Black Death (Blu-ray)

Journey into Hell.

Life got you down? Need a pick-me-up? Allow me to recommend Black Death, which will instantly reorient your perspective when you realize that no matter how much your life currently sucks, at least you don’t live in the 14th century.

It’s 1348 and most of Europe is busy getting decimated by the rampaging plague. An envoy for the Bishop, Ulric (Sean Bean, National Treasure), shows up at a monastery one day, asking the clergy for a monk to accompany him on a quest. He and his band of Christian bad-asses need a guide to lead them to a reclusive village that is apparently untouched by the plague.

The highers-up in the bishop’s office suspect there might be some devilry going down and they’ve asked Ulric to investigate. But when he and his men show up at the village they find a rude welcome awaiting them and by that, I mean “crucifixions” and “horse-assisted de-limbing.”

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now. It stars Sean Bean as a guy who swings his sword at dudes’ heads, features a plot involving necromancy and homicide, and is set during a period of history that is both interesting and terrifying. Also, Magnet is the distributor and whether their releases are homeruns or not, they’re at least unique and interesting.

Black Death is certainly unique and interesting, but it doesn’t quite work well enough to merit a full-throated recommendation. Yes, Sean Bean swings his sword a bit, though the violence is relegated to one tacked-on battle sequence in the middle (where Ulric and the boys take out some random thieves) and a brief set of scenes at the end that should have been a lot more satisfying than they were.

To be fair, this is not an action movie and director Christopher Smith is obviously interested in fare other than hacking and slashing. Black Death is primarily a horror film, a gothic excursion into supernatural-themed suspense that plays around with the ideas of superstition and religious fervor — yet never quite seems to land on a specific message.

Which is fine; I’m not one for unsubtle message movies. Though it is odd how ambiguous the film keeps things. Is Smith harpooning the church? Paganism? The suffering that superstition can yield? The answer is probably all of the above, but it’s tough to relate to any of the jumbled religious overtones. These belief systems have changed in big ways since the 14th century so I don’t know what we’re supposed to take away as lessons.

Let’s then judge Black Death as a straight-up slice of entertainment. This too becomes a shaky proposition. I enjoy the group-of-Alpha-males-on-a-mission genre as much as anyone. And these guys, led by one of the Alpha-est males you can find, fit the bill. Unfortunately, once they reach their destination, the film grinds to a slow crawl. Prior to their arrival, we had some decent character stuff with Ulric’s interference in a witch burning, a last-minute absolution when one of the guys shows plague symptoms and the aforementioned scuffle. When we hit the village the gears lock up. A bummer, considering how fertile a mysterious village run by a hot female necromancer could be for a horror film. But this is a boring pagan village. They have diabolical means of dispatching their prisoners, sure, though as far as I can tell, the villagers are all a bunch of slack-jawed hippies. I never felt much terror — especially on behalf of Ulric and his guys as they weren’t necessarily sympathetic characters — so when the deaths eventually did come, they hit with little fanfare. It’s only the last couple of minutes, the epilogue, when I felt somewhat discomforted. One of the characters undergoes a transformation that is shocking mainly for his actions and less for the rationale of his transition.

Like the feature film, the Blu-ray is a mixed offering. Magnet is typically money with the technical treatment of its releases, but I found the picture quality (2.40:1) of Black Death a dreary, washed-out disappointment. Colors are shallow and soft and the resolution simply doesn’t have enough pop to compensate for the dullness. I know the setting is depressing and all, but there’s no way around it: this is an ugly Blu-ray. The audio comes off better, with the 5.1 HD-Master Audio delivering an enveloping, gruesome-at-times sound mix. Extras: deleted scenes, a short making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews and a brief HDNet segment.

You must do penance.


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