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Review: Black Death (Fantasia)

Jul. 26, 2010by: Chris Bumbray


Plot: In plague ravaged Medieval England, a group of knights, led by the vengeful Ulrich (Sean Bean), are sent to a small village- which is said to be protected from the plague due to witchcraft and devil worship. A young Monk (Eddie Redmayne) tasked with guiding the knights, quickly falls under the spell of the beautiful Langiva (Carice Van Houten), who the knights believe may be a Necromancer.

Review: I love a good plague story. Hard to believe that at one time, almost 1/3 of Europes population fell victim to this terrible sickness, and the resulting hysteria has been rich fodder for films like FLESH + BLOOD, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, THE DEVILS, and even Ingmar Bergmans THE SEVENTH SEAL.

Like those films, BLACK DEATH is a dark and chilling piece of work. Its the latest from director Christopher Smith, who did a great little horror comedy a few years ago called SEVERANCE. Here, hes got the benefit of a healthy budget, and a stellar cast- adding up to a truly creepy tale of medieval terror.


As Ulrich, Sean Bean has his best role in years. Hes playing a feared, devoutly religious knight that, for a good chunk of the running time, were not wholly convinced is actually one of the good guys. Beans got the right commanding presence for a role like this, with just enough menace mixed in to keep us guessing about his motivations. Beans one of those guys who was born to play in Medieval epics like this, with him looking like he was born with a sword in his hand.

However, Beans not really the lead. Rather, the star is up and comer Eddie Redmayne- as the noble monk whos torn between his devotion to God, and his love of a local girl, who he sends away near the beginning of the film so she can escape the ravages of the plague. He only takes up the quest in order to find his lost lover, and its through these feelings that he falls prey to the seductive Carice Van Houten.


Of course, you cant really blame a guy for falling for the gorgeous Van Houten, who made a big impression in BLACK BOOK a few years ago. Both Redmayne and Van Houten are terrific, and I especially like the fact that Redmayne never becomes an action hero, but rather stays as a terrified innocent, whos eventually robbed of his humanity-not only by the possibly evil Van Houten, but also due to the cruelty of the times.


Sadly, BLACK DEATH supposedly did not catch on all that well when it came out in the UK earlier this year, which is a shame as its a damn fine film. Granted, its a bit of a hard sell. Despite the setting, its not particularly action heavy, although there are a handful of excellent, brutal battle sequences throughout. Rather, its more in line with something like THE NAME OF THE ROSE, or even the original WICKER MAN (minus Nicolas Cage and the bees). Its a beautifully shot film, and I was surprised to discover that it was entirely photographed on handheld 16MM (albeit on excellent stock). The cold, grey look resulting from this technique benefits the film enormously. I also really liked the sad, yet epic score from composer Christian Henson, that sounds a bit like the score John Barry did for another period plague film, THE LAST VALLEY (a terrific flick starring Michael Caine- that hes always claimed was the most grueling thing hes even done). Most impressive is the complete lack of CGI, with this going for a more traditional vibe that makes it feel like a modern day Hammer film.

While I have my doubts BLACK DEATH will get much of a theatrical release in North America, Im sure itll be out on DVD before long and its well with checking out. This is a very well done and chilling piece of gothic horror, and something I expect could eventually pick up a cult following. Itll also be fascinating to compare this to the upcoming, similarly themed Nicholas Cage flick, SEASON OF THE WITCH.

Grade: 8/10

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