Luke’s List: Insidious, timely ‘Black Death’ is even darker than you think

Luciano Marano
lmarano@ptleader.com
Posted 8/31/20

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis the cultural landscape was momentarily awash with think pieces about the reportedly widespread phenomenon of people seeking pandemic-themed …

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Luke’s List: Insidious, timely ‘Black Death’ is even darker than you think

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In the early days of the coronavirus crisis the cultural landscape was momentarily awash with think pieces about the reportedly widespread phenomenon of people seeking pandemic-themed entertainment.

The devil you know, I guess?

Like Ernie Pyle’s famous D-Day columns, pop culture journalists in search of context seemed to be attempting to tell the story of an increasingly incomprehensible tragedy by selecting particular pieces for contemplation. Films like “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “The Crazies,” and “28 Days Later,” among others, suddenly experienced levels of interest unknown since they were new releases — if then.

Apparently, many found comfort (however fleeting) in seeing a dramatized version of the reality they suddenly found themselves living through (replete with unrealistically competent heroes, obvious villains, and satisfying endings, naturally) reflected back via multimillion dollar make-believe.

Personally, I didn’t get the appeal. I’d already seen all those movies and instead used whatever downtime quarantine gave me to cross a few titles off my embarrassingly unmanageable to-watch list. However, I was surprised so few of the aforementioned articles included 2010’s “Black Death.”

Now there, I thought, is a movie for the moment. Like Pyle’s socks and sewing kits sunk in bullet-sprayed sand, it depicts both a simplified, dramatized story of our current moment as well as bigger universal truths about humanity.

Also, it stars the delightfully disparate trio of Sean “Boromir” Bean, Eddie “Newt” Redmayne, and Carice van Houten — aka the Red Woman herself. So, really, how can you lose?

Luckily (?) circumstances continue which allow me the chance to now make this (unfortunately still) timely recommendation myself. Every highly contagious cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. Granted, I don’t know if anyone will find this film especially comforting — certainly nobody I’d want to be quarantined with — but I promise it’s an effective, stylish, thoughtful, and fascinating horror/action period piece well worth a watch.

Picture it: Medieval England, the 1340s. Plague is tearing through the land like a pack of frat boys through a keg of Coors and leaving just as awful a mess.  A young monk-in-training (Redmayne), seeing the city fall into ruin and realizing all the prayer in the world will not hold off the disease, tells his secret girlfriend to flee to safety in the less-affected countryside. She promises to wait for him in the nearby forest for one week.

But, torn between love for his lady and his God, Redmayne prays for a sign as to what he should do.

Enter Ulric (Bean), zealous envoy for the regional bishop. He comes to the monastery seeking a guide to lead his team to an isolated village beyond the forest — one rumored to be somehow untouched by the Black Death.

Dangerous though the work may be, and intimidating as Ulric surely is, Redmayne sees this development as the sign he requested and promptly volunteers for the job, intending to meet up with his girlfriend on the sly and use the soldiers as a protective escort on their way to this rumored sanctuary.

The only problem is, as he quickly learns, these guys are less “soldiers” and more “heartless mercenaries.” Because although they are en route to a potentially plague-free village, they’re not going to investigate. They’re on a witch hunt — and not the hashtag political kind. Word has reached the bishop the alleged bastion is ruled by a necromancer, and his envoy is determined to arrest and escort the blasphemer back for trial (and certain torture and execution).

The troops’ slog into the wilderness is reminiscent of “Heart of Darkness,” with the world growing increasingly unrecognizable around them, and, of course, upon arrival they quickly learn things are both worse and far stranger in the village than they expected. That the mysterious mystic (Houten) is revealed to be a woman — educated and unmarried, no less; the nerve! — is infuriating to the old-timey Christian warriors. That she might actually possess supernatural powers is so much the worse. 

Considered too dark to get off the ground in the British film industry, the movie was finally shot in Germany (England’s “too dark” apparently being Germany’s “business as usual” — it is the land of the Grimm brothers, after all). Also, in an extremely rare example of the technique, “Black Death” was reportedly shot entirely in chronological order by director Christopher Smith (whose strange 2009 horror flick “Triangle” also merits your attention).

Historical horror is really hard to pull off, as the necessary budget is usually so high the studio shies away from any story not designed to put beaucoup butts in seats. By using a comparatively small-scale plot and filming in a few carefully chosen locations, Smith is able to concentrate on the details and lean on his stellar cast’s abilities so as to tell a unique, authentic, believable — and unsettling — story.

That is, if you find the deadly repercussions of faith and politics clashing amidst a devastating pandemic at all believable. You could always just watch Dustin Hoffman chase that monkey again instead.   

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  • rkhefley

    Great review and I will definitely watch this.

    Now more than ever we NEED film reviewers to suss-out the hidden gems.

    Keep on sussing!

    Monday, August 31, 2020 Report this