Darkness pervades the world of Black Death, cloaked in the illusion of free will and surrounded on all sides by moral cul-de-sacs. No true ethics exist here, no sense of right and wrong from which to cleave a path through the pestilence and death. Those who claim to protect the good turn out to be either con artists, fanatics or both. In the end, you may only be able to choose how you die.
One imagines that the historical Dark Ages were very close to that, and director Christopher Smith endeavors to bring the period to tragic, despairing life right in front of our eyes. He focuses on a young monk named Osmond (Eddie Redmayne), who has survived the bubonic plague claiming one out of every two people. Survivor’s guilt blends with sexual shame, since he has broken his monastic vows to be with a local girl in the village (Kimberley Nixon). She leaves and his heart pines, but to follow her is to chance all manner of unpleasant demises.
Then a knight (Sean Bean) appears at the monastery, full of pious self-righteousness and followed by a gaggle of monsters in human form. He claims that a village some ways distant remains free of the plague, thanks to a bargain with infernal powers. He intends to travel there and burn the ringleaders at the stake. Sensing an opportunity to pursue his departed love, Osmond serves as a guide.
Smith renders the landscape in unimaginably bleak terms, populated by little more than corpses, bandits and peasants driven mad with fear. When the band reaches the village, they find an apparent oasis, free of the surrounding terrors for those whom the local matriarch (Carice van Houten) sees fit to welcome. The knight suspects witchcraft, but the true reasons go deeper. It prompts a battle to the ideological death between pious Christian and subtle pagan, with Osmond’s tormented soul in the middle.
Black Death renders it all in shades of absolute reality – hypnotic in its dedication to detail and relentless in its bleak worldview – but it goes beyond mere atmosphere. The filmmakers have no stake in either side; the Christians are hypocrites, the pagans deceivers, and neither have any problems torturing and killing those with whom they disagree. Both mirror each other in more ways than one, enhancing (and perhaps triggering) their mutual hatred. Smith borrows liberally from The Wicker Man and In the Name of the Rose in unfurling the conflict, while indulging in the odd bit of torture porn exploitation that fits the film’s overall outlook to a “t.”
That certainly doesn’t make for pleasant viewing – indeed, Black Death becomes positively misanthropic in its view of the human animal – but you can’t accuse it of lacking power. It derives horrified fascination from its audience without ever smirking or looking down on us. Where other horror films adopt a status of superiority above its subjects, Smith plunges us head-first into the muck here. At times, it veers dangerously close to self-parody – if you don’t quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least once during the proceedings, you’re a better man than I – but Smith never quite tips that scale. Instead, we ache for the lost souls on display and weep when the world snuffs out their light, for if we found ourselves in the same desperate times, who’s to say we would behave any differently? Unpleasant it may be, but it carries with it a coldly inexorable weight that’s impossible to deny. For hard-core horror fans and those unafraid to look the Gorgon in the face, Black Death delivers a nihilistic howl that proves very difficult to forget.