8 out of 10

Release Date: 22nd of June 2010

Director: Christopher Smith: (Get Santa / Triangle / Severance / Creep)

Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice Van Houten, John Lynch, Kimberley Nixon, Tim McInnerny, Emun Elliott, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Jamie Ballard and David Warner

Writer: Dario Poloni


Of all the plague and pestilence movies that came out a few years ago, Black Death is my favourite.  It rarely loses its footing and conviction to all things evil and fetid.  The year is 1348, a year of Christian fundamentalism and plague.  A religious crusader Ulrich (SEAN BEAN – SILENT HILL) leads a mission to a village rumoured to be unaffected by disease, where a legendary witch rules. Accompanying him is a monk of unsure faith (EDDIE REDMAYNE – LES MISERABLES) who is searching for his secret love, Averill (KIMBERLEY NIXON – HUNKY DORY).  Deadlier than the plague himself, devout Ulrich and his crew of hardened zealots (ANDY NYMAN, JOHN LYNCH, JOHNNY HARRIS and one or two others) encounter deadly marauders and witch burners on their journey, indicating that there will be little light in this story.

Black Death succeeds in it’s utter committal to the material.  It is director Christopher Smith’s most serious horror to date and he knows this genre well.  The production design is stunning.  Cold monasteries, ragged and black woods, mist and wonderfully dirty and smelly clothing all bolster a script laden with deadly portent. “God has slipped over the horizon” warns Ulrich.  These are indeed dark times.  There is a weak point, which is sad, but it does little to tip the picture as a whole into anything less than one of the decades best UK horrors thus far.  It’s the casting of Carice Van Houten (VALKYRIE).  Her delivery is unsure and she’s just not chilling enough.  It’s so crucial to get the big bad right, but here she appears to be ‘high’ on her own supply.  It’s a good job we have Tim McInnery (BLACKADDER 3) as her devoted assistant.  In a twist on his usual awkwardness, he is utterly chilling as the unreadable Hob.  The plot outcome is unknowable and those anticipating a Wicker Man-like outcome may be disappointed because this has about three unique twists of its own.

Christopher Smith has quietly been carving a brilliant body of work from his debut Creep, that saw a laboratory experiment killing people on the London Underground, and Danny Dyer‘s best ever film Severance, perhaps the funniest gore comedy from the UK I can recall. Then we have his Australian seabound slasher Triangle which is still fiendishly baffling.  How he tops all three is beyond me, but his refusal to make the same film twice keeps his films exciting.

They say it’s the journey not the destination. But this is a rare case in which the opposite is true. It has a thoroughly devastating and f*cked up ending.  Whilst, not quite on the same level as Aguirre- Wrath Of God or The Wicker Man, time ought to preserve this as one of the few to return to. Its certainly better than Solomon Kane, Season Of The Witch or Ironclad, that’s for sure

8 out of 10 – An unreserved recommendation only let down by a bizarre performance by Carice Van Houten.  Best ‘Sean Bean on horse movie’ in decades.


  • Sean Bean: The Martian, Pixels, Jupiter Ascending, Percy Jackson 2, Silent Hill 2, Mirror Mirror, Cleanskin, Game Of Thrones (TV), The Age Of Heroes, Deathrace 2, Percy Jackson, Far North, Outlaw, The Hitcher (2007), Silent Hill, Flight Plan, North Country, The Island, The Dark, National Treasure, Troy, Lord Of The Rings- Fellowship Of The Ring, Equilibrium, Essex Boys, Don’t Say a Word, Ronin, Anna Karenina (1997), When Saturday Comes, James Bond- Goldeneye, Black Beauty (1994), Shopping, Sharpe (TV), Patriot Games, The Field, War Requiem, Stormy Monday, Caravaggio
  • Eddie Redmayne: The Danish Girl, Jupiter Ascending, The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables (2013), My Week With Marilyn, Glorious 39,  The Other Boleyn Girl,  Elizabeth – The Golden Age, Like Minds, The Good Shepherd
  • Carice Van Houten: Intruders, Repo Men, Valkyrie, Games Of The Thrones (TV), Black Book
  • John Lynch: Scintilla, Private Peaceful, The Hot Potato, Ghosted, The Tournament, Isolation, 13HRs, Sliding Doors, The Secret Of Roan Inish, Best, Angel Baby,  This Is The Sea, Some Mother’s Son, Moll Flanders (1996),  Nothing Personal, Princess Caraboo, The Secret Garden (1993), In The Name Of The Father,  Edward II, Hardware, Cal
  • Kimberley Nixon: Hunky Dory, Offender, Elfie HopkinsCherrybomb, Resistance, Wild Child, Easy Virtue
  • Tim McInnery:  Automata, Spooks – The Greater Good, New Tricks (TV), Johnny English 2, Dr Who (TV), Spooks (TV), Severance, Casanova, 102 Dalmatians, Rogue Trader, Notting Hill, 101 Dalmatians, Richard III (1995), Erik The Viking, Blackadder (TV)
  • Emun Elliott: Filth, Prometheus, Strawberry Fields, Game Of Thrones (TV)
  • Andy Nyman: Bone In The Throat, The ABCs of Death 2, Shaun The Sheep Movie (voice), Kick Ass 2, The Tournament, Death At a Funeral (2007), Dead Set (TV), The Brothers Bloom, Severance
  • Johnny Harris: Fortitude (TV), Monsters 2, Last Days On Mars, Welcome To The Punch, Snow White & The Huntsman, Huge, This Is England 86 (TV), This Is England 88 (TV), Dorian Gray
  • David Warner: The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, Ladies In Lavender, Planet Of The Apes (2001), Scream 2, Titanic, Money Talks, The Leading Man, In The Mouth Of Madness, Star Trek 6 – The Undiscovered Country, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Twin Peaks (TV), Star Trek 5 – The Final Frontier, Tron, The Omen (1976), Time Bandits, Little Malcolm, Straw Dogs (1971)

One thought on “BLACK DEATH


    Directed by Christopher Smith. What a rubbish name. I urge him to rename himself as something like Christoph von Smitovsy, something we can take notice of. I see from my internet research that he also made TRIANGLE and SEVERANCE, both excellent films which play with their respective genres (he also made CREEP which I didn’t see). Had I realised his track record (and OK it says on the box from the director of CREEP and SEVERANCE but I wasn’t paying attention to that) I might have approached this film differently. I just saw Sean Bean on the cover with a sword and armour. And, having hardly heard of the film I put two and two together and assumed this would be the sort of film Monty Python were sending up when they went off seeking ye holy grail. Yes, I was ready for Bean running around chopping rubber limbs off rhubarbing yokels before doing battle with some knights with impenetrable armour, and lots of dialogue of the ‘verily milord, I protesteth that thee are a foul and loathsome mollusc of low breeding and I shalt smite thee unto smithereens’ variety. Imagine my immense disappointment as the realisation slowly dawned on me that I was watching a proper, genuinely good film. True, the portents were not good. Eddie Redmayne starts off as some sort of lily-livered monk, the kind of sensitive person who weeps when encountering a dead frog in the park. But he’s playing a 14th century friar. Oh, I was worried. He just seemed a bit too Church of Englandy (in a Tom Hollander/Dawn French sort of way). Fortunately, he was conflicted by (a) love for Kimberly Nixon and (b) not being able to understand why God had allowed / instructed the plague/pestilence/black death to ravage the land.
    A little while back some historians decreed the fourteenth century to be the worst time to have been alive in Britain. They’d probably seen this film. I have no idea if it’s authentic (I’m not that old) but it certainly seems to be a grim, grimy, grubby, ghastly, ghoulish reproduction of a time when death was scything through the populace, and innocent women were being variously hanged/burned as witches for causing said deaths. Sean Bean is Ulrich, special envoy to a bishop, charged with finding a witch who had allegedly prevented the plague from reaching some village in the middle of nowhere. Redmayne is from that neck of the woods and he offers to show Bean and his bunch of bible-bashing brigands the way (he’s also hoping to elope with Nixon; oh these men of the cloth).
    They make a rabblesome fellowship, including John Lynch (the sane one) and Andy Nyman (the funny one) and some bloke who is the spit of Klaus Kinski in that Herzog film where he goes mad and kills loads of people (actually I think that’s every Kinski/Herzog film – all of which are worth seeking out). But they seem to be united, if not by their faith, then by the prospect of doing some official violence. They get picked off one by one in the time honoured tradition of course. But then, this id the fourteenth century, so if bubonic plague doesn’t get you, then marauding woodsmen, Pagan zealots, wild horses or your best friend probably will.
    Carice van Houten is the witch they seek. (That’s not really a spoiler; although Bean says ‘we will need guile to seek the necromancer out’, she rapidly reveals herself in four ways (a) she’s foreign,(b) she looks like she’s filming an Oil of Olay commercial, (c) she cures Eddie Redmayne’s injury almost instantly and (d) she raises the dead at the drop of a hat.) She is a bit of a weak link, but the film isn’t really about witch-hunting. It’s a film about suspicion, and fear of the unknown, the way we like to blame anyone who fits the bill (people on benefits, foreigners, bankers) (though the top bankers get paid so much they don’t seem to mind).
    There are other caveats: John Lynch, who is brilliant here, does however look like a reject from Middle-Earth at times (particularly when topless), but I reiterate, he gives an excellent performance as one of the more reasonable of Bean’s boys. And David Warner just does his best David Warner acting (not that the part required anything more – somebody give him a decent job!)
    Sean Bean is Sean Bean. And really, you don’t need to know much more than that. If you like watching Sean Bean in armour on a horse, then you’ll be in heaven. If not, you won’t. He’s a straight-up man of god, and ruthless and pragmatic he is too. Again, he’s not really stretched by the role (well, a bit) but he gives it exactly what it needs. Eddie Redmayne seems at first to be too wide-eyed and gullible, but he develops interestingly, and you never doubt his faith, even when he does.
    The ending is rather brilliant, and is exactly the culmination I suspected they wouldn’t arrive at but they do, and I’m terribly grateful for that. The film also has interesting things to say about the nature of belief, and the failings of the Christian Church, and the stupidity of the herd mentality, yet does so without preaching or dwelling on it all. No, if it dwells on anything, it dwells on pain and death. Above all though, BLACK DEATH is a film (and this is incredibly rare when you consider how much cinema loves death and killing) where death is seen to be a really horrible and painful thing. (I don’t think I’ve winced so much since sitting through THE REVEREND – but that’s a completely different kettle of fish.)
    PS This is A GERMAN PRODUCTION – it says so at the end. So it shouldn’t be here. But you should still watch it, if you like blood-drenched historical films that are thoroughly bleak and brutal and full of lots of different shades of black death.

    PPS: No its not. It’s a UK production. So it’s here you hairy doofus.

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