on March 11th – will offer a more thoughtful take on the idea of supposed witchcraft during the time of the Black Plague.
Smith, who has previously helmed three features: 2005 subway slasher ‘Creep’; 2006 horror/comedy ‘Severance’; and 2009 psychological horror/mystery ‘Triangle’; got on the phone with me recently to discuss his latest film, which follows a young monk (Eddie Redmayne) as he guides a group of soldiers led by a fearsome knight (Sean Bean) to a village that has been mysteriously spared from the horrible pandemic, which is estimated to have killed at least a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Once there, they must contend with a beautiful necromancer (Carice van Houten) who it is believed possesses the ability to raise the dead.
While Smith hasn’t yet had the opportunity to view ‘SOTW’, which in its broad strokes is essentially a bigger-budgeted version of ‘Black Death’, during the interview I made a point of mentioning to him just how terrible it was – particularly in the third act, during which a laughably-rendered CGI demon does battle with Cage and his allies. It was interesting, then, when Smith – who nabbed the gig after ‘White Noise’ director Geoffrey Sax exited the project – pointed out that the last half of the original ‘Black Death’ screenplay, penned by scribe Dario Poloni, similarly trafficked in the realm of the supernatural before he came in and pitched a different take on the story.
“The first half of the script I read is almost identical to the film you see, but the second half was more of a supernatural movie“, said the fast-talking Smith, speaking in a thick British accent. “I read the script [and] was loving the first half…but I was a little disappointed that it had gone the way of the supernatural. Only because anything medieval seems to become a sword-and-sorcery movie…so when I went to the meeting [to talk about directing the project]…I said ‘I’d love to do it, but I’d [like to] keep everything as realistic as possible.”
It was then that Smith went to work with his screenwriter to change the course of the last half of the story, from dramatizing a more overt struggle with the Devil to taking a more grounded, though no less horrifying, approach.
“To me, the Devil exists in the dark decisions we make“, he said. “I love devil movies when you actually have demons, but…I think actions, dark actions, are much more scary.”
Part of the changes in the script had to do with giving the monk character an “arc” Smith saw as analogous to the sort of radical religious extremism that regularly makes headlines in the 21st century – a parallel that reflects the director’s own fears about the state of the world today.
“By the end of the film, he’s gone from an innocent, moderate priest to someone who’s radicalized“, said Smith about the character. “The idea of radicalization being the thing we’re most scared of, and the evils of radicalization and all these things are really for me the things that scare me the most…when there’s a delicate situation that is on our side of the agenda, we go ‘here’s a delicate situation’. When it’s not on our side, we are told in big, grand terms that it’s evil.”
To bolster the more grounded vision he had for the story, Smith also made the decision to shoot some of the film in a style reminiscent of old war footage, as if an embedded journalist were there with a camera capturing the action up-close. It’s an approach he utilized in hopes of enhancing the movie’s visceral impact, eliminating the more objective distance trafficked in by many historical and/or fantasy adventure films.
“The idea that you’re following behind the men at ground level, you’re not doing helicopter shots, you’re not doing your ‘Lord of the Rings’ shots, you’re walking with the guys…that’s very much like the camera crew, modern-style that you’re used to in war footage“, he said. “I think that kind of gives us a modern way into the world.”
The director also sought to approximate what witnessing deaths on the battlefield might actually feel like in the real world, instead of using the more “splatterific” horror movie-style gags that would work against the sense of authenticity he was striving for.
“Some people [think] the film’s not as gory [as my other films], [that] you don’t see as much. But then other people say, ‘it’s your most violent film.’“, said Smith. “And I think for me it’s my most violent film because…people get their throat cut, and it’s not a quick slash of the blade, Argento style. It’s a bit of work, like killing a pig. So I tried to put that brutality into it, not in a gratuitous way but in a way that makes the subtext feel more modern and more relevant [to] today.”
Smith also extended this more verite-style sensibility to scenes in which we witness the horrific results of the Black Plague.
“The whole ‘agenda’, if you like, of what the film was, was try to give the period the same respect…[as] if we were dealing with a disease that just killed lots of people [today]“, he offered. “Let’s not titillate the audience with how gruesome and vile it was, let’s show it as though we had stumbled across a load of bodies and we filmed it…almost like we’re a war correspondent.”
These creative decisions also allowed the director, who didn’t (presumably) have the luxury of a ‘Lord of the Rings’ or even ‘Season of the Witch’-size budget, to complete principal photography in about “six and a half” weeks. Not that this means he necessarily skimped on the gore. As Smith himself is well aware, ‘Black Death’ is ultimately a fictional construction designed to entertain, not a historical document.
“[The audience] still [has] demands“, he conceded. “You can’t make the movie so dry that it becomes sterile. So for example, [the gruesome death of a major character] is probably the moment where I let it go a little bit…only because that was something that happened in those days. But how you shoot that, how you do it, how long you leave it for, becomes a balancing act in the edit…it’s a delicate balance.”
‘Black Death’ is also a fairly sweeping vision, certainly more so than any of Smith’s previous films. I was curious, then, how he felt about U.S. distributor Magnolia’s decision to debut the big screen-worthy film on home-viewing formats prior to its theatrical run. While this pattern of distribution is certainly becoming a popular model, clearly the dream for most (if not all) directors is to see their cinematic works projected on a giant canvas. Smith, though, assured me he was more than content with Magnolia’s strategy – if only for the fact that it will help to de-incentivize people outside the major cities from illegally downloading crappy bootlegged versions of the film.
“The way I feel is this: I couldn’t be happier“, he declared. “To get the kind of release that ‘Season of the Witch’ had, you have to have studio money in it…there are very few that aren’t linked in some way to the studio that get [those] kinds of releases. So for me, I’m kind of like, ‘I’d rather [people] are seeing it on a good quality [on the small screen], [rather than] downloading it off the internet for free.”