Friday, 19 November 2010
DVD review: Black Death
Even dedicated Sean Bean fans might have missed Black Death at the movies, seeing as how it was on release for approximately one night, in a cupboard under the stairs in Outer Mongolia.
Which is a pity, because it's a nice little horror film in the mold of The Wicker Man (original version): atmospheric, thought-provoking, and haunting. Oh yes, and grim. If you thought The Name of the Rose was just too upbeat, then this is the medieval thriller for you.
Set in England in 1348 during the height of the Black Death, the story kicks off with the arrival at a monastery of a knight, Ulric (Sean Bean) who has been sent by the bishop on a mission to investigate a rumoured village in the marsh. Supposedly it is not only plague-free, but is kept that way by black magic. Ulric is a fanatic for Christ and means to hunt out the godless and see them punished. He has a motley crew of mercenaries and pious bastards in tow and a mobile torture chamber on an ox cart. All he needs is a guide into the marsh. A young monk, Osmund, volunteers to take them but has ulterior motives of his own - he has an illicit girlfriend who has promised to wait for him out there by the martyrs' cross, and he takes Ulric's arrival as a sign/excuse he should be abandoning his monastic vows.
So they set off through a landscape stitched up of death, despair and impotent rage. The question on everyone's lips is Why has the pestilence happened? Is it's God's punishment on sinners or an attack by Satan on true believers? The time-honoured response of the frightened and ignorant (which in this setting means everyone) is to turn to violence and religious fanaticism in search of a way out. There are a couple of scenes (flagellants and a witch-lynching) where unfortunately you have to grit your teeth and try not to think of Monty Python, but on the whole this low-budget film brings off a reasonable feel for the times. The scenery is beautiful but creepy and the colours stripped out, as if there's something missing from the world.
Eventually - not without losses - the unheroic party get to the village in the marsh, which is peaceful and pretty and where the church has clearly been left to fall into decay. These people are godless. There's no particular indication that they've taken up any alternative religion, pagan or Satanic - they just seem to have rejected Christianity. And, incidentally, discovered shampoo and laundry soap. Of course, when push comes to shove (and it does, rapidly and bloodily) the heathens are just as superstitious, duplicitous and sadistic as the Christians. They are lead by the beautiful Langiva (and yes, having a woman speak for the village really puts Ulric's hackles up), who makes herself out to be a powerful necromancer and appears to raise Osmund's dead lover from the grave in order to seduce him to her side.
One strength of this film for me is the way that the characters do not behave like 21st-century people stuck in a medieval setting. Their mental world is complex, bewildering, and full of unknowable darkness. The voiceover passages at the beginning and end of the film are actually out of character, but provide a necessary bridge between the paradigm of the modern secular viewer and what would otherwise be a film about people too alien to empathise with.
Black Death is a 15 cert movie in the UK, which means that the violence and torture is frequent but not lingering (to my relief). There is no supernatural threat or CGI monster. The horror comes from the sense of abandonment, the feeling that you are trapped in a moral marsh with the ground sinking away beneath your feet. The POV character is the novice monk Osmund, who is frightened of violence and wants the soldiers to leave the villagers in peace: the director's masterstroke is to show by the end how this young, love-struck, sympathetic character eventually becomes worse than all the others. The ending is what really makes this film.
There is no God in this world. The Devil is everyone.
A week after watching it, I'm still finding it creeping into my thoughts. That's what a good horror film should be like.