Thursday, June 16, 2011

I like my plague the way I like my coffee/men: black & Beany. Um...

Ever since I stayed up late four weeknights in the 6th grade to watch ABC’s adaptation of The Stand, I’ve had something you might call ‘a thing’ for plagues. Whether it’s a movie like Carriers or a novel like Blindness, the idea of infection sparing no one is just such a ripe and rich premise for any horror film.
Toss in the word bubonic--easily one of my favorites--and  you’ve got the ingredients for one kicking movie. Oh, and did I mention Christopher Triangle Smith is behind the camera?
Yes, you could easily say my expectations for Black Death was about as high as the body count of the actual Black Death.
Quick Plot: It’s 1348, a great time for rats, mead, and long hair but a crappy time for life expectancy. A deadly sickness is tearing through Europe leaving nothing but paranoid Christians and rotting corpses in its path. 
Enter Oswald, a young monk torn between his village love and his word to God. Fearing the worst, he sends his girlfriend home to the woods where she plans to wait for him every morning as he decides where his true heart lies. 

A sign comes in the form of the rarely shampooed Sean Bean playing Ulric, a knight leading a tribe of Christian mercenaries into the woods to capture a rumored necromancer. As they venture deeper into the wild, they encounter violent savages and eventually, Black Book’s lovely Carice van Houten’s Langiva, a mysterious beauty lording over a gang of pagans.
Christopher Smith has one of the most impressive resumes of any genre filmmaker working today, so the idea of putting one of my favorite film premises in his hands is beyond exciting. In a way, unless Black Death met Wizard of Oz standards, it was probably never going to truly be as good as I wanted it to be.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t like Black Death. It had body boils, angry mobs, David Warner, a bleak ending and Sean Bean snarling. Of COURSE I enjoyed the movie. But coming from the man who made a beautiful day of sailing into a time warping horror complete with a baghead killer, Black Death fell a tad short of being the bubonic bonanza I was hoping for. 

High Points
One of the interesting aspects of any film set pre-1700 is the necessary lack of firearms. Black Death gives us a great moment of dialogue where the young monk learns from a grizzled knight about the mercy knife and how a carefully placed stab wound serves as the medieval headshot for merciful killings
I drifted off a bit from Black Death during its somewhat disappointing third act, but I found the epilogue to be absolutely great. Having Oswald, our young and lovelorn hero, 
transform into a dark witch-hunting murderer (with Episode 2 Anakin Skywalker hair to boot) was devastatingly brilliant, making it a spiritual prequel to films like Mark of the Devil and Witchfinder General
The only good thing I was ever able to say about the awful Hitcher remake was that hey, at least the truck stretch out was cool. So it’s kind of neat that Black Death, another Sean Bean vehicle, gets to do the limb pulling, period style

Low Points
While some of the sound design is haunting (ew death gurgles!) I find it hard to believe that every time sword moves it makes that slicey sound

There’s a fantastic shot when one of Ullric’s men is crucified by the pagans, as Smith’s camera follows him face-on in a frenetic Wicker Man-like final prayer. The problem is that this type of moment is far too rare. With a hauntingly fogged landscape and some set pieces that speak for themselves (hooded executioners marching on, corpses a’plenty) it’s kind of a shame that Black Death doesn’t feel truly immersed in the natural madness like, say, Vinyan or Aguire: The Wrath of God.

Lessons Learned
Christians appreciate the concept of betrayal
The longbow is quicker to load AND farther in flight. Take THAT buck of tar!
It’s indeed possible to smell a lie on a man

As Red Riding Hood taught us well, eye makeup was never more lovely than during pre-Industrial Revolution times
The Winning Line
“I look forward to shagging your mother’s ass in hell”
Who knew medieval times were filled with such great trash mama talk!
Black Death is certainly worth a lights-off watch, particularly since it’s currently streaming on Instant Watch. My slight disappointment probably stems more from the fact that I just watched Werner Herzog’s drop dead gorgeous Nosferatu (review coming soon) and was slightly spoiled by his masterful use of medieval times, plagues, and European forestry. So Black Death ain’t Nosferatu, but it’s still an engrossing period horror refreshing for our age.


  1. I loved Black Death. A few minor quibbles but overall, a great gothic horror film. Christopher Smith is one of my favorite directors in the genre today.

  2. I think Smith is easily among the most promising new directors working today and that's probably why I'm *slightly* disappointed with Black Death. I have an odd feeling that much like Trick r Treat, I'll enjoy it much more a year from now. I got a really good movie. I just wanted a masterpiece.

  3. I liked this movie towards the end..It is a little too grey & plodding for the majority of its run time though.

    *Slight disappointment* is a good way to characterize this one.

    it's not too much of a STRETCH to say that bean
    puts in the best performance also. (ok that was lame)

  4. That was not lame, that was worthy of a fine mead toast my friend.

    Cheers (but first, can you hand me my arm? It's over by the crucifix.)

  5. Not the mind bender that Triangle is, but goddamn I love this movie. Spoilers aside, I love the ending as well and the dramatic right turn Osmond takes,

  6. Sean Bean really can carry movies well can't he! If he was good in the Hitcher remake, then he's definitely an actor worthy of high praise.

  7. As for the Black Plague, do you know why it went away? The reason is hilarious as it is dark!

  8. Agreed on Osmond's turn Mike.

    Oh Chris, there's actually NOTHING good about The Hitcher remake. I was so bummed when I watched it because it somehow even made me angry at Bean, and I adore him! Until It's Alive '09, I considered it the worst remake ever (The Wicker Man is a whole different issue from another planet) but I'm wondering if I *may* have been too hard on it. Hm.

    And I do NOT know what became of the Black Plague. Share your smarts!

  9. Well the most common blood type is type O, the rest are all rare. The reason for this is because O blood types were immune to bubonic plague. So, the world's worst pandemic didn't go away because of bettered living conditions or divine intervention, no, it killed EVERYONE it could until there was practically no-one left alive who was susceptible to it and it died away!

  10. Damn Darwinism working hard! That reminds me that I should REALLY find out what my blood type is, if only to know my odds ruing the next round of boils.

  11. You had me at rarely shampooed. LMAO. This one is in my instant queue at the moment. Sean Bean is one of those guys that seems like he should be a bigger star, but I'll take him in a medieval plague flick any day.

  12. Agreed, he's an actual ACTOR with a great face that should just be in more movies. Maybe it's just his choices. Aside from the wretched Hitcher, I can't really remember many film-for-hire roles I've seen him in. And he can pull off the dirty hair look better than any Jared Letto I've ever seen!

  13. I liked it, but was still a little disappointed. (being a fan of Smith) And I guess I was the only one who didn't really dig the ending. Just seemed drawn out quite a bit.

  14. Yeah, I just don't think it hit the heights of Triangle. Had I seen this first, I'd probably be more impressed. But dangit, I loved that dark and nihilistic ending!