PICKIN’ THE CARCASS: BLACK DEATH (2010)
By Michael Arruda
Death by the plague is about as unpleasant as it gets.
It’s no surprise then that the movie BLACK DEATH (2010), now available on streaming video, with its black plague in the Middle Ages backdrop, is a major downer.
Yep, it’s the Middle Ages, 1348 to be exact, and everyone is questioning why there’s a plague. Is it a punishment from God? Or is it an attack by the Devil?
A group of religious warriors, led by a special envoy from the bishop, Ulrich (Sean Bean, looking like he walked directly off the set of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies) are searching for a village hidden deep in the woods rumored to be free from the plague because its inhabitants worship the devil and partake in human sacrifices. Their mission (cue MISSION IMPOSSIBLE music): to capture and execute the leader of this village, a purported necromancer.
Ulrich and his men visit a monastery in search of a guide. The Abbot (David Warner) doesn’t want to supply them with one, as he believes the mission is too dangerous, but a young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) volunteers for the job, and Ulrich accepts the boy for the position. Though Osmund is a monk, he is also secretly in love with a young woman Averill (Kimberley Nixon), and he’s praying for guidance from God on which direction to take his life—the religious life, or a life with Averill. When Ulrich arrives in search of a guide to take him and his men to a village near where Averill has fled to escape the plague, Osmund concludes that God has spoken to him, and he knows now which direction to follow.
Led by young Osmund, Ulrich and his men travel through the dangerous woods where they encounter superstitious witch hunters and deadly robbers, and after making quick work of these threats, they eventually reach the mysterious village in the woods that is free from the plague. Ulrich and his men request shelter in the village, and the friendly villagers allow them to stay, and they make no secret that the plague does not exist within their community.
It doesn’t take Ulrich long to discover the necromancer and leader of the village, a strong-willed woman Langiva (Carice van Houten). Langiva eventually orders the villagers to round up and imprison Ulrich and his merry band of religious soldiers, and she tells her people that they must do away with the evil Christians, as they’ve arrived in the village to end her reign and, as a result, will give them the plague. Langiva gives the captured Christians a choice: denounce Christ or face torture and death. Of course, most of Ulrich’s band refuse to renounce their faith, which opens the door for some pretty nasty torture sequences.
Langiva develops a fondness for young Osmund, and to further entice him, after showing him the dead body of Averill, she restores Averill to life, and then offers him a life of lusty pleasure with Averill, free from the plague, in return for renouncing Christ. This is no easy decision for Osmund. He was deeply in love with Averill, and he suddenly finds himself dealing with a painful dilemma.
Eventually, some of the religious manage to escape, Osmund makes his decision, and there is a bloody final confrontation between good and evil, although it’s more like a battle between sad and evil, as the followers of “good” don’t exactly have a good thing going, because if they win, they’re just going home to the plague. Not exactly the most inspiring of stories.
And that’s really the major problem with BLACK DEATH. It’s a depressing movie. Not that I’m expecting a movie about the Black Plague in the middle ages to be a hoot, but without some semblance of brightness, some victory for the human spirit, or even some humor, it’s all pretty bleak, and as a result it’s not all that enjoyable.
I did enjoy the look of this movie. BLACK DEATH has above average production values. As I mentioned before, its story takes place in 1348—and it looks it. And while the sets and costumes may not be as impressive as we saw in SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011) earlier this year, the fact that they’re not so grand adds to the bleakness of it all.
I also enjoyed the plot. The story of a group of religious warriors in search of a necromancer caught my interest immediately and had me excited to see how this one played out. The problem here, though, is that the pacing for the first half of the movie is very slow. It takes these guys forever to reach the village, and the threats they meet in the woods, the witch hunters and the robbers, aren’t overly exciting. The slow pace almost put me to sleep.
Once they get to the village, things pick up dramatically, and the movie does get better at this point, but it takes a while. The village scenes have an almost WICKER MAN feel to them, especially once Ulrich and his men have been taken prisoner. It’s very uncomfortable watching these helpless men toyed with and tortured by Langiva and her villagers.
The acting is pretty good in BLACK DEATH. Sean Bean in the lead role as Ulrich is solid and watchable. He’s done this sort of thing before (as I said, he looks like he’s still in his LORD OF THE RINGS get-up) and he’s fine here, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.
The best performance in the movie, by far, belongs to Carice van Houten as the villainous Langiva. She’s one scary woman. She’s cold, earthy and heartless. Langiva would make the perfect wife to Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle from THE WICKER MAN (1973). We saw van Houten recently in REPO MEN (2010), and she was also in VALKYRIE (2008), but she’s much more memorable here in BLACK DEATH.
Eddie Redmayne is OK as Osmund. He’s serviceable, but he didn’t knock my socks off. The same can be said for Kimberley Nixon as Averill, though in her defense, she’s not in the movie all that much.
It’s great to see David Warner in a small role as the Abbot. The role is way too small, though. BLACK DEATH could only have benefitted from more screen time from David Warner.
The other performance of note belongs to John Lynch as Wolfstan, the only standout among Ulrich’s group of religious warriors. Wolfstan is sort of the second in command behind Ulrich, and there’s a sincerity to this character, provided by Lynch’s strong performance, that is enticing. Lynch gives the second best performance in the film, other than Carice van Houten as Langiva.
The torture scenes in this one are pretty grisly and earn the film its R rating. We see men gutted, tied to horses and then pulled apart, and other grisly tidbits. If you like torture movies, you might find BLACK DEATH of interest.
However, for the most part, the Black Death itself is far more disturbing and frightening than anything seen in BLACK DEATH, and this works against the movie. The whole plot is about an evil necromancer, but really, some of the scenes early on in the movie depicting plague victims are far more frightening than any of the supernatural shenanigans depicted later.
And while the second half of the movie does pick up steam and is better than the slow first half, the ending of the movie is just so-so. As a result, the pay-off doesn’t fully deliver.
Director Christopher Smith gets mixed results. The film looks good, and there are some good heavy hitting torture moments that are not for the squeamish, but the action sequences and battle scenes are standard at best, and they’re not memorable at all.
Dario Poloni wrote the screenplay, and while he presents a decent story and a plot that I liked, his dialogue is flat and dull. Compared to SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011), which created some likeable characters and had inspired dialogue, this script adds very little to the proceedings. Not that I’m looking for a “fun” movie about the Black Death, but this is one dreary flick. It’s really hard to enjoy.
All in all, BLACK DEATH is a mixed bag. There are elements I liked—the story, acting, the look of the movie, and the intensity of some its painful torture scenes—but its slow pace, uninspired dialogue, and so-so ending all weigh this one down.
So, if you decide to watch this one, be forewarned: BLACK DEATH is about as fun as the plague.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda