Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw Reviews Black Death
There’s nothing wrong with a genre B-movie that knows exactly what it is. The productions values may be low-budget, the script may be filled with cringe-worthy dialogue and cliched tropes – you may even find big-name actors hamming it up for the sake of a paycheck (like Ben Affleck in the movie Paycheck) – but when all is said and done, B-movies can be fun guilty pleasures to watch.
One would look at the premise of Black Death and expect to see a B-movie Medieval epic that offered some serious gore and hokey supernatural horror tropes. Sadly, what we get instead is a B-movie that doesn’t seem to know its own limitations, instead trying to present itself as something deeper and more profound than it could ever hope to be.
The story revolves around a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) living in England during the height of the dreaded bubonic plague. Despite his obligation to God, Osmund is secretly in love with a young maiden named Averill (Kimberly Nixon), and when the plague starts to ravage their village, Osmund sends his love away so that she might be spared a grisly fate. Averill promises to wait for Osmund (for a limited time) in a place far beyond the village, and then she’ll disappear from his life forever.
The young monk struggles with his sworn oath to God and the oath of his heart, and therefore takes it as a divine sign when a group of hardened warriors – led by the infamous Sir Ulric (Sean Bean) – come to the monastery to recruit a monk as a guide, to lead them far into the countryside to investigate a mysterious town rumored to have been spared from the plague. The warriors’ plotted path crosses the place where Averill is waiting for Osmund, so the young monk volunteers to lead the warriors, assuming it is his fate to rendezvous with Averill and escape the hell surrounding them.
Sir Ulrich is also a man of God. He confides in Osmund that their true mission is to infiltrate this mysterious village and identify a necromancer (person who raises the dead) thought to be living there. Killing the necromancer is God’s work in Ulrich’s eyes – though Osmund wants no part of that bloodshed.
Of course, the journey doesn’t go quite as Osmund planned, and soon he finds himself trapped in the village on the swamp, grappling with dark forces and a test of his faith he is ill-prepared for.
It quickly became apparent when I saw this film that Black Death is in fact a theological debate disguised as a Medieval epic. There are only about two scenes of action (though they are pretty bloody), while the rest of the film’s runtime is dedicated to exploring what it means to serve God; if there is in fact a God to serve; if disasters like plague are acts of higher powers or simply circumstances of our human existence; if Christianity is more righteous than atheism and logic – and a whole lot of other heavy-handed, half-cooked ideas that really felt out of place in a movie like this.
It’s almost as though screenwriter Dario Poloni had no idea that metaphor, symbolism, and subtly are the earmarks of quality writing. Every single idea or theme presented in Black Death is just spouted out in dialogue so overt and unsophisticated that it had me burying my face in embarrassment for the person who wrote it. Even worse than this thinly-veiled theological “quandary” is the fact that Black Death‘s story never really makes a valid point. There is a lot of back and forth about who does the most harm – believers or non-believers – and some ambiguous suggestion about the existence of the supernatural vs. the dangers of superstition. We’re basically treated to arguments we’ve heard between skeptics and believers a hundred times before, dressed up in chain mail and cheap Medieval costuming for no real purpose.
Director Christopher Smith is known for films like Severance and Creep – movies which take a seemingly standard premise and inject it with a healthy dose of B-movie schlock. Black Death gets no points for direction, seeing as how it pretty much looks like something a film school student could shoot if given a modest budget. Actually, upon thinking about it, I’m not sure that an “A” student in film school wouldn’t come up with something much more stylistic and visually creative than this bland and cliched film we get – but that’s just me. Smith’s work looks like something you’d catch on late-night premium channel cable.
The actors all do pretty well considering the schlock they’re being given to work with. Sean Bean is totally underutilized as Ulrich – but then I suppose he’s used to being underutilized in films, just as he is used to wearing Medieval garb by now, having played a sword-swinging crusader in Lord of the Rings (though that role had actual meat and depth to it). Eddie Redmayne is nothing to write home about in the leading role as Osmund; his only given task seems to be standing around with his boyish good looks, p0uting at all the death and madness surrounding him. If Redmayne exhibited any more range than that, I must’ve missed it. Carice van Houten – who was wonderful as a Jew spying on the Nazis in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book – is also grossly underutilized in this film. As the matriarch and accused necromancer of the mysterious village on the swamp, whatever depth her character may have had was robbed from her by the so-obvious-it-hurts proclamations and dialogue of the script.
If there is one bit of redemption for this film, it comes from the supporting players who make up Ulrich’s band of warriors. John Lynch and Andy Nyman are great in their own right, but it is Johnny Harris as “Mold,” the savage killer of the bunch, who truly steals the show. Without these strong supporting players keeping things interesting and colorful, this film would probably be unwatchable.
In the end, Black Death is a movie that should’ve been lost deep in the straight-to-DVD bin at your local Walmart. The fact that somebody felt it deserved a theatrical run, while other more qualified movies never get that chance, just goes to show that whether by the grace of god, or fault of man, little is fair in the movie biz.
Check out the trailer for Black Death: