... Screw SEASON OF THE WITCH, ignore Rob Zombie's LORDS OF SALEM for BLACK DEATH is where the honesty of witchcraft is, as well as all of the horror and heartbreak that such a topic embodies...
During the initial outbreak of the bubonic plague, a young monk (Eddie Redmayne) journeys with a band of soldiers in hopes of finding a secluded village rumored to be bringing the dead back to life. Amidst the waning loyalties and questioning of faith, true motivations are revealed and something far more sinister begins rearing its head.
While I wasn't much of a fan of Christopher Smith's first creature feature, CREEP--in which a CHUD-like inhabitant attacked people through various trains and tunnels--I gradually came to appreciate the man after witnessing the slasher-comedy, SEVERANCE. Following this, he released TRIANGLE, an ambitious time-looping take on mythological content. Despite some glaring potholes, it was nonetheless an engaging experience with some clever imagery and groovy music to boot. With each passing film, Smith has become all the better a director, and with BLACK DEATH, he's rightfully assumed a position next to that of the excellent Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT); two men with an obvious dedication to the realm of science fiction and horror. Here, Smith treads into the land of witch-hunting with a very reserved directorial style. Camera work feels classical in its presentation as it doesn't employ ridiculous maneuvers or tricks to maintain audience interest. Instead, shot composition is beautifully straightforward in its character blocking and fear-inducing set-pieces such as cloaked and crucified effigies jutting out from thick reeds and vegetation, or mist-coated swamplands. It's a visually compelling film to watch in its ability to both attract and repel at the same time. The color-drained, decayed look of the film establishes a morbid tone, but it's all conveyed in such a way that you want to observe every little detail of the environment; every little fiber of the exquisite wardrobe. This attention to the time period carries through with the characters on a mental and physical level as well. Much like my favorite western, THE PROPOSITION, the personalities herein aren't churched-up for the sake of the camera. Flies buzz about, teeth are yellow and coated with grime. And I love it. It all just reinforces the art of filmmaking over that of selling it. Through the physical, much of the inner comes out as well. The characters which appear the most disgusting are also the ones who have nothing to hide on an emotional level. . . Yet, take a gander at the cleanliness at some of the folk preaching in opposition and, well, there's an interesting juxtaposition which occurs. Much like Eli Roth stated with HOSTEL, if you want the gore, it's there. But if you want actual messages, parallels and themes, they're there too. You just have to pay attention. BLACK DEATH works in such a way due to its ability to convey its narrative without an iron-fist of purpose. It's about the characters, their faith, and the actions which derive from such beliefs--it's not about making an agenda, it's about telling a story. By the end of the bleak narrative, I couldn't have been happier with where the story wound up going. Unlike many a film which toy with its subjects, I was content with how Dario Poloni's script treated its characters and I respected the flawless honesty with which he weaved them in and out of his twisted tale.
Yet another high note is the absolutely exquisite score by Christian Henson which accompanies the film pitch-perfectly. Utilizing string instruments and a solemn tone constantly bordering on sadness, the music proves to be as emotionally draining as the plot points they coincide with. Typically, while I watch a movie I'm doing other work as well (such as writing), but it's a rare film; a rare musical composition that makes me stop what I'm doing and give absolute attention to what I'm watching. There's such a powerful hopelessness to Henson's work here that--much like the rest of the picture--makes one want to just sit down, take a deep breath, and simply think about what you just witnessed. It's a soundtrack elevated to grand heights because of its simplicity and classical approach.
There's such a level of maturity here that you simply don't get too often. Christopher Smith has commendably paced the film between action, outright horror and drama. Nothing is pressed above the other, but instead, works side-by-side to create a cohesive piece. Everything has been balanced to prevent monotony and gratuity. While I could always use more hot sword-upon-witch carnage, I was nonetheless pleased with just how subdued the violence herein actually is. This also leads to my only truly glaring annoyance (because it's not even large enough to be an issue): the upward guillotine. I don't know if I missed something or what, but dammit, I wanted to see this piece of malice and tech go to work on someone! You don't just craft something of that magnitude, and NOT use it. I don't know if a millisecond transpired that I didn't see it in action, but I felt that with something that took such time to craft, its consequence needed to be shown--especially when one foe in particular happens to be placed in it--yet still nothing is depicted! This could be the sick puppy in me barking out, but c'mon, you don't build a rollercoaster to just watch.
Like the recent onslaught of film's I've been watching (SUPER, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) BLACK DEATH is yet another which I eagerly waited for and have finally seen. Like those mentioned above, it met my magnanimous expectations and then some. The newly released DVD art for BLACK DEATH might be terrible (especially considering the jaw-droppingly awesome posters they developed for the movie), but this is a film that deserves more attention than it's received as its definitely one of the best films of its kind. Screw SEASON OF THE WITCH, ignore Rob Zombie's LORDS OF SALEM for BLACK DEATH is where the honesty of witchcraft is, as well as all of the horror and heartbreak that such a topic embodies.