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A 'Black Death' Saga With More Than One Plague

Red 'Death': Carice van Houten plays the fiercely anti-church leader of a remote English village in Black Plague, a stylish splatter-horror exercise done up in 14th century drag. Stephanie Kulbach/Magnolia Films hide caption

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Stephanie Kulbach/Magnolia Films

Black Death

  • Director: Christopher Smith
  • Genre: Horror, Medieval Action
  • Running Time: 97 minutes

Rated R for strong brutal violence, and some language

With: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten

The plague that decimated Europe's population in the 14th century provided plenty of support for the notion of a higher power — and a lower one. God's wrath and the devil's malice seemed plausible explanations for such widespread loss of life.

In Black Death, director Christopher Smith uses desperation-fueled religious fervor to examine the relationship between fear and faith. Of course he also uses it to inspire some truly gory battles and cringeworthy punishments; here, "going medieval" on your enemies isn't just a figure of speech.

In 1348 the the plague was hitting its peak. English towns were mostly occupied with bringing out their dead and holing up in the dark, wondering who'd fall ill next. In an abbey in a particularly hard-hit area, a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) finds himself having a crisis of faith and conscience.

"Forgive me, Father; I'm confused," he prays, and whether or not confusion itself is a sin that requires absolution, its manifestation — his relationship with the comely young Averill (Kimberly Nixon) — clearly is. When he steals away to see her, she tells him she's planning to flee the death in town for the safety of the remote wooded village where they grew up, and she wants him to join her there. He prays for a sign of what he should do, and God (or at least the soundtrack) immediately answers, with the thunderous sound of approaching hooves.

Suffer, Witch: The church, for its part, deploys an enforcer (Sean Bean, center, with Eddie Redmayne, left) who's got decidedly medieval ideas about uppity women. Stephanie Kulbach/Magnolia Pictures hide caption

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Stephanie Kulbach/Magnolia Pictures

Suffer, Witch: The church, for its part, deploys an enforcer (Sean Bean, center, with Eddie Redmayne, left) who's got decidedly medieval ideas about uppity women.

Stephanie Kulbach/Magnolia Pictures

The riders are a team of religious mercenaries, on assignment from a bishop to investigate reports of a necromancer — an occult figure who can raise the dead — operating in the marshes that just happen to be adjacent to the forest where Osmund is to meet Averill. When the warriors arrive at the abbey looking for a guide who knows the lay of the local land, Osmund steps up with alacrity.

There are standard hero's-journey tropes at work here, except that Smith isn't really interested in setting up anyone as a hero. That applies to the leader of holy crusaders — Sean Bean's Ulric, a soldier of Christ whose idea of mercy is to kill a witch quickly with a blade rather than burn her at the stake.

It also applies to the pagan village that the team happens upon in the marshes, a burg that has remained miraculously untouched by the plague. Whether the belief system is God- or Goddess-based, run by a patriarchy or matriarchy, Smith is equally critical. "People need miracles," explains one character, justifying a recently revealed web of lies, "and they worship the miracle-makers."

For all the fuss about theology in Black Death, Smith made his name as a director of indie horror films, and he's eager to bring the style and sensibilities he honed there to the film's swords-and-sorcerers-inspired setting. If that means a few corners cut for the sake of expository expediency, so be it: There are throat-slittings and disembowlings that must be attended to.

Smith avoids being exploitatively graphic, though, with some deft camera movement and editing; he's content to allow the sound design and liberal sprays of blood to suggest the violence that's often occurring just out of view. The most gruesome set piece, involving a drawing and quartering, is more sickeningly memorable for its sounds than its sights.

As seen through the grimy, oppressive darkness of Smith's lens, this was truly a monstrous time to have the misfortune of being alive. The plague might have been the Middle Ages' deadliest killer by volume, but Black Death suggests that religious excess might have been the era's most dangerous legacy. In a final sequence notable for its resigned, restrained viciousness, the film makes the case that men who thought themselves godly created monsters more frightening than God could ever devise.