The first time I saw the movie “Black Death” sitting on the shelf at Target or Fred Meyer or wherever it was, I thought, “Nah. Too dark. A horror movie set during the time of the black plague? Sounds way too depressing.” So I passed it up. This was a fairly big deal for me, since I buy a lot of movies. I’m one of the few people in the country who actually enjoys buying DVDs. I know, I know, I’m old-fashioned, but what the heck.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that it was unusual for me to not buy a movie where Sean Bean is on the cover with a big sword. I think part of me probably knew that I would buy it eventually, and so I did sometime later. I’d read about the film and had seen the trailer, but I didn’t know much about the plot beyond the basic setup. I was a bit nervous about actually watching it, I’ll admit. Heck, I was so nervous about it that I didn’t screw up the courage to actually watch the damn thing until about a week after I bought it.
So, on a Friday night, I popped the disc into my Xbox 360 and pressed “Play”.
102 minutes later I was thoroughly traumatized. But despite the therapy I needed after watching the film, I was glad I had watched it, in a way. You all are going to think I’m insane for saying that once I actually describe the film, but it’s true. It’s a film that sticks with you, and I gradually began to screw up the courage to watch it again, which I did just last night, a couple of months after the first viewing.
Okay, so what I’m going to do now is go through the film, detailing the plot and some of the lines of dialogue that stuck with me. It’s going to be a bit long and there will be some gory details, since it’s a violent film, so stick with me. After that, I’ll offer some of my own opinions on the film. Also, SPOILER ALERT!!! There WILL be spoilers, so if you have some interest in seeing this film, I would recommend seeing it first and reading this afterward. Now, onto the film.
It is the Year of Our Lord 1348. England is in the grip of the Black Plague, and death lurks around every corner. The opening narration sets the scene for the rest of the film: “The fumes of the dead are in the air like poison. The plague, more cruel and more pitiless than war, descended upon us. A pestilence, that would leave half of our kingdom dead. Where did it come from? What carried its germ? The priests told us it was God’s punishment. For what sin? What commandment must we break that could earn this? No, we knew the truth. This was not God’s work, but devilry. Or witchcraft. But our task, to hunt down a demon, was God’s cure.”
Yeesh. Sounds fun, right? But bear with me.
Osmund, a young monk, lives in a monastery where he has fallen in love with a girl named Averill, who I guess had taken sanctuary in the monastery. When some of the monks start dying from the plague, Osmund tells Averill to leave because it is no longer safe. She is reluctant to go, but tells Osmund that she will wait for him at a certain spot in the forest every morning for a week. She leaves, and Osmund prays that God will give him a sign, so he can leave to go with her.
And as luck would have it, in walks a group of soldiers, led by the Bishop’s envoy Ulric, played by Sean Bean. They tell the abbot of the monastery that they require a guide to lead them to a remote village in the forest that they have heard is untouched by the pestilence. Since Osmund is familiar with the area, and since the meeting spot with Averill is on the way, he volunteers to go with them as their guide, believing this to be the sign from God that he had prayed for. Osmund meets the rest of Ulric’s group, which, to quote Wikipedia, “consists of the experienced leader Wolfstan, Wolfstan’s longtime friend Griff, torturer Dalywag, the fearless Mold, the mute Ivo, and the charismatic Swire.”
Osmund is played by an English actor named Eddie Redmayne, who I was unfamiliar with, but he did seem vaguely familiar. Wikipedia tells me that he was in “The Pillars of the Earth” TV series, which I had seen snatches of on TV, so that’s probably why. Also he reminded me of Michael York for whatever reason. Sean Bean gets top billing in the credits, which is understandable since he’s the more well-known actor, but Ulric is honestly more of a supporting character. “Black Death” is Osmund’s story.
Before he leaves, the abbot tells Osmund that “Even if you survive, the world out there will change you.” “Perhaps that is what I want, Father,” Osmund replies. It turns out that, somewhat unsurprisingly, Ulric was less than truthful. They are indeed looking for a village hidden in the marsh, but what Ulric had neglected to mention was that the village is supposedly led by a necromancer, who, as Wolfstan puts it, “Is someone who plucks the dead from the cold earth and breathes new life into them.” Ulric and his group have been charged to capture this necromancer and bring him or her back for confession, trial, and execution. Ulric proclaims, “We have the tools, we have the will; we travel into hell, but God travels with us.”
And so they set out on their journey. As expected, it doesn’t start out well, with the group encountering an angry group of villagers about to burn an accused witch. Osmund implores Ulric to not let this happen, and he seemingly agrees, cutting the woman free and leading her, sobbing, away from the villagers, where he cuts her throat. He tells Osmund later by way of explanation that “The woman was already dead, but I freed her. The mob would have caught her again and burned her. I spared her suffering. Sometimes that is all you can do.”
The group loses two members on its way to the village: Griff is revealed to be sick with the plague and is subsequently killed by Wolfstan, and the mute Ivo is killed in a bloody fight with bandits, in which Osmund is also wounded. Along the way, Osmund goes to his meeting place with Averill, only to find her bloodstained clothes and her horse abandoned. Naturally, he fears the worst. Eventually the group trudges through the rest of the forest and finds and enters the mysterious village.
Words seriously cannot explain how creepy the damn village is. As soon as they enter the place, you want to start screaming “GET OUT OF THERE YOU IDIOTS” but of course they do not because if they did, there would be no more movie. No one talks to them as they enter the village, all of the villagers retreating into their houses as Ulric and his group passes by. They are eventually greeted by an unsettling fellow named Hob, who grins ominously and tells them they are welcome after Ulric, unsure of who the necromancer is, tells him they seek only food and shelter.
It is then that we meet Langiva. Langiva is a lovely blond woman, first shown mixing some type of herbs. She is played by Dutch actress Carice van Houten with an air of charm, but with subtle menace lurking just below the surface. She offers to treat Osmund’s wound, which is looking pretty bad at this point. Osmund asks if she has a husband, to which she replies that her husband is dead. He asks how her husband died, and she replies, “Men like you killed him.” “Men like me?” Osmund replies, confused. “Men of God,” she says.
Ulric’s group is given the village church as a place to rest, and it is apparent that the church has not been used for worship in a long time. Ulric grows suspicious when he finds a villager wearing a necklace bearing the seal of the Bishop’s envoy, which he also wears. He tells the group that the Bishop sent another group of four men to this village earlier, and none returned. Tension builds…
Despite his suspicions, Ulric accepts an invitation for dinner from the townspeople for himself and his men. Tension continues to build when Ulric prays before the meal, and is ignored by the villagers. “I expected Grace, not the entire Lord’s Prayer,” she says to Hob, who laughs ominously. During the meal, Langiva lures Osmund away and shows him Averill’s body, telling him that the villagers found it in the forest. Osmund, distraught, returns to the church where he asks God why He took her instead of him.
Langiva later leads Osmund into the marshes, where he witnesses Langiva perform some sort of pagan ritual that apparently results in bringing Averill back to life. Fleeing in panic, he stumbles across the mutilated corpses of the Bishop’s men Ulric mentioned earlier, and is captured. Meanwhile, back at dinner, Ulric and his men begin fading into sleep and by the time they realize their drinks have been drugged it is too late. “As a Christian,” Hob growls as he takes Wolfstan’s dagger and puts it to Ulric’s throat, “you’ll appreciate the concept of betrayal.”
Okay, everything up until now has been thoroughly creepy and unsettling, but it is here where the unsettling and the ominous become the downright horrific. Bear with me.
Ulric, Osmund, and the rest awake bound and imprisoned in a water-filled pit. Langiva appears and shows the villagers the weapons the group brought with them, including the bizarre iron maiden-esque cage they brought with them to transport the necromancer. She declares that the pestilence is a Christian disease, and that their village is kept safe by the spilling of Christian blood. She and Hob offer freedom to anyone who renounces God. None do, all vying brashly with Ulric for the right to die first. Langiva tells Hob to pick one, and he decides on Dalywag, the torturer. “Die well, my friend” the rest of the group tells him as he is hauled away. “Oh, I will,” he replies as he dragged to a crude X-shaped wooden cross. “Now you will learn about pain,” Hob tells him. “There’s nothing you can teach me about pain,” he replies, before screaming as he is nailed into the cross and Hob cuts him open with a knife.
Upon seeing this, Swire offers to renounce, despite his friends’ warnings that the villagers will kill him anyway and he will burn in hell for renouncing. Swire renounces anyway at Hob’s prompting, and is taken away, where he is hooded with a bag and hanged from a tree.
Langiva then frees Osmund and tells him to go to the hut where his supposedly resurrected love now resides. “Why are you doing this to me?” Osmund asks Langiva. “Because I like you,” she replies, frowning as if it is a completely obvious answer. Ulric warns him that it is not her and he should not be tempted, but Osmund enters the hut anyway. He finds Averill mumbling incoherently, and she seems mentally damaged. Unable to bear seeing her in such an unnatural state, Osmund tells her she is with God and that he will join her soon, before stabbing her with a dagger and watching her die.
He then brings Averill’s corpse back outside, where he lays it down in front of Langiva. “Averill is with God,” he says, “and so am I”. He then attacks Langiva with the dagger, cutting her across the cheek, but is then subdued and viciously beaten by Hob.
Ulric becomes reinvigorated seeing Osmund stand up to Langiva, and continues to proclaim that not one of his men will turn from God. “You have no power here! You cannot tear a true man of God away from his faith!” Ulric yells, starting to sound a little unhinged. “I do not fear you, or your pagan lapdog!” Langiva, furious, orders Hob to “bring out the horses.” Ulric is tied between two horses and the horses begin to move in opposite directions, slowly starting to tear him apart. As the ropes strain and his bones break, Ulric still refuses to renounce. After a few agonizing minutes of this, he asks them to stop so he can talk to Osmund.
“You did well”, he tells him, before ordering Osmund to “open my shirt.”
While this is happening, Wolfstan and Mold have been busy freeing themselves with the dagger Osmund dropped after attacking Langiva.
Osmund opens Ulric’s shirt, and he is revealed to be sick with the plague. “I am Death,” he mutters. “Vengeance is mine.” He then turns to the heavens and roars “GOD’S FURY RAINS DOWN ON YOU!!” before weakly bringing his head back down and murmuring, as if in acceptance, “God is restored.” Hob then slaps the horses and Ulric is torn apart. Wolfstan and Mold then escape, grabbing swords and cutting down the all the villagers in their path. Mold is killed by Hob, who is then incapacitated by Wolfstan and placed in the iron maiden-looking cage intended to transport the necromancer. Langiva flees into the marshes, and Osmund picks up a sword and follows her.
He stumbles blindly through the swamp, screaming “WHERE ARE YOU?!” and swinging his sword uselessly. Langiva tells him in an omnipresent voice that Averill had never been dead, simply drugged and subsequently “raised” to convince Osmund of her power to bring the dead back to life. Osmund refuses to believe her, thinking that he had freed Averill’s soul from purgatory. “Bring her back, I beg you bring her back!” he yells, to which Langiva replies, “No, I can’t. Pray to your God, see what he can do,” and disappears. The revelation that he is the one who really killed her reduces him to crying in the muck of the swamp, silently whispering, “Averill… she was dead…”
“There is nothing beautiful or uplifting in returning people to God,” Wolfstan’s narration begins, as he surveys the carnage. “There is no place in heaven for those who kill.” He goes on to explain that the village was soon struck by the plague. They had not been protected by Langiva, it had simply been the village’s remote location that had kept them from harm. Wolfstan brings Osmund back to the monastery, he tells the abbot to look after him. “There is no need,” the abbot replies, “He’s back with God.”
Wolfstan goes on to explain that he never saw Osmund again, but he heard stories. Stories that, when Osmund confronted his grief, he did not find comfort, only hate, and that his heart turned cold. Osmund took up the sword in God’s name, and “vengeance became his creed.” Osmund is shown capturing a woman who appears to be Langiva, but who pleads her innocence and tells Osmund that he has the wrong woman. “I want a confession and I want her alive,” he tells his guard. He continues torturing and burning women accused of being witches, and Wolfstan’s narration tells us that he never knew if Osmund actually found Langiva, or if “it was only her guilt he saw, in the eyes of the accused.”
“I like to think that he found peace,” Wolfstan continues, over a shot of Osmund staring at a fire where he has just had a woman burned. “That he continued seeing beauty in the world. Goodness.” Fade to black. Roll credits. End of film.
Whew. Sorry the whole plot summary was so long, but I didn’t really know how to write this without it.
There’s a lot to digest with this film. Yes, it is dark. Yes, it is gruesome. Yes, it is very, very depressing. Sometimes with movies that are really dark, I ask myself, what’s the point? What’s the point of watching all of this suffering? I wondered that about this film, to be sure. It was far darker than I had expected it to be. Not that I had expected a barrel full of laughs or anything, given the title and the subject matter, but that just goes to show how dark this film is, that it was so much darker than I had expected it to be.
But here’s what really strikes me about this film. It is a film about faith. It is a film about faith in a time of incredible uncertainty, and I think that that is part of what intrigues me so much about it. Keep in mind that people in the Middle Ages didn’t know what the Black Plague really was or where it came from. They didn’t know how germs spread, or even that germs existed at all. The film reflects this, as people thought that the Plague was God’s wrath or God’s punishment. How else could they explain where it came from?
But getting back to the main point, this film is all about faith. What I realized after managing to watch it a couple of times is that the times when you need God the most are the times when it is hardest to believe he’s there.
Look at Ulric. He’s about to be literally torn to pieces, and he still refuses to renounce his faith. He needs God more than ever when he is being subjected to such excruciating torture. But put yourself in his shoes, if you can. How would you be able to sense God’s presence in the midst of such pain? How would you be able to focus on anything besides the pain?
Another thing that intrigues me about this film is that, while it may be brutally violent, it’s really not about the violence. I would classify it as a horror film in a broad sense, as it is frightening and disturbing. But what the makers of this film have realized is that being effectively frightening is not all about blood and gore. It is about atmosphere and dread as much as the threat of physical pain. There is more dread and malice in one shot of this film than in any six-pack of slasher movies put together. The entire mood of the film is so ominous and eerie that it is easily one of the downright creepiest movies I’ve ever seen even before anything really awful happens.
The more violent scenes in the film are even downplayed a bit. When Ulric is ripped apart, there is no full-screen shot of limbs flying and blood spraying. You see an arm separate, there are some nasty sound effects and a quick shot of a horse dragging away a few limbs. It’s horrifying to be sure, but is presented in such a way that it does not come off as gratuitous. That scene in particular is handled about as tastefully as it is possible to handle such a gruesome sight. The film is violent but it uses that violence effectively, not cheaply. It isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent, which pretty much makes it the antithesis of almost every other horror movie being made these days.
I would also like to talk for a second about the acting. I mean damn, Sean Bean is a hell of an actor. He completely sells his character. Yes, I realize that he’s done this kind of role before and could probably do it in his sleep, but there’s something about his tone of voice in particular that just gets to me. The way his voice quavers when he says “I do not fear you” to Langiva stands out to me in particular. His voice suggests that he does not fear Langiva, but maybe he fears what she is capable of doing to him. Or perhaps he fears for her. Perhaps he fears what will happen once the plague is unleashed on their village. It’s impressive when an actor can convey so much emotion with just a few lines of dialogue.
I would also like to give credit to Eddie Redmayne, who pours his heart and soul into the character of Osmund. He makes him a completely relatable protagonist, and he completely nails the really intense emotional scenes. It’s heartbreaking at the end to see him reduced to a sobbing, broken man, whimpering pathetically waist-deep in a swamp, only to turn into a monster.
This is a film that sticks with you. It’s hard to shake. The image of Sean Bean with disgusting oozing plague sores screaming “GOD’S FURY RAINS DOWN ON YOU!!!” before being ripped apart is an image I will remember for the rest of my life. And isn’t that kind of the point of film, or really of art as a whole? To create images, thoughts, and ideas that stick with the viewer? In that respect, “Black Death” certainly succeeds, even if some of the images it leaves you with are ones you may wish you hadn’t seen.
I can understand that “Black Death” is a film that could put off a lot of people. It’s gruesome, dark and depressing. There is also a lot of ambiguity, to the ending in particular. Was Langiva actually a witch, or did she lie to Osmund to get him to doubt his faith? Did Osmund ever actually find her? Would it have even mattered if he did? I don’t know.
It’s hard to recommend a film like “Black Death.” Not because it is bad, but because it is so relentlessly nerve-wracking and dark. But I can give it a cautious recommendation, because it is very well-made and well-acted, and it really is thought provoking. See it if you think you can handle it, just so long as you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. And be prepared to maybe binge on Disney movies afterward to cheer yourself up.