Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Death (2011)

According to Wikipedia, the Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history and is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe’s population, reducing the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. This has been seen as having created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.

The death and pestilence spread by this deadly plague was of Biblical proportions, and it seems that the dark mark it left upon history would be the perfect material for a horror film. Lucky for us, Magnolia Pictures’ Black Death has risen to the occasion.

The year is 1348. Europe has fallen under the shadow of the Black Death. As the plague decimates all in its path, fear and superstition are rife. In this apocalyptic environment, the church is losing its grip on the people. There are rumors of a village, hidden in marshland that the plague cannot reach. There is even talk of a necromancer who leads the village and is able to bring the dead back to life.

Ulric (Sean Bean), a fearsome knight, is charged by the church to investigate these rumors. He enlists the guidance of a novice monk, Osmund  (Eddie Redmayne) to lead him and his band of mercenary soldiers to the marshland, but Osmund has other motives for leaving his monastery. Their journey to the village and events that unfold take them into the heart of darkness and to horrors that will put Osmund’s faith in himself and his love for God to the ultimate test.

Black Death is a gripping film dealing with issues of faith, temptation, redemption, salvation…all huge issues back in the Dark Ages and still relevant today. It has a bit of Wicker Man-feel, only because of the dark secret the blissful and untouched village hides. It also has a much more somber feel and isn’t a film to take lightly. I liked how the film subverted the usual Christian vs. Pagan dynamic and made the pagans vicious instead of their usual hippie-dippy selves.

Speaking of viciousness, the film also boasts some wicked medieval battle scenes, complete with swords, maces, axes and even an iron maiden, among other torture devices. Despite the bloodshed being far and in-between, I was surprised how bloody the film actually was, especially in contrast to the subdued tone of the film and stark beauty of the cinematography.

The film looks stunning, from the cobblestoned streets of medieval Europe to the dark woods the characters travel through to the sun-dabbled village they finally arrive at. The mostly cold and bleak visuals echo the overall ominous atmosphere of the film. The grand scope of the cinematography makes me wish I had seen Black Death in a theater, but even on the smaller screen its grandiose scope wasn’t lost.

I liked the storyline because it had an epic feel and because of the themes it explored. As mentioned previously, I liked how the Christian vs. Pagan dynamic was flipped, with the pagans persecuting the Christians instead of the other way around. I also liked how the film showed unwavering faith in the characters as they were faced with temptations and challenges. The film ends on a brutal, downbeat note that was definitely disturbing and shows how evil can corrupt even the most faithful.

The actors gave performances equally intense to the storyline and visuals. Sean Bean is especially good as the God-fearing Ulric, but I also liked Eddie Redmayne’s performance as the conflicted Osmund. In my opinion, though, Carice van Houten stole the show as the village’s necromancer Langiva.

Director Christopher Smith has crafted another unique film with Black Death and is definitively one of the most versatile directors of the horror genre. He gave us the spooky Creep, the darkly humorous Severance, the intense Triangle and now the bleak Black Death. His films are always engaging, entertaining and original, and Black Death is no exception.

Buy it on Amazon!

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