The new film “Black Death,” now out on DVD, is billed as a “horror-thriller,” and while it certainly has moments of gross-out gore, there’s not as much thrill to it as you’d hope.
Set during the first wave of the bubonic plague in England, “Death” stars Sean Bean (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Pillars of the Earth”) as a hired gun and a monk, respectively. The church has hired Bean’s character, Ulric, to journey to a remote village that, rumor has it, has somehow avoided being infected with plague. Church heavies are convinced it’s because the village is run by a witch who raises the dead, and they want Ulric and his band of merry torturers to bring her back alive. Redmayne’s character, Osmund, offers to be the guide, which he only does because he’s secretly trying to escape from his monastery to meet up with a girl. Already, nothing is as it seems.
When Ulric and company arrive in the peaceful village, everything is lovely; they’re greeted by a beautiful woman (Carice Van Houten) who seems to run the place, and quickly treated to food and drink. Soon, however, things go south and they discover that they’re in the proverbial lion’s den. Though there are a few interesting scenes in which it seems like something truly inventive is about to happen, I couldn’t help being disappointed by this movie over and over again.
Let me explain why. I was excited about this film because it incorporated several of my favorite things: horror, the supernatural, and period piece costume drama (er, such as it is). However, it ended up not delivering on any front. The horror is all gore and no creativity, and the supernatural aspect is quickly disproven. Nothing anchors this film to its historical or cultural moment, other than the insane amount of violence people apparently lived with in the 1300s. It’s all a little too fast and slick, too Hollywood, to be believable and because of that, it never really draws you in.
The film’s biggest failing, however, is its muddled theological message. It demonizes witches and Pagans for their un-Christian behavior, but also tries to cast early Christians as bloodthirsty and vengeful. Essentially, “Black Death” wants to have it both ways: it wants the good to be bad and the bad to be good, and for its audience to accept this as a statement about moral ambiguity rather than the obviously meager quality of its script. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough else going on in the film for this to work, even though I really wish there were.