Medieval England is ravaged by the plague. Monk Osmond sends his secret girlfriend Averill away, in fear of their secret affair being discovered. They agree to reunite a week later in the forest. Shortly after, a group of witch hunters arrives at Osmond’s monastery, and asks for a guide to a nearby village. Their leader, Ulric, suspects a Necromancer is hiding there. Osmond volunteers and joins the group. After a strenuous journey through devastated and desolate lands they reach their destination. There they meet the mysterious healer Langiva, and are caught up in a murderous plot. And Osmund, who is still searching for Averill, is facing a terror that is shaking the very foundation of his beliefs.
The many miseries of the Medieval times have only been sparsely elucidated in movie form so far. The majority of productions had a tendency to romanticize the period, and for the most part ignore the hardships of the times. There are some notable exceptions, the most striking one is arguably Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood. He went all-in with this one, and delivered an exploitation flick par excellence on a blockbuster budget using A-list actors. Black Death can be considered a worthy, but less hysterical spiritual successor to it. The movie takes two of the most gruesome occurrences from medieval times, the plague and witch hunts, and melds them into a fairly straightforward adventure plot embedded in a dark and desolate atmosphere. The terrors of the witch hunts and trials have also not received much attention in movies so far. Notable examples include films such as Mark of the Devil or Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum. These movies were voyeuristic to the extreme, though, and did not have much to offer beyond plenty of torture and nudity. Black Death does not fall into this trap, fortunately.
In the first half of the movie, the group of main protagonists meanders through haunting landscapes filled with plague victims, witch trials, castigating pilgrims and burned-down villages. There’s plenty of gruesome scenes that displaying the film-makers vision of the misery of the dark ages. And even though there’s not much happening plot-wise, this sequence of disturbing encounters is quite gripping. The second half is characterized by the dramatic events that are taking place in the village where the Necromancer is supposedly hiding. And while there’s plenty of suspense, it is not as compelling (or voyeuristic, depending on your viewpoint) as the first half.
Black Death was directed by Christopher Smith, who earned some merit among horror movie fans with his previous productions Creep and Severance, and also shows here that he knows how to make a thrilling and grim piece of entertainment. As for the actors, Sean Bean always seems to take on the same role as a withdrawn, but relentless soldier, but he’s just so good at it. Carice van Houten plays her devious character also with great conviction. Both of their roles actually resemble their portrayal of the characters they would play in the Game of Thrones series, the first season of which was filmed around the same time when Black Death was released.
Black Death is an interesting addition to the short list of more abrasive movies about the medieval times. Part adventure, part exploitation flick, it paints a convincing picture of the plague-ridden middle ages, and provides enough spectacle to keep viewers hooked.