I’ve always had somewhat of an issue with movies that take place in medieval times, mostly because the style of speaking kind of gets on my nerves or ends up being ridiculous and silly. I have become a huge fan of Christopher Smith since stumbling across TRIANGLE a couple years ago. I then started going back through his catalog and checked out SEVERANCE and then his debut feature CREEP. TRIANGLE stands as my favorite of his so far, but BLACK DEATH is not far off, plus it’s a completely different beast than the mind bending puzzle that TRIANGLE was.
BLACK DEATH begins in a village that has been taken over by a sickness that has washed over the countryside universally referred to as the pestilence. The plague is said to be God’s next punishment upon the people in order to cleanse our sins. A warrior of God, Ulrich, comes riding into the village claiming to be sent by holy command to find a village rumored to have no signs of the sickness. Ulrich enlists a young man, Osmund, to lead them to the village where they aim to find a witch and bring them back to burn. The quest leads them to a village where they find themselves facing not only the threat of pestilence, but challenges of their faith as well.
As much as I love a nice uplifting story or a triumphant hero’s journey, BLACK DEATH is far from either one of those. The title isn’t just the name for recognition it’s also the perfect descriptor for the film. The soul of the film is inherently dark, with all the hatred for non-religious people and the hatred for those who believe in God. The scope of BLACK DEATH is incredibly bleak, yet the film is very infectious for being so dark and depressing.
Christopher Smith as a filmmaker has been able to establish some very precise moods in each of his films. CREEP, TRIANGLE and BLACK DEATH all have a very bleak scope while also being very atmospheric and creepy. SEVERENCE has some of the same characteristics, but I found it to be funnier and therefore considerably less bleak. In BLACK DEATH I have to give Smith all the credit in the world for taking a time period like this and making me love it like I do when normally my personal preferences are setting me up to hate it. The film might not be action packed, but it moves like a freight train from one scene to the next with engaging dialogue and conflicts. Towards the end of the film the who’s right and who’s wrong back and forth between pagans and men of God is both engaging and chilling.
The heart of BLACK DEATH is the characters which are performed admirably. I mentioned my distaste for how cheesy medieval can be and I didn’t find a single moment in BLACK DEATH remotely cheesy. The actors all treat the material seriously and not one of them takes their role over the top by becoming overly boisterous or upstaging any of the other actors. Sean Bean stands out to me of all the actors as Ulrich, giving what I would call a quiet subdued performance but also showing a very understated sense of rage and intimidation.
Visually the film is very dark and employs what I would call shades of grey color scheme. BLACK DEATH makes a name for itself by being very moody and atmospheric without being showy. There are no fire breathing dragons, no grand scope sword fights and no storm the castle sieges; instead there are lots of handheld up close and personal battles between a small group of people and tense scenes of dialogue. The threat of the pestilence is always present but never in your face and the warrior’s journey feels desperate and always kept my interest on the film from beginning to end.
Christopher Smith continues to impress with his filmmaking ability and BLACK DEATH is just another notch in his belt. The film is carried with ease on the strength of the performances and mood that is established early on. Much like the pestilence BLACK DEATH grows quietly within you except the film while dark and depressing is actually a joy to watch. You will take no pleasure in what happens to any of the character but can appreciate the style and skill at which the film was made. BLACK DEATH might be an acquired taste for some, but for fans of Christopher Smith I can’t recommend the film enough.