Friday, May 27, 2011

DVD Review: Black Death (2010)

Region: 1 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 93 mins
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 with Spanish Subtitles
Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch, Kimberly Nixon, Andy Nyman
Tagline: In an age of darkness one man will face the ultimate battle against evil.

Film: Christopher Smith is a director with with an entertaining body of work beginning with the creature horror Creep (2004), the horror-comedy Severance (2006) and last time out it was a time-loop thriller set at sea Triangle (2009). Obviously he's a director not content to settle into one sub-genre and now comes a dark, medieval occult thriller set during the era of the bubonic plague.

The year is 1348 and Europe is enduring it's darkest age as the black plague takes it's deadly toll. Death and decay fill the cities, rotting corpses litter the streets and the Church's grip on the people is ever tightening. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk at a monastery amidst the plague. He is torn between his devotion to the Lord and his sinful love for Averill (Kimberly Nixon). Fearing for her safety in the pestilence riddled village he asks her to return to Dentwich, the marshland village they come from. She says she'll wait for him each day at daybreak for a week near a place called the Martyr's Cross if he should choose to leave the monastery. It a crisis of faith that deeply torments the young man who pleads to the Lord to send him a sign. When the monastery is visited by Ulric, a witchfinder in the service of the Church, it seems his plea to the Lord has been answered. Ulric comes seeking a guide to lead his band of men through a great marsh and to a village that is rumored to have not been touched by the plague. Osmund volunteers and so begins his faith testing journey.

Ulric's group of witchfinders is comprised of hardened Christian warriors, torturers and soldiers of fortune. One which bore an uncanny similarity in appearance to the late, great and insane actor Klaus Kinski. Once on their way Ulric divulges to Osmund that the village they seek is rumored to be run by a necromancer who it is said summons the dead from the grave and communes with the Devil. They have been charged by the Church with bringing the Necromancer to trial for witchcraft. They are well-armed and have with them a bladed mechanical contraption slightly resembling an iron maiden that is able to "split a man from anus to Adam's apple".

On their their journey they encounter a witch burning and a group of cross-baring, self flagellating fanatics who warn them to turn back for further upstream is a place where men have turned to savages. Nearing the edge of the Great Marsh Osmund sneaks off to meet Averill only to find her blood-stained clothing, the apparent victim of woodland thieves who then engage Ulric and his men. It's a splattery cutthroat battle with fast paced swordplay, decapitations and face pulverizing maces, it's a violent and bloody encounter that ends with the group short a man and without the aide of horses. Forced to continue their trek on foot they slog through the wetlands until they come upon an idyllic village that is lead by the pale skinned beauty Langiva (Carice Van Houten). Ulric plays it cautious only letting on that he and his men are wandering soldiers looking for sanctuary.  The villagers welcome them with open arms and a feast is thrown in their honor plenty of ale for everyone, but all is not what appears. What happens next will test the faith of every Christian man among them as they are drugged, imprisoned and forced to renounce God under pain of death.

Smith and cinematographer Sebatsian Edschmid put you right in the thick of of the thing, you feel the cold dampness of the marsh, the stench of the rotting dead  and the blood and sweat of battle. Sean Bean is perfectly cast as the zealot Ulric, a strong leader of men who 100% believes he is a Knight in the Lord's service. Bean, a veteran of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is no stranger to period films, his brooding brutish looks so perfectly captures the hard aesthetic of the era, the man is Boromir right down to the bone. Redmayne's Osmund is an interesting character caught between reason, want and faith who endures a twisted hero's journey which results in a skewed perception of faith with long lasting implications.

Smith is a director of some depth and his steady hand guides the film along to a chilling climax that is indeed a very grim affair though even darker still is an epilogue that questions the motive of religious extremism. Much like Smith's Triangle I'll be mulling this film over in my head for quite some time. I am not a religious person per se but Smith really puts his character faith to the test and it begs discussion. That said, don't be put off my the film's themes of faith and instead enjoy it for the kick as Gothic horror that it is.

DVD: This is a gritty film and it gets an suitably grainy anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio presentation that captures a particularly dark period of history with muted, dark and dingy colors. Grim though it may be the cinematography captures the stark beauty of the German countryside where it was filmed. The 5.1 surround is pretty active providing a decently immersive for both battle and during the quieter moments with some fine filmscore and effects. A good selection of special features, mostly interviews with cast and crew, behind the scenes goodies, deleted scenes, a trailer for the film, trailers for other Magnolia features; including Rubber and Hobo with a Shotgun plus a nifty digital copy for the film for your ipod or mp3 player.

Special Features:
- Deleted Scenes
- Bring Black Death to Life
- Interviews with Cast and Crew
- Behind the Scenes Footage
- HDNet: A Look at Black Death
- Theatrical Trailer

Verdict: Black Death is a dark and twisted saga of faith with some nice horrific elements and just the right amount of creepy supernatural ambiguity. If you're a fan of Neil Marshall's Centurion (2009) this comes with a high recommendation and furthermore I would hope that the next time you reach for Wicker Man (1973) or Witchfinder General (1968) on your DVD shelf you might give this a shot - you'll be pleased that you did. I've been enjoying Christopher Smith's tour of genre filmmaking and I can't wait to see what sub-genre of film he next pursues, would love to see a dark-themed science fiction feature. 4 outta 5