MARCH 9, 2011
I “saw” Black Death at Screamfest last October, but I never wrote a real review, so we can all probably guess what happened there (and if you’re new to the site – that means my narcolepsy kicked in and thus I didn’t see enough of it to write a proper review). And while I was sort of disappointed in myself at the time, because I had been really excited to see it (it showed at 10 pm after 3-4 other movies – they stacked the odds against me!), I’m sort of glad I saw it in its entirety now. Why? Four words: Season Of The Witch.
See, the two films are similar, in that they involved a bunch of badass knight types in the 14th century going from a city run by a great character actor (Christopher Lee in Witch*, David Warner in Black Death) to a remote village, and dealing with the plague and suspecting a very attractive woman of witchcraft. But Witch was pretty lousy, and Death, while not perfect, improves on that movie in just about every way. Now that I know how poorly this type of horror/adventure blend can turn out, it makes me appreciate Black Death all the more.
For starters, they were wise to cast an unknown in the actual lead role of Osmund and have him be act as our surrogate, instead of focusing on the big star, in this case Sean Bean. Bean is actually not in the movie all that much, but he has a presence that keeps you from noticing how often they get around showing him. It’s like the old Hammer films where Cushing or Lee would get top billing but if you were to count their screentime it would be much less than their co-stars. But it’s really Osmund’s story, and it’s remarkable how much he transforms from the beginning to the end of the film. I hope George Lucas sees this movie and realizes how much he botched Anakin’s transformation from good to bad in the prequels – THIS is how you show an innocent boy becoming a damaged man (and in one film instead of three, I might add).
Also, without spoiling much, the movie never turns into a silly FX showcase. It’s remarkably grounded in reality, and while the answers we get might disappoint some (or confuse them if they’re not paying enough attention – or falling asleep during key scenes L), it also makes you realize that the film isn’t really about the hunt for a necromancer after all – it’s something far more interesting and less-overplayed in movies. Someone mentioned Witchfinder General as a cinematic cousin of this film, but I have yet to see that (queued!), plus a bit of The Wicker Man with the whole “secluded religious group that doesn’t trust our hero” thing, but the only other movie I thought of was Sauna, and like Season, that was more of a general structure thing than one of theme (also this movie is a hell of a lot more accessible).
Production value is also excellent. Even when familiar faces like Andy Nyman popped up (I love that guy – shame his big scene is played out mainly with a goddamn snorricam, however), I was never taken out of the movie – they really sell the period well, and cast it with actors that don’t look out of place. I mean, nothing against say, Shia La Beouf, but if he was playing Osmund this movie simply wouldn’t have worked. Not only does he lack that “disappears into a role” quality, but he’s just too damn modern looking. However, guys like Bean and John Lynch blend in effortlessly.
My only issue is that it takes a bit long to get to the town. I don't know if they just figured it needed more action or what, but they really could have done without the big fight scene near the caves. They start on their journey rather quickly, so it feels like they should have arrived a bit sooner as well. I wouldn't have minded more time with them "investigating" the town before the shit hits the fan - it seems like they rush that part in order to get the 3rd act moving. So basically, just some pacing/structure shifts in the first 45 minutes or so would have been a benefit. Nothing too damaging, but since this is likely to be seen OnDemand or whatever instead of in theaters, I fear today's ADD-crippled audiences will tune out before it really kicks into high gear.
And thus it’s another “win” for underrated director Christopher Smith. I didn’t love his first film Creep, but it was a watchable Death Line “homage”, and Severance remains one of my favorite movies of the past 5 years. His last film Triangle was another solid thriller, unfortunately released after Timecrimes which shared the same central concept/twist (kind of ironic, that one suffered from being seen after a similar film). And while there’s nothing really tying his films together in any way, he has shown that he can tackle different sub-genres with reasonable ease. Guess it’s not a bad thing if a “typical” Christopher Smith movie is simply an enjoyable genre piece (as opposed to a “typical” Quentin Tarantino movie, which usually means criminals talking about food and old TV shows).
Now, as I alluded to, this movie is not really horror in any traditional sense. There’s some gore, but nothing is played for scares and the violence is primarily sword-based. I mean, yeah it’s more horror than romantic comedy, but if you’re expecting a bunch of witches flying around and Army of Darkness style resurrections and the like, then you will be disappointed. If you want a good story and a compelling character arc (shame that THAT is something that sticks out – “Hey, this movie actually has a character change over the course of it in an unexpected way!”), then your disappointment will be non-existent.
What say you?
*Weird little coincidence of sorts – Christopher Lee and Nicolas Cage are the stars of the two Wicker Man movies (albeit in different roles) and were both in Witch, and Black Death will probably be described as “A cross between Wicker Man and Season of The Witch” by someone. I dunno, kind of interesting. To me.