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Christopher Smith’s ‘Black Death’ is an Under-Rated Gem

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Black Death

Riding in the wave of plenty of other medieval British action flicks released in the same year, (Valhalla RisingCenturion, and Solomon Kane), Black Death delves into a dark turbulent time in history, using the bubonic plague and the religious hysteria it elicits as a metaphor for contemporary fears. With the plague ravaging medieval England, a rookie monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) joins a group of Satanist-hunting mercenaries to investigate an isolated community that is suspiciously practicing in black magic and witchcraft.

Director Christopher Smith deserves credit for his ambitious attempt at doing something far different from his previous body of work. Unlike his Hollywood thriller Triangle, Smith produced his most original and most mature film to date, wisely opting to engage viewers in the battle between religions, superstitions, and witchcraft. While the relentlessness of the downbeat nature may not appeal to mainstream viewers, Black Death proves itself to be a challenging and rewarding experience that sticks to its dark roots.

Black Death is gothic and gritty – a convincing portrait of a dark period in history.

The first half is reminiscent in tone to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with action set pieces on par with the best of the sword-and-sandal films. The second half (the more entertaining half) ultimately has more in common with the evocative pagan horror of The Wicker Man and hints at some inspiration from Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It’s a fascinating morality play that frequently shifts concepts of right and wrong. There is no romanticism here. Black Death is gothic and gritty – a convincing portrait of a dark period in history. It feels like a partial descendant of one of the greatest U.K. horror films ever made, The Devils and like The Devils, it shares numerous disturbing themes. Black Death is a film that knows its cinematic history and all this name dropping will surely raise curiosity amongst cinephiles. Yet, despite a promising set up, its themes and inspirations never coalesce— and despite its great production values and cultural iconography, the storytelling is at times clunky and disjointed.

Still, director Smith creates a genuinely creepy atmosphere shooting entirely on handheld 16MM (albeit on excellent stock) giving the pic a cold, grey look stripped of most colors and textures. Most impressive is the complete lack of CGI. Relying on real stunts and prosthetics, Smith piles on the gore and blood, courtesy of several set-pieces of sword-swinging action. He also orchestrates some incredibly tense moments including the gruesome climactic crucifixion.

With Black Death, Smith also has the benefit of a stellar cast. Sean Bean plays a devoutly religious knight who for the majority of the picture keeps us questioning his true motivations. He has the right commanding presence and menace which the role desperately requires. The heart of the film lies on Eddie Redmayne, as the noble monk who’s torn between his devotion to God, and his love of a girl. The film excels because of its incredible cast including the strong supporting roles of rising star Kimberley Nixon, Tim McInnerny as a creepy village elder, and Carice van Houten as the seductive and sinister “Iron Maiden” Langvia.

Christopher Smith has built quite the reputation as one of Britain’s most underappreciated genre filmmaking and that’s a shame. The filmmaking here is first-rate, and Poloni’s script isn’t afraid to really go for a brutal finale. Director Chris Smith delivers plenty of action and deploys enough twists to give this genre piece a try, despite its minor problems.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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