Set at the height of Europe’s 13th Century outbreak of the bubonic plague — that’s our favorite all-time plague! — Black Death revolves around a young monk named Osmund who is suffering from that old existential crisis: Should he love God, or should he love a woman? (Wait, that was a tough choice? No wonder they called it the Dark Ages.)
When a mercenary named Ulric (played by Game of Thrones badass Sean Bean) shows up at the monastery on a quest to discover a village that has been spared from the plague, Osmund eagerly signs up, believing it’s a sign from God that he should go and seek out the woman he loves. But more importantly, Ulric and his mercenary buddies are super good at dispatching foes, leading to the kind of gritty violence — decapitations, limb-chopping, drawing and quartering, etc. — that’s too often edited out for a PG-13 rating.
When the mercenaries find the town, things do not appear right. It’s unsettling in a way that brings to mind The Wicker Man (the good one, not the Nicolas Cage one). Like that film, you’re given the distinct impression that the people of the town are under some sort of evil spell given their creepy nature and slavish devotion to the village leader.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the head honcho just happens to be a fetching priestess (Carice van Houten), whose placid exterior belies something lurking beneath the surface. But whatever it is seems to make everyone immune to the plague, so no problem, right? Wrong.
While the pagan vs. Christian element of the story could have easily bogged it down, things are handled in a manner that isn’t preachy, leaving you unsure who you should side with. Director Christopher Smith has made three interesting horror-ish films prior to this (Creep, Severance, and Triangle) and it shows. Black Death is an unsettling piece of work that mixes magic, religion, and other genre elements into a film that won’t make you feel like a teenager skipping around with a broom and thunder-bolt magic-marker tattoo on your stupid forehead.