'Black Death': It's 1348 and Things Are Grim

A novice monk must guide a cadre of killers across plague ridden England, a world of creepy masks, catacombs, dingy robes, funeral pyres, and corpses lining the street.

Black Death

Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, Kimberly Nixon, John Lynch
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-05-10

It’s the year of our lord 1348, and things are grim. The black plague ravages the English countryside, laying waste to everything it touches. This is the world of Christopher Smith’s (Creep) medieval horror film Black Death, now out on Blu-ray and DVD, a world of creepy masks, catacombs, dingy robes, funeral pyres, and corpses lining the street.

Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young novice monk in the middle of a crisis of faith. He's torn between his love for God and Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a young woman he grew up with and has been seeing on the sly. In an attempt to spare her from the creeping, omnipresent sickness, Osmund sends his love away from the disease-ridden monastery, unsure when -- or if -- he will be able to follow. When Ulric (Sean Bean), an envoy from the bishop, shows up looking for a guide for his band of mercenaries, Osmund, anxious to make his exit, takes this as sign from God, and volunteers for the job, treacherous though it may be.

Bean is suitably grizzled as Ulric, a religious zealot who tortures and kills in the name of his faith. His mission is to locate a remote marshland village that's untouched by the plague, where rumor has it that the villagers have cast God aside, letting a necromancer reign supreme. To complete their quest they must journey into a savage heart of darkness that closely resembles Willard’s quest to kill Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, a move that places the film squarely in the road trip/men on a mission realm. As they get deeper and deeper into the wilderness, the landscape becomes increasingly sinister and bizarre, fraught with danger and menace.

Eventually the group of haggard warriors comes to the seemingly idyllic village, where everything is a little too warm and fuzzy, from the lack of disease right down to the overly friendly citizens. Things are certainly not as they seem on the surface, and at times you wonder if they are truly chasing the devil, or simply a con artist. You’ll ask yourself if Osmund is cracking up, beset by evil, or being played? Part of the inherent tension is this mystery, but in the end the questions are all answered a bit too explicitly for my taste.

Though there are trappings of horror, and the film is full of horrific images and situations, Black Death is more of a period piece than Smith’s earlier genre work, it just so happens that the period is full of death and violence. Black Death is an eerie, atmospheric film, but every shaky, hand-held frame of is so saturated with pain and misery that it may be difficult to enjoy for many viewers.

There are ample action scenes, though those, too, are definitely on the grim side of things; we’re talking foot stabbing, neck biting, axe swinging battles. Bleak and gritty are the most fitting descriptions of Black Death; in nearly every regard it is a desolate experience. A good point of reference may be a faster paced, more action heavy Valhalla Rising, a world where killers have honor, and killing itself can even be an act of mercy.

The Black Death Blu-ray comes from Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia, which, by the way, has been on an epic, if slightly strange, roll lately with titles like Trollhunter, Hobo With a Shotgun, telekinetic killer tire movie Rubber, and Takeshi Miike’s samurai epic 13 Assassins, just to name a few. The bonus features include a quartet of deleted scenes that provide more of the doom and gloom of the film, and for reasons of continuity, pace, and overwhelming depression, you’ll understand why they were left on the cutting room floor.

With the behind the scenes entry you get what you expect, the cast and crew all talking about how filming Black Death was one of the best movie-making experiences of their respective careers. It's notable for one thing, and that is you get a clear look at Smith’s enthusiasm for his work. He has a unique approach with his actors, and his zeal is so infectious you can see how it spread to the people on the set.

In addition to this strategically condensed and edited piece, there is an extensive collection of interviews. The making-of feature culled a great deal from these discussions, but there is also quite a bit that didn’t make the cut. While some of it may be repetitive, expounding on topics already covered, there are some hidden gems if you’re patient.

The extras round out with a theatrical trailer and a short look at the film from HDNet, a cable channel owned by billionaire Mark Cuban, who also happens to own Magnet. Magnet has developed a definite strategy for releasing it’s catalog of interesting, niche market horror and action films. Almost all of their films get an On Demand stint that precedes a gradual theatrical release, which in turn arrives shortly before the home video release. It's a different tactic, but one that has met with some success.

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