A savvy, stylish horror-actioner that’s more than the sum of its genre parts, Brit-German co-production “Black Death” follows an envoy of soldiers led by Sean Bean on a mission to capture a heretical sorcerer, while the bubonic plague harrows medieval Europe. While managing to deliver enough suspense and bloodletting to appease gore fans, steadily improving helmer Christopher Smith (“Severance”) and screenwriter Dario Poloni smuggle in a merciless critique of religious delusion. With the right marketing spell, the pic could do better biz in Blighty and offshore than Smith’s underperforming previous “Triangle,” and develop a cult following on ancillary.
Although the pic is set in 1348, screenwriter Dario Poloni (“Wilderness”) has spliced into “Black Death” a lot of thematic DNA from 20th-century-set “The Wicker Man” (1973), another pulpy but haunting drama that pits Christians against pagans. Revered, dark-hearted B-movie “Witchfinder General” (1968) also reps an obvious influence. Use of grainy stock and a preference for special effects rather than visual or CGI effects gives “Black Death” a pleasingly retro feel, as does its willingness to explore uncomfortable moral ambiguities.
Never quite specifying in which country the action is supposed to be unfolding (the mostly Brit cast all speak English but have pan-European names), the story starts in a monastery in a town where the Black Death has ravaged the population. It’s generally believed that the plague reps God’s punishment for man’s sin, although copious close-ups of rats scurrying over the dead hint at the modern explanation for the epidemic. Young friar Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) has been having a secret affair with Averill (Kimberley Nixon), a girl from back home, whom he tearfully sends back to their homestead to escape the pestilence.
Just after Osmund has prayed for a sign as to whether he should abandon his faith and join Averill, in rides Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of mercenaries. The bishop has hired Ulric and Co. to find a necromancer dwelling in a village in the marshlands near where Osmund grew up. It’s rumored the plague has left the village untouched, and such a reputation could draw more adherents to the village’s heretical cult, thus undermining the Church.
Ulric takes Osmund as guide, and they set off on the perilous journey, encountering thieves and hysterical, witch-burning rustics along the way. They duly find the village, an eerily peaceful quasi-utopia, which appears to be led by a charismatic woman with healing powers (Dutch thesp Carice van Houten from “Black Book” in a distractingly silly Lady Godiva wig).
A series of nicely paced narrative switchbacks force continual reassessments as to who the good guys and bad guys are. Likewise, tension is maintained throughout as to whether God, the devil or just commonplace chicanery is shaping events.
The cast tackle the pic’s potentially arch material with respectful seriousness, and impress — especially Redmayne and John Lynch in a crucial supporting role as one of the more likable mercenaries.
Tech credits create a strong, fetid atmosphere on what looks like a low budget, with desaturated lensing by Sebastian Edschmid, grotty production design by Jens Loeckmann, and sparse score by Christian Henson repping standout elements. German locations in Saxony look appropriately beautiful, sinister and ancient all at the same time.