Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Cynic Reviews: "Black Death"

This was my first experiment with the concept of being able to rent a movie online via Amazon while it's still in theaters. Ever year, there are dozens of independent films released that, despite being very good in many cases, are stuck with very limited releases that ensure that they don't get seen by many people. To combat this, some of these movies are simultaneously released on demand and on so that they can have a chance to make more money than they would usually get. This is lucky for me, because Black Death has not yet come to theaters in Oregon, and even if it did, it'd only be in Portland, not that I mind having an excuse to go to Portland. Do I recommend watching a movie like this? It depends on how picky you are about picture quality. Do I recommend seeing the movie in the first place? Well, keep reading and find out.

This movie has a few actors that I like, namely Sean Bean (who is basically playing Boromir again, not that I have a problem with that) and Tim McInnerny (who is decidedly un-Tim McInnerny here), is based in a period that I find fascinating, and has garnered generally positive reviews, with a current "certified fresh" rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, the concept of a tense thriller/horror film about the black plague intrigued me.

The plot mimics that of a thriller more than that of a modern horror movie, meaning that I can't go too deeply into the plot without giving away spoilers. But in a nutshell, the plot of Black Death goes like this: a young novice in an English monastery named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne; quite good) is starting to regret his life of solitude. The monastery is in the middle of a densely populated area, meaning that his life is not safe, and he worries for the woman he loves, something he has to keep secret, since he's sworn to celibacy. He tells her to leave the city and go to the forest to escape the plague. She wants him to come with her, but he can't. However, seemingly fortunately for him, a group of knights led by Ulric (Bean) who are heading that way to look for a village there that has been untouched by the plague and need a guide. Luckily for them, Osmund grew up near there, and can easily guide them. The Abbot has reservations but has to let Osmund go, as the knights are on orders from the Bishop. Osmund shortly learns that the knights' purpose is much darker than mere curiosity: there is word that the village has abandoned god and begun worshiping a Pagan necromancer.

The movie goes on for almost an hour before they reach the village, introducing the characters, as well as the brutal world they inhabit. Once they do reach the town, things slow down considerably; allowing the film to build up tension, which it does in droves.

The main problem I had for most of the part in the village was that it seemed to fall into a trap that I particularly hate in these kinds of movies: the whole self-righteous "all-Christians-are saints-and-non-Christians-are-the-Devil" thread, which obviously doesn't sit well with an agnostic such as myself. However, to my great surprise, the movie took a huge turn at the end, painting a picture where both the Christians and Pagans come out equally unpleasant, and basically stating that both groups were using god as an excuse to justify their brutal, desperate acts in the wake of the Plague, which is a pretty historically accurate statement to make.

This movie has several flaws, such as a script that often leaves something to be desired, and an irritating use of shaky-cam, especially during the two skirmish sequences, where it was so bad that I started to feel nauseous. That being said, those flaws are eclipsed (for the most part) by a good cast (with the possible exception of the "Witch", whose performance was a bit disappointing), nicely gritty cinematography (apart from the annoying shaky-cam bits), and a killer sense of tension, especially during the last half hour or so, which had me wide-eyed and gripping my computer table until my knuckles were white. So, in short, Black Death is very far from perfect, but it's still the best damn English-language horror film that's come out in years (or at least that I've seen).

A lot of reviews I've read made connections to this movie and the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man. I have not seen The Wicker Man, so I can't make that comparison. However, I did see a connection between Black Death and another recent indie film: Valhalla Rising. The two movies both are set in Medieval Britain, have implied supernatural explanations to tense situations, both are taut quasi-horror movies, share at least one flaw (heavy-handed dialogue) and they both have similar cinematography and similar color schemes:

Black Death (2010)
Valhalla Rising (2009)

However, there are differences. Black Death is far more mainstream than Valhalla Rising, while Rising was much more of an "art house"-type film. Black Death is also, surprisingly, less graphic than Valhalla Rising, though that's not a bad thing, and Black Death certainly has its fair share of disturbing sequences. The most surprising thing, though, is that while Black Death is more obvious about its supernatural element, Valhalla Rising was far scarier (at least in my opinion). It wasn't a conventional kind of scary, but instead a slow-burning sort of snowballing dread that never lets up, even after the credits were over (which is the main reason I'm waiting a while to see it again). Black Death also attempts to coax this kind of fear from its audience, and does it quite well (especially in the ending, which was better than Valhalla Rising's), but Rising does it better.
Also, tell me to my face that this isn't totally fucking terrifying.

But enough about other depressing/terrifying Medieval flicks. Do I recommend that you see Black Death? Really, that all depends on who you are. If you can stomach that violent bits (there aren't many, but that makes them all the more shocking when they do happen), and you've been longing for a "grown up" horror movie that has a brain, conscience, and actually builds tension (i.e. actually tries to be scary), then yes. For all its flaws, Black Death is a gripping little movie with heavy atmosphere and good acting, not to mention the fact that it has a great twist and a killer ending that will keep you glued until the credits. If you're the type looking for another Saw-esque, sadistic torture-porn movie, then- well- you can kindly fuck off.

Grade: B+

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