Apocalypse Week: Review: Black Death

This entry is part 9 of 16 in the series Apocalypse Week

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Black Death. 2011. Director: Christopher Smith Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne

You may wonder why I am reviewing a medieval movie for Apocalypse Week. It’s simple: Although the Black Death did not destroy Europe, it seemed apocalyptic to the people living in that time period. The death toll is a bit of guesswork, but it was high and it left its marks in history in more than one way.

Black Death uses that general concept: This seems like the end of the world. It is the Apocalypse for those living through it, so then, why not approach it with as much gore as an apocalyptic horror film would? Bodies pile high and there is a much carnage as in your regular zombie flick, with limbs flying and torture galore.

The story follows Osmund, a young monk who volunteers to guide Ulrich (Sean Bean, yet again in a medieval role) to a village that seems to be immune to the Plague. Ulrich believes that the village has escaped the illness, due to the efforts of a necromancer engaged in human sacrifice, and he has been sent to bring the evil sorceress to justice.

The movie has its flaws. Osmund is a bit too modern to be a monk in Medieval Europe. He is not superstitious and he doesn’t believe Ulrich when he claims a perfectly-normal-looking village is a haven of evil. Let us remember that, in the early 17th century, Johannes Kepler’s mother (he of the laws of planetary motion) had to endure a trial due to accusations of witchcraft. That’s pretty late in the day. Osmund, had he been in the 14th century, would have felt outraged when he found that the village had, at the very least, a bunch of heretics. Never mind a band of necromancers.

The movie is also modern in another way. It follows the model of any horror-action movie you’ve seen before. Think Aliens or the like. A group of men come together, we get to know little of their individual personalities, and then they die. They’re more symbols than characters, like the Tough Talking Dude and Friendly Mercenary. Even Ulrich shows little interior life and we know next to nothing about him. Osmund is the only character we get to know a bit better and even he suffers from inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, the setting and photography, with the depressing Plague and the corpses and the bloody mess that is Europe, give it a fresher vibe. Once Ulrich and his men reach their intended village, the film turns a bit more interesting, as it becomes a psychological game of is-there-or-isn’t-there-devilry-at-work, and the final result has a nice Hammer feel to it.

However, despite the Hammer vibe, the good amounts of gore, and the cool setting, the movie commits two big sins. One is the use of a very brief special effect shot that cheapens the proceedings, flinging us from psychological historical thriller to another realm. The other is the final voiceover.

Despite this, it’s a good take on an apocalyptic scenario and one that is different from the regular, run-of-the-mill infection flicks, due precisely to its period setting. And still very damn scary, even if it is several hundreds of years behind us.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in beautiful, rainy British Columbia with her family and two cats. She writes fantasy, magic realism and science fiction. You can read her stories in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, Evolve 2 and Tesseracts 13. She is the co-editor of Candle in the Attic Window, Future Lovecraft and Historical Lovecraft.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaApocalypse Week: Review: Black Death

2 Comments on “Apocalypse Week: Review: Black Death”

  1. Jesse Bullington

    This was one of my favorite movies of this year, and easily Smith’s best offering as film-maker to date (I know people are gaga over Triangle, but, wonder of wonders, I liked the medieval-set film better). Great write-up, but I don’t recall which special effect shot you’re referencing–for me it was decidedly mundane, rather than supernatural, throughout, but yeah, I don’t recall any quick scares/effects that couldn’t be dismissed as hallucination or mummery.

    I can see why it didn’t work for some, but I loooooooved the final voiceover, really, really elevated the film for me–I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an overt Witchfinder General reference. The art of putting a movie to bed is a tricky one, but I think Smith really knows how to do it. My wife, on the other hand, thought the voiceover was super cheesy and the ending in general the low point of the film, so I may be in the minority!

    Have you watched the Finnish film Sauna? Some parallels to this, I thought, though Sauna was much smarter, creepier, and more interesting–one of my favorites, ever, as opposed to just this year.

  2. IFP

    I found the ending weak and the voice over a bad move. Voice overs are tricky, they can work (Memento), but often fail (original version of Blade Runner, not Director’s Cut). Voice overs like this make me think the director questions my intelligence (see? he has gone maaaad!). I wouldn’t be surprised if the original script didn’t have it.

    The special effect is a zombie like effect (when they are ‘resurrecting’ the girl) which for me pushes a film which is, until then, a psychological if bloody thriller, into the land of Nicolas Cage Season of the Witch. If you are going to do what is real/am I hallucinating you need to hit that beat more often and with more effort visually. Black Swan does this with its mind-bending sequences so that by the time Natalie Portman is having feathers growing on her it seems like a natural step. Here it just seems like the producer demanded a creepy effects shot. When Val Lewton did Cat People the producers inserted a couple of shots which totally mess with the film (panther footprints turn into heel prints) and again, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone walked over and said ‘hey, lets do some zombie makeup!.’

    Up until then the movie functions as a Repulsion sort of story, but that shot is just…it doesn’t work for me.

    Yeah, I’m thinking about Black Swan and that is a good example of a very tight ‘madness’ thriller and Black Death wobbles in parts, never achieving that kind of visual flair. I think it’s a tad conflicted on its identity.

    But, like I said, it’s an interesting take on infection and the apocalypse because this kind of world doesn’t pop up so frequently in movies. There is Mask of the Red Death, which deals with a few of the same issues (like the battle of good vs evil, the naive protagonist, evil perhaps protecting the wicked while the good are slaughtered by disease and disease as a form of final punishment/judgment at the end) and Witchfinder General (though General still works better for me than this; it’s a very interesting movie), but not a lot more for comparison.

    Have not seen Sauna, nope. But just this week I was watching an old Mexican soap where the protag gets burned at the stake during the Inquisition and then reincarnates in the 1980s. So…witchy/possessed train of mind?

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