#5: Black Death
A medieval horror, plagued with ambiguity
Initial release: 2010
Director: Christopher Smith
A surprisingly good and stunningly dark psychological horror, Black Death tells the story of a young novice during the time of the bubonic plague, who joins a group of knights (led by none other than Sean Bean) sent to investigate a village rumored to be disease-free.
The novice has his own reasons for going: he’s been seeing a girl in secret, and once plague is spotted inside the monastary walls he sends her out into the woods to wait for him in safety. The trip with the knights is the perfect opportunity to reconnect.
Much of the first half of the film is about the journey to the village. The knights are mostly a rough, rude bunch of men, and the sights they pass are disturbing amidst the haunting beauty of the wilderness.
Unfortunately by the time the novice reaches the agreed-upon meeting place, she’s nowhere to be found but bloody clothes are nearby. After fending off an attack by bandits, the group proceeds to the village proper, which is very clean, and isolated by a broad marsh.
It’s obvious that something is off about the village, in particular that it seems to be led by a very charismatic woman, and the church hasn’t been used in some time. From here things start getting a little mind-bending.
The novice is told that his dead girlfriend had been found shortly before he arrived; as night falls, he’s lured into the woods to witness a ceremony during which she’s seemingly resurrected, and in the meantime the knights are drugged to sleep.
As the film reaches its climax it’s left deliberately ambiguous as to whether what’s happening is real, or an elaborate ruse; the film ruminates on worship and faith, and how people need something to believe in, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be God.
On a technical level the film is competent, but it doesn’t need to be anything more than that as the story carries most of the film. The soundtrack is sparse, but unnerving, and certain scenes make excellent use of lighting, almost always in a religious context.
The principal characters are well-portrayed and acted, with Carice van Houten’s role as the villainess handled with more subtlety than you would typically expect from witchy medieval types. Sean Bean turns in a solid performance as always. (Also, not really a spoiler: he dies.)
What would ordinarily be little more than a gloomy genre flick (especially if the second half of the film had been shot according to the explicitly supernatural original script) reveals itself instead to be a far more cerebral psychological adventure.
Nothing can ever be certain in life, and nothing is ever as it seems. Is the village really protected? Or just isolated? Is she really a witch, or just good at plants? Is God even real? Is the devil?
One thing’s for sure, though, this movie is an unsung great.