Plague View: Black Death (2010)

Jack Campion April 18, 2020
Plague View: Black Death (2010)

Black Death (2010) is a horror film by British director Christopher Smith, best known for his 2006 film Severance.

The narrative unfolds in plague-ridden 14th-century-England, as Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young friar unsure of his commitment to God, is set on leaving the relative safety of his monastery and venturing to a haven rumoured to be untouched by bubonic plague.

Accompanying him is a group of grizzled mercenaries – morally bankrupt, yet absolute in their commitment to the holy cause. The group’s leader, Ulric, is charged with the capture, interrogation and execution of the necromancer who is keeping the plague at bay.

The film, which received mixed reviews and a cold box office launch (reaching a total $272,445 worldwide), has been largely forgotten but stands out as one of the finest set in medieval times to grace modern screens. When one considers what there is to choose from – and there isn’t a lot – Black Death certainly stands out.

Witch hunt

Bloody Disgusting compares the film with Season Of The Witch, a “cinematic abomination” that features Nicholas Cage at his dullest and one of the most dubious ‘old-timey’ English accents imaginable.

Perhaps that’s the best thing one can say about Black Death’s legacy – it’s regarded as a finer version of cinema’s brief 21st century sojourn into the sub-genre of witch-hunting films.

But there’s so much more to love about Black Death. There’s gore but it isn’t gratuitous or exploitative – its grim, macabre and muddy.

The gore is used to hammer home the nasty, brutish short lives people led in the 14th century but the scenes are used sparingly as a relief or to build tension. This leaves room for the characters to breathe, grow and endear their hell-bound selves to the audience.

Supernatural

While being a ‘supernatural’ topic, Smith plays it right down the line to the point you can’t be sure what’s witchcraft and what’s mere ignorance blinded by religiosity.

The movie plays wonderfully with preconceived notions of good and evil, and even the Summerisle-esque haven erected amidst a land of death is at once threatening and enticing in its apparent Godlessness.

By far the most compelling character in Black Death is Ulric (Sean Bean) who seems to elevate anything he appears in with his seething northern candour.

He portrays piety bordering on madness extremely well. He’s machiavellian, always justifying the horrors that ensue when the gang commits each church-ordained atrocity.

However, Redmayne does a fantastic job of keeping up with Bean, counterpointing Ulric’s religious fervour and amoral actions with Osmund’s more sentimental, humanist point of view, continuing the contrast between superstition and rationalism.

All this is set on a stage riddled with disease and the spirit of the times we’re living in that gives new life to this forgotten medieval masterpiece.

Black Death cr: Netflix

Hygiene

Each disregard and misunderstanding of hygiene from the characters serves to add to the horror of our 21st-century, socially distant lives, washing our now-blistered hands whenever we touch anything deemed unclean.

Cleanliness has always pervaded our human psyche – our evolutionary disgust impulse is crucial for preserving our bodies from dirty things – but cleanliness of the soul is what’s crucial to understanding the mindset of Black Death’s characters.

Despite the dirt on their faces and blood on their hands, they are Godly men. Although they are enacting unspeakable things in the name of purification, well, someone has to. It’s God’s will.

I think there’s true power in this forgotten film. It’s worth revisiting, not only to absorb a message on the dangers of religious mania and the importance of good hygiene, but also to see how much worse things were in the 14th century compared with now.

Black Death is available on Netflix

Plague View is a series of articles looking at under-rated films that deal with disease and pandemics.

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