Black Death (2010): Could be Called Bleak Death

Black Death (film)
Black Death (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by  Dario Poloni (the man who penned the brilliant film Wilderness) and directed by Christopher Smith (Severance, Triangle, Creep) and staring Sean Bean (Black Death,The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepard, My Week with Marilyn), Carice van Houten (Repo Men, Intruders), John Lynch (The Secret Garden, Sliding Doors), and Tim McInnerny (Severance, Notting Hill).

With a pedigree this impressive it seems like Black Death  could deliver entertainment in spades and it does. It is an incredibly bleak film for all it’s big name cast and crew. The message that director Smith is apparently sending is that people react the same way to terrible events whether they are in days of ‘olde’ or now.

The film opened to positive reviews and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a “certified fresh” rating. But looking at the box office returns from their opening weekend, it appears that audiences did not share the critics feelings about the film. I am assuming that the DVD sales will up their take. Interestingly, neither IMDB nor Wikipedia  lists their budget.

Set in 1348 in an England being decimated by the plague that was known as the ‘black death’ we see a young monk, Osmond (Redmayne).   He resides at a monastery under the tutelage of  the Abbot (David Warner) for all things spiritual and for all things of the flesh a young girl named Averil (Kimberley Nixon). When Osmond discovers that the plague has breeched the monastery walls he tells Averill to leave and head for the sanctuary of the nearby forest.

Averill does not want to leave Osmond behind and says that she will wait in a clearing every morning for a week for him to follow her. After she leaves a group of men lead by a knight appointed by the Bishop of the Church arrives. The knight Ulrich (Sean Bean) is looking for a village that is rumoured to be free of the plague and of God. The village is worshipping a demon and necromancer and the Church wants this group of ‘holy crusaders’ to kill the demon and necromancer and bring the body to the church.

Ulrich asks the Abbot for a volunteer who knows the area to lead them to the village on the other side of the marshes. Osmond, who has been praying for a sign from God, volunteers (much to the Abbot’s dismay) and the group depart.

This ‘rag-tag’ group of holy enforcers are grim, battle scarred and, on the surface, not a bit holy. But working on the principle of might makes right, this little ‘God’ squad feel like they are invincible. Only Ulrich appears to be the real deal, a true believer in the Church and God. His right hand man is Wolfstan (John Lynch) and his most ardent supporter is Swire (Emun Elliott).

Omond and Ulrich talking theology.

Their first day out of the monastery they interrupt a group of peasants about to burn a ‘witch’ alive. Osmond interferes and Ulrich steps in to release the unfortunate woman. Taking her away from the group he slits her throat. Walking past Osmond, he tells him, “Don’t stop again.”

When the group reach the edge of the forest they camp for the night. Osmond wakes up before the rest and goes to find Averill. Finding her horse and a trail of bloody clothes instead, he is consumed with grief. While he is clutching the bloody rags, he sees a large group of armed men and he runs back to the camp yelling out a warning.

Bloody battle commences and  one of the holy group is killed defending Osmond, who is himself wounded, and the remaining group of thieves who attacked the camp steal Ulrich’s horses and ride off. Ulrich forces Osmond to continue leading the group and they cross the marsh.

Arriving at the village, they are greeted by Hob (Tim McInnerny) and warmly welcomed. The village’s leader and healer is Langiva (Van Houten) and she treats Osmond’s wound with a miraculous salve that stops his pain almost instantly. Despite the groups suspicions and misgivings they join the villagers in a welcoming feast.

Osmond follows Langiva outside where she leads him to a spot in the woods. There she ‘raises’ Averill from the dead for Osmond. He runs away terrified by what he has just witnessed. When he returns to the hall he finds the holy enforcers have been drugged and he is knocked out.

Langiva the healer.

The group awaken in a pit of water with their hands tied around poles that stretch across the pit. Langiva tells them that they must repent their God or die. Hob takes one of the men and kills him when he refuses.

Swire then says that he will renounce God. Hob removes him and Swire then publicly renounces God. Hob says that he is free to go and that some men will take him to the edge of the village. They do, but Swire will go no further as they kill him anyway.

Langvia then removes Osmond from the pit and sends him to a hut that contains Averill. When he enters Averill is coughing and spitting up what looks like blood. She is stabbing a table and the walls with a knife. She is clearly mad and Osmond kills her telling her that  they will be together soon.

Hob then takes out Ulrich and they tie him to two Punch horses. As the horses start to pull him apart he continues to refuse to repent his God. Before he dies he tells Osmond to open his shirt. Osmond does so and everyone discovers that Ulrich has the black death and he has brought it to the village.

Wolfstan and Mold (Johnny Harris) escape the pit and while the villagers are panicking start killing the men of the village. When the carnage ends only Wolfstan and Hob are left alive and Hob has been incarcerated for delivery to the church. Osmond chases after Langvia but loses her in the marshes.

Osmond is returned to the monastery and Wolfstan says he never saw him again, but has heard that Osmond became a ‘soldier of God’ and searched for evil. In a short montage we see that Osmond sees Langvia’s face on every woman that he accuses of being a witch and he executes them all.

This film is bleak and dark and grim. There are no little breaks from this bleak picture, no humorous let ups at all.  Despite this unrelenting attack of the viewer it is a good film. I enjoyed it, if enjoy is the right word to use, and felt that the acting from all was superb.

Osmond “witchfinder” General.

It was wonderful to see David Warner, although it would have been nice to have seen a bit more of him, and it was the first time I’d seen Tim McInnerny since Severance. I was also pleased to see  John Lynch again. He is a brilliant actor and I’ve loved his work since The Secret Garden.

I will say though that my hat is off to the casting director. How he managed to find an actor who is almost the spitting image of actor Klaus Kinski is beyond impressive. I checked IMDb and found that the actors name was Tygo Gernandt and even though he seems a bit tall to be a real dead ringer for Kinski, if they ever do a film of his life, Gernandt should play the lead.

English: Klaus Kinski, german actor, at the Ca...

The cinematography is crisp, clear and mood making. Smith’s direction and the films location all combined to make it work very well. So yes it was bleak, but considering the subject matter, you could hardly expect it to be anything else.

The Dark (2005) A Welsh Nightmare

Cover of "The Dark (2005)"

Adapted from the novel, Sheep by Simon Maginn (Stephen Massicotte wrote the screenplay) and directed by John Fawcett (Ginger Snaps, The Boys ClubThe Dark is a capable little horror film that delivers a fair amount of ‘jumps and scares.’

The Dark can also boast a capable cast, Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Ronin), Maria Bello (Payback, Secret Window), Sophie Stucky (The Woman in Black, Driving Aphrodite) and Maurice Roëves (The Damned UnitedBrighton Rock).

I will say that I could have done with seeing a bit more of Sean Bean and Maurice Roëves. Bean is a brilliant actor who exudes a sort of weathered charm who is, it seems, incapable of giving a poor performance no matter what film he is in. And Roëves, who appears to have been in more films than Carter has little films,  is one of those ‘jobbing’ actors who has the ability to make you believe that he is the character he’s portraying.

The film opens with Adèlle (Maria Bello) and Sarah (Sophie Stucky) driving in the  dark Welsh countryside. Adèlle is driving and map reading and Sarah is quiet. They are looking for husband/father James’ (Sean Bean) house and are a bit lost. They stop for the night and sleep in the car.

Upon awakening  Adèlle finds that Sarah is gone from the car. Looking out her window she see’s Sarah walking around a tall, almost triangular stone near the edge of a cliff. She goes to the stone to tell Sarah it’s time to go. Sarah disappears behind the stone and when Adèlle goes around to get her, she isn’t there. As she turns in confusion to look at the car for Sarah, a white faced and scary Sarah pushes her off the cliff’s edge.

As she is pushed off the cliff Adèlle wakes up with a start, it was a dream. She looks over to see Sarah still asleep in the passenger’s seat. The car is surrounded by sheep and they find that they were near James’s house already.

Dafydd

They drive to the house reunite with James and meet Dafydd the ‘handy-man.’ In a very short time we, the audience, learn that Sarah and mum Adèlle  have not been getting on, one repeating ‘flashback’ shows  Adèlle and Sarah arguing and Sarah getting slapped by mum. We also learn that: the stone is a commemorative monument to a group of cult followers who, following their leaders teachings, jump off the cliff edge; the house was the home of the cult leader; and that there is a dark past associated with the area where James lives.

Not even one third of the way into to the film, Sarah disappears from the seaside and is presumed drowned. While James and Dafydd (Maurice Roëves) are searching for the missing Sarah with the local authorities, Adèlle (who is consumed with guilt over her fight with Sarah) concentrates on a ‘girl’ she found in the old  Abattoir. The girl is Ebril and it’s not the first time that she has traded places with the living. Sarah’s ‘death’ has enabled Ebril to come back.

For all the good things about the film, the early scares and the quick build up of ominous happenings, the last quarter of the film almost ruins it’s impact.

James and Adèlle discover Ebril

The build up is done very well. The dream at the first of the film about the cliff’s edge, the sheep crowding Sarah to the edge of another cliff and then jumping over her to commit ‘sheep suicide’ are good signposts of what we think is going to come. But after Sarah disappears we are asked to do more than ‘suspend our disbelief.’ We are asked to buy into the films back-story and completely embrace it’s complex and fantastic myth.

Combining Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Greek mythology the film’s back-story deals with the “swapping” of lives. The cult leader lost his daughter to the waves beneath the cliffs, known as “Annwyn” (Welsh for afterlife), and the legend is that if you get someone living to voluntarily sacrifice themselves to Annwyn then the loved one you’ve lost will be returned to you.

The cult leader talks his entire flock (except for Dafydd) into committing mass suicide and he gets his daughter, Ebril ( Abigail Stone) back. But like Pet Sematary’s returning dead, Ebril has brought something back with her that isn’t Ebril. Some dark and, presumably, evil thing. The cult leader winds up killing Ebril and it is she who took Sarah. Ebril is now back and under the guise of ‘helping’ Adèlle and James causes more problems.

Adèlle, after learning of the legend, takes Ebril to the cliff’s edge to push her off and get Sarah back. James interrupts her plan. In desperation she grabs Ebril and leaps off the cliff with her.

Adèlle after the fall.

Sarah comes back, but, like Ebril did before, she brings something else with her and Adèlle is trapped in Annwyn.

Right up to the point where Adèlle figures out how to get Sarah back the film had me. I felt that the film was delivering a good blend of ominous and eerie forebodings. I had no trouble ‘suspending my disbelieve.’ Unfortunately the film lost me when it dove off into Welsh “mythology” and the story of Ebril.

Still despite the disappointing ending the film was good. I feel that the ‘over-all’ enjoyment factor makes up for it’s somewhat fantastical ending. Definitely worth a look and I still think there should have been more Sean Bean.

Perhaps I should have read the book first.

Cover of "Sheep"
Cover of Sheep

Creep (2004): The London Underground Just Got Worse

Written and directed by Christopher Smith this was Smith’s first full length  feature film. He went on to make Severance (2006), the vastly superior Triangle (2009) and Black Death (2010) and he is currently directing a TV mini-series Labyrinth (2012). Starring Franka Potente –  Run Lola Run ,  The Bourne Identity . Given that the premise of the film, getting locked in the London Underground after hours, is not actually possible; it’s a good film nonetheless.

The film opened to a pretty lukewarm reception. The reviews were mostly mixed with  a tendency for most of them to be negative. Considering that the film actually accomplishes what it set out to do, scare the crap out of the audience, I feel that the poor reception was unwarranted. Franka Potente really sells the film. Her portrayal as the protagonist of the film is just what you would expect from this accomplished actress. I don’t know how Smith managed to get her for his film, but hat’s off to him for casting her.

The Readers Digest version of the plot is as follows: Girl sets out to meet George Clooney. She gets a bit wasted at the party she’s attending and winds up falling asleep on the Underground while on her way to meet George. A lecherous workmate tries to rape her. He is gorily dispatched by some unseen person. Girl spends most of the film trying to get out of the Underground, getting captured by the maniac killer and then trying to  not get killed by same. She escapes with the help of an underground maintenance worker. He is then killed while trying to defend the girl. She is the last [wo]man standing and defeats the killer. The subway opens up for the morning trade and she gets a hand out from a passer by who thinks she is a beggar.

I have of course left out the “backstory” of the maniac killer who haunts the underground. All said, it is a pretty good one. His name is Craig and he was kept in the underground in some sort of medical facility. He is Mentally Challenged. Somehow, even though the facility has closed, he has made his way back to the familiar surroundings. He now kills stragglers and other unfortunates in bizarre re-enactments of surgical procedures that he remembers from his past.

This is more than just your typical slasher film. Okay, you do have your villain or “boogey-man” who is damn near impossible to dispatch, but…It has a bit more going for it. Apart from the sexual predator workmate that attacks the girl (Kate) all the other character have been written well enough that we actually like them. As a consequence we actually care when they die. Most slasher films feature vapid miss-behaving teenagers who are so two dimensional they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. These teens also suffer lethal fates because they “break” the morality clause of their “Christian Contract,” you know, breaking certain basic Christian rules like:  pre-marital sex, smoking, drinking, drug taking, etc. Where a few of Craig’s victims are young, they are also not breaking the known rules. Although the two homeless people that Kate meets in the underground could fit that mould, but hey, they’re homeless, not some mindless vapid teen partying, drinking and trying to get laid.

The film does require you to suspend your disbelief, but if you cannot do that, then why are you watching a horror film?