Say what you will about Creep (2004), Severance (2006), and Triangle (2009) individually -- I happen to think they're all cool films -- but taken together they're a clear indication of a filmmaker who A) loves genre films, and B) actively tries to do a very different "sub-genre" each time out. Creep was a basic but stylish monster/slasher combo; Severance was a darkly funny horror/comedy mash-up; and Triangle was a feature-length "Twilight Zone" episode that somehow managed to stay interesting for a full 90 minutes. That makes three strong offerings right out of the gate for British filmmaker Christopher Smith, and it's with no small sense of surprise that that I say his fourth, Black Death, is his coolest flick yet.
As the title suggests, the story takes place in the year 1348, and England has been ravaged by the plague. We're briefly introduced to a conflicted young novice (monk in training) who deeply loves God ... but also has a girlfriend. Into the monastery steps "holy warrior" Ulric, who informs the monks that he needs a guide "past the great marsh," and he has the Bishop's blessing. Young Osmund sees this as a clear sign from God: he will lead these men on their hallowed journey. But where are they going?
It seems that a distant village has not only remained untouched by the black death, but there is also gossip swirling about: are the citizens of this "clean" village practicing black magic? Feasting on human flesh? Bringing the dead back to life? These are the stories that the Church doesn't like, which explains why Ulric and his band of varied warriors need Osmund to act as their guide. Fortunately much of Black Death is a road movie, in that we're offered lots of cool stuff on the way to a mysterious place that takes on an unsettling air before we even get there. (In other words: that's all the plot synopsis you're getting from me.)
Kudos to Smith for presenting the tale with a firm directorial hand, an admirable sense of ambiguity, and a low-key attention to detail. There are dozens of ways for a "dark adventure period piece horror film" to get really clunky really quickly, but the director (working from a very sharp Dario Poloni screenplay) never allows for the pulpy speeches, the obvious jolt, or the overwrought, over-costumed silliness that plague many a similar film. To its inestimable credit, Black Death takes the gamble of playing it dead straight, and it's what elevates the film from a simple genre exercise to something much more intelligent, challenging, and darkly satisfying.
Both leads are great at presenting characters of duality: Sean Bean plays Ulric as half a noble warrior in God's army, and half a cynical, weathered killer. Likewise Eddie Redmayne has no trouble portraying a young monk who's both curious and restless -- but the actor also brings a convincing sense of gravity as the film goes on, and especially as poor Osmund's innocence lies in tatters. The supporting cast boasts colorful (but not distracting) performances from the like of Andy Nyman, John Lynch, and Tim McInnerney; the lovely Carice Van Houten turns up in the late stages to add a welcome sense of dark wit and female attractiveness, plus the actress is clearly having fun with a truly juicy role.
Fans of this sort of material may find touches of Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, or any number of "dark quest" adventures within Black Death, but the flick more than stands on its own two feet. (On the whole it's one of the most original horror stories I've heard in years.) Impressively shot, edited remarkably well, and boasting a period piece production value that's really quite impressive, Black Death is a smart, scary occult thriller that takes firm aim on various aspects of Christianity (and religion in general) but never at the expense of telling a dark little story. It's unfortunate that there's no real place in the American cinema marketplace for a flick like this, but I'd bet good money that Black Death is still finding new fans five or ten years from now.