Saturday 12 June 2010

Bubos in the woods: "Black Death"

Having purged his larky, laddish tendencies in his first two features (Creep, Severance) and made a real impression with last year's Triangle, the busy British writer-director Christopher Smith here tackles about as serious a subject as any budding horror filmmaker might: the Bubonic Plague, an epidemic so devastating no rapper ever tried to rhyme it with the word "dancer". Even the ominously vowel-less names of the German film funding boards involved in Black Death, upon their appearance in the opening credits, seem to serve as a statement of bleak, no-nonsense intent, a promise the subsequent feature mostly delivers on.

As a suitably medieval font announces, we're in the year of Our Lord 1348 (or just past a quarter to two, old joke fans): novice monk Eddie Redmayne is plucked from his monastery by sword-wielding bishop's envoy Sean Bean to guide his men through the surrounding forests to a village where, it is said, Man has renounced God. Bean's aim is to restore ordered religion to these heathens, although - with all the talk en route about the villagers' heinous practises, demons and necromancers - it's inevitably not long before superstition begins to get the better of the crusaders. Gorehounds, meanwhile, will note with mounting enthusiasm the arsenal of authentic torture implements Smith has assembled around the main characters, from the pocket-size misericorde (a dagger designed to get at your victim's heart via their armpit) to the Iron Maiden-like contraption Bean's army tow around with them like an ominous caravan.

Although the period setting marks Black Death as a break from Smith's previous work, in essence it's a return to the primal, into-the-woods terror of Severance by a director now four years older and wiser, who knows how easy it would be to break the spell he's worked so hard to cast, and not to mix up his yaks with his yuks. (The link with the earlier film is underlined by the recall of two key Severance personnel in Andy Nyman and Tim McInnerny; though instead of chirpy Danny Dyer, we have John Lynch, an actor who appears braced against the worst on a good day.) Sustained atmosphere is the order of the day. Bolstered by eerie chanting on the soundtrack and Sebastian Edschmid's misty cinematography, there's one truly Herzogian moment in the emergence of a group of flagellants carrying an outsized cross downriver.

In the second half - which offers Carice van Houten as a spooky vision of Godlessness, and proves slavishly in thrall to a couple of established British horror classics - does the strain start to show, principally because it's far less clear what Smith and screenwriter Dario Poloni are trying to say once the crusaders reach their destination. It makes sense these errant knights should suffer under their self-imposed culture of fear, but there's no reason for the film to have made the alternative equally repressive, unless Smith really just wanted to start pulling the limbs off his actors. A note of student nihilism starts to creep in, a throwback to the immaturity of a director whose early works trashed their best chills with cheap snickering; where Triangle kept reformulating itself, this latest does rather get stuck in the mire. It's a shame, as long stretches propose Smith as among the most original and versatile genre filmmakers working today: a horror director thankfully resistant to the easy shocks practiced by those American remakes, with a shrewd eye for weathered, grizzled and increasingly blood-spattered character actors.

Black Death is on general release.

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