I went into BLACK DEATH not really expecting much. I knew it starred Sean Bean, but having seen THE HITCHER remake, I know that his appearance in a film doesn’t always mean it’s good. But being a sucker for knight movies, throw in hints of witch-hunting and the Plague and it seems like a pretty potent stew. What I had seen of the film didn’t really do it justice (see the trailer below). Turns out BLACK DEATH is actually a pretty fantastic film. It won’t blow the barnacles off your whale, but it is a lot better than it seems.
The film centers not around Bean’s character, but Eddie Redmayne’s Osmund, a young monk who is secretly having a relationship with a pretty young waif named Averill (played by the equally pretty and young Kimberly Nixon). Osmund looks for a sign from God to see if he should leave the monastery pursuing his true love and shedding his monkly vows. And a sign does come in the form of a cadre of swarthy knights lead by Sean Bean’s Ulric. Word arrives to the monastery that there’s a town that is untouched by the Black Plague and Osmund volunteers to be their guide in hopes of finding his Averill and having a save haven to live. Ulric makes a promise to the Abbot (an almost unrecognizable David Warner) to find this town and find out its secret to avoiding the Plague. And so our gang of toughs, lead by a pamby monk, take off and the real movie begins.
This is your typical men on a mission story. It could be set in the Old West (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) or World War II (DIRTY DOZEN) or the swamps of Louisiana (SOUTHERN COMFORT). Like all of those classic team on a mission stories, it stars a group of memorable characters, one tougher than the next, lead by the toughest of them all. BLACK DEATH, at its core, is a guy film about a bunch of guys working together to survive. Director Chris Smith did a great job of assembling a cast of unique and gruff characters and giving them a lot of weird and wild things to face on their journey. The group runs into witchhunters, self-flagellating monks, savages, swamps, and a town led by a witch. Of course not all survive, but the ones who do will probably surprise you.
My favorite part of BLACK DEATH comes during the closing sequence, but it’s an ending that will definitely split the audience in half. Right after the “climax” of the film, BLACK DEATH sort of becomes a totally different movie and rushes in with a whole new concept that, to me at least, was even more fascinating than the first hour and a half of the film. Though it may have been a missed opportunity to make an intriguing follow-up, this change of events for one character certainly leaves you wanting more. I wasn’t expecting this sort of TWILIGHT ZONE twist ending, but it’s a fun one and worth revisiting should Mr. Smith care to do so.
The performances in BLACK DEATH are solid throughout. All of the actors look authentic—like they’ve been rolling in the dirt and most of them seem like they eat it given their sunny dispositions. It’s great to see Sean Bean in a beard again. No Medieval Ages story is complete without Bean’s whiskers these days. The kid playing the monk who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears is pretty good as well, though at times he looks a bit too much like the creepy ginger Malachi from the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN for my comfort. There’s a shit ton of violence and some pretty groovy gory bits as well here. All in all, if you’re looking for a modern tale that isn’t weighed down with Hollywood stars and CGI, BLACK DEATH is the medieval tale to beat.