Black Death [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (16th July 2011).
The Film

It’s a good time to be Sean Bean right now. After immensely satisfying audiences on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-present), which only recently ended, he’s flexing those impressive acting chops in another medieval adventure, “Black Death” (2010). Filmed in Germany, and only receiving a very limited theatrical release in the States, Magnet Pictures acquired it and gave it a proper Blu-ray release after previewing it on HDNet. I’m quickly finding that these guys have an eye for great, low-budget gems after releasing “Monsters” (2010), “Let the Right One In” (2008), “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) and the forthcoming “TrollHunter” (2010). What sets “Black Death” apart from so many films made today is its setting – the medieval days of the 1300's - and the tone, which is reminiscent of 70's genre films. There’s been an explosion of throwback films as of late, but many take a tongue-in-cheek approach, making the material too campy/quirky and completely missing the mark they set out to hit. The most recent example of a film that managed to get things right – both tonally and aesthetically – is Ti West’s “House of the Devil” (2009). Many directors miss the mark because they’re trying too hard to make something that emulates those cult classics (I’m looking at you, Robert Rodriguez); it needs to be a more organic process.

The year is 1348. Europe is being ravaged by the first wave of the Bubonic Plague. There are rumors of a village surrounded by a marsh, its inhabitants uncontaminated by the pandemic sweeping the countryside. It has also been said a necromancer resides there with the power to bring the dead back to life. A Christian knight, Ulrich (Sean Bean) and his troupe are riding out to discover the secret of this place, but not before bringing along a monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), to guide them along the way. They are charged with learning how these people are able to remain unaffected, and an arsenal of medieval torture devices are in tow should the village folk not be interested in talking about their secrets. Once the men arrive, however, they soon learn that it may have been wiser to turn back when they had the chance.

I’m extremely tempted to draw an easy comparison to a major cult classic from 1973, one which a friend of mine compared this film to after seeing it, but to do so would almost ruin the suspense of learning what happens. Had I not been told about the comparison, I wouldn’t have ever expected the film to go in the direction it does. That’s part of what I enjoyed so much; you’ll see the story going one way, and then it completely takes a turn and suddenly you’re watching a very different film. The tone from the start is very much a “men on a mission” type film, but the gears are dramatically shifted once they pass through the marsh and enter this hidden village. That’s when the struggle becomes less physical and more centered on morals and religion. These men think they’re doing what is right for their country and their god, but they fail to realize that not everyone shares their beliefs. This plague is seen by the men as a punishment from God, so they think these villagers must be ungodly people, a fact supported further by the rumors of a necromancer in their midst. Much can be extrapolated about screenwriter Dario Poloni’s views on religion – I’m guessing he’s not a huge fan – but the questions raised as just as relevant today as they were back in the Dark Ages.

The cast is filled with mostly unknowns, save for Sean Bean and a supporting role by the legendary David Warner. I don’t recall the last film I’d seen Warner in, and I think he’s one of the greatest supporting players in the game, so seeing him pop up in any role, brief as it is, already got my viewing off to a great start. The rest were unknown to me, but each actor did a good job of giving their characters identities so that it didn’t feel like we had Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne (as the monk, Osmund) and a crew of jobbers waiting to get an axe to the face. These are all men of strong wills and physical strength, yet they each have distinct traits that allow you to get a better sense of who they are as men. I hate seeing a period film populated with guys who look like they just stepped out of hair & wardrobe, like they can’t wait to shed their outfits and jump into a convertible to head out for a night of partying. These guys looked like you could smell them through the screen. They’re rugged, ugly, fierce and battle-ready at a moment’s notice. Once we reach the village, we’re treated to a splendidly nefarious performance from Tim McInnerny as Hob, the ostensible leader of the group. We soon learn, however, that’s he’s just the muscle for our necromancer, Langiva (Carice van Houten), who holds a commanding power over the villagers with her apparent skills of sorcery.

One issue I tend to have with contemporary, low-budget medieval films is that they all tend to look like they were shot in a wooded area outside Los Angeles and the actors are wearing something found at the local Costume Castle. I have no doubt the German countryside helped immensely in selling the time period and location in the film, but the costumes look like they were done with precision and care. They’re more in line with what you’d expect from a high profile TV series than a cheap film. There’s only one major battle sequence when the men are on the road, but the work of the FX team makes it a memorable one. Nothing could take me out of a period film quicker than crappy CGI, so I’m happy to report that as far as I could tell, all of the bloody bits of gore & grue were done using practical methods. And they blast many a money shot in the brief skirmish we see. It made me happy to live in the present age, where at least I could take a bullet to the head if someone wanted me dead. Back then, you’re likely to wind up with a missing appendage or two, along with some stabs from a rusty blade… and maybe even worse.

Video

The film’s 2.40:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is heavy on the grain, so don’t come into this expecting some pristine, slick image. This was a stylistic choice by the filmmakers, and I think it only aids in giving the film a gritty, degraded appearance in line with its setting and subject matter. It’s consistent, never appearing overly heavy. The film relies on a darker color scheme, eschewing most, if not all, bright & vivid colors in favor of a bleaker palette full of browns, blacks and grays. As is the case with most films that are heavy on grain, the nighttime scenes take a hit in regard to detail hidden amongst the shadows. Black levels are appropriately murky and deep, but sometimes objects in the foreground are difficult to make out. Daylight scenes fare much better, of course, with the image showcasing a much higher level of detail in the actors’ faces and intricately designed costumes.

Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid composes some gorgeous shots here, especially when we enter the marsh. The silhouettes of the trees are just barely noticeable in the thick mist surrounding the village, creating a foreboding environment that is palpable. Some shots are so picturesque they almost look like a painting. Everything looks bleak and dire; you can practically feel the death all around these men throughout their quest.

Audio

The film’s quiet, eerie mood is perfectly embodied within the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit, which provides a subtle, unsettling soundscape. The film’s opening features sparse chants from the monks piping through the rear speakers, creating an unsettling atmosphere which sets the film’s tone. Throughout the journey, the sound of hooves emanate from all directions, as do the creaks & critters of the forest canopy. During battle, weapons sound like they have a real weight to them, clanging with tremendous force. Christian Henson’s score perfectly fits the mood, with plenty of stringed instruments on hand to give the soundtrack a more classic feel, something befitting a period piece. Dialogue is well balanced, always clear and discernible above any on-screen action. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

Magnet has included a solid selection of bonus features, but I found the omission of a commentary track glaring. We do, however, get a handful of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, cast & crew interviews and trailers. There is also a digital copy included.

There is a selection of 4 deleted scenes (480p) available for the following:

- “Absolution” runs for 1 minute and 51 seconds, Osmund absolves the men before the cross the marsh.
- “Prayer” runs for 39 seconds, Ulrich asks Hob if he was amused by his dinner prayer.
- “Our Plans” runs for 22 seconds, the men discuss how they plan to capture the necromancer.
- “Tears” runs for 1 minute and 26 seconds, Wolfstan (John Lynch) wonders who mourns men on the battlefield who never go home.

“Bringing Black Death to Life” (480p) is a featurette that runs for 11 minutes and 35 seconds. Director Christopher Smith opens this by talking about what drew him to this film in the first place and how he felt it could be something different. The cast & crew recall their great fondness for working alongside Sean Bean (they make it sound like the man walks on water!), and we learn a little bit from each cast member who they are and what their role is in the film.

There are numerous cast & crew interviews (480p) available for almost everyone notable from the film:

- “Christopher Smith” runs for 8 minutes and 18 seconds.
- “Phil Robertson” runs for 3 minutes and 31 seconds.
- “Jens Meurer” runs for 2 minutes and 58 seconds.
- “Sean Bean” runs for 5 minutes and 12 seconds.
- “Carice van Houten” runs for 1 minute and 49 seconds.
- “Eddie Redmayne” runs for 2 minutes and 52 seconds.
- “Kimberley Nixon” runs for 42 seconds.
- “Emun Elliott” runs for 1 minute and 56 seconds.
- “Andy Nyman” runs for 58 seconds.
- “John Lynch” runs for 48 seconds.
- “Johnny Harris” runs for 53 seconds.
- “Tim McInnerny” runs for 1 minute and 22 seconds.

“Behind the Scenes Footage” (480p) featurette runs for 10 minutes and 42 seconds, exactly what the title says, this is footage of the film being shot on-set.

“HDNet: A Look at Black Death” (1080i) featurette runs for 3 minutes and 51 seconds. Typical EPK fluff stuff, just like every other HDNet making-of featurette; most of this information is already found in the previous clips and interviews.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 58 seconds.

Bonus trailers (1080p) are included for the following Magnet Pictures releases:

- “Vanishing on 7th St.” runs for 2 minutes and 34 seconds.
- “I Saw The Devil” runs for 2 minutes and 27 seconds.
- “13 Assassins” runs for 2 minutes and 12 seconds.
- “Hobo with a Shotgun” runs for 1 minute and 47 seconds.
- “Rubber” runs for 2 minutes and 18 seconds.
- “HDNet promo” runs for 1 minute and 1 second.

A bookmarks feature is included for keeping track of your favorite scenes.

The disc is also BD-Live enabled, which in this case only means that it takes forever-and-a-day to reload the main menu every time I have to go back to it.

Finally, the film’s digital copy code is included on an insert. It is compatible with both Windows Media and iTunes devices. The file size is just over 1.2 GB and looks faithfully reproduced for the smaller screen when sampled on an iPhone 4.

Packaging

The 50 GB disc comes housed in a standard keepcase. A slip-cover which replicates the cover art is included with the first pressing.

Overall

Not only did I seriously enjoy this film, but I can’t think of many other movies to compare it to, making it all the more unique, original and rewarding to watch. It might move too slow for some, or not have enough gore/terror/etc., but those of us who miss the classic horror films of the 70's will revel in what director Smith has done here. Backed up by a solid cast, great photography and some solid FX work, I highly recommend seeking it out.

The Film: A- Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: B- Overall: A-

 


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