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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Black Death

May 8th, 2011

Black Death - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Black Death was the second film released in 2011 that focused on the epidemic caused by yersinia pestis, a.k.a. Black Death. The first was Season of the Witch, which was, to be polite, not well received by critics and struggled to find an audience in theaters. When this film came out, people stayed away, probably because on the surface it looked too much like the earlier bomb. However, was this unfair? Or did the audience avoid being burned twice?

The Movie

Sean Bean stars as Ulric, a religiously devoted knight who lives in 14th century England. All around him people are dying from the Black Death and the priests claim the plague is punishment from God, but he says there's no sin great enough to justify this. He thinks it's the work of Satan and to cure it, they must hunt down the demon responsible.

We are then introduced to Osmund, a monk at an abby that is currently being hit hard by the plague. He himself was locked up when his fellow monks thought he was ill. When he does get out, he immediately steals some food and goes to Averill, a young woman whom he grew up with and who is not living in the same village. The pair have fallen in love, even though that goes against his vows at the monastery. He tells her its no longer safe here and to take the food with her and go home. While she agrees to go, she wants him to come with her; however, he cannot abandon his vows. Before she leaves, she tells him that she will wait for him by a stone cross in the marshes for one week.

After she leaves, he prays to God for a sign of what to do. That sign arrives in the form of Ulric. He's on his quest to slay the demon he thinks is responsible for this plague and he believes he has a lead. There's a village nearby that has escaped the plague thus far and rumors are it is being protected by forces outside of God. But to get there, he needs a guide. When Osmund hears where this village is, in the marshes where Averill is waiting for him, he immediately volunteers. Despite The Abbot's warning, Osmund joins Ulric and his small band of men. They are mostly veterans of the war with France and fighting for God, country, and money, but not necessarily all at once.

The journey is quite far and after several nights, they reach the marker where Averill said she would wait, but instead all Osmund finds is her tattered clothing. Pushing on, Ulric and his men finally reach the village, but it's not what they were expecting. It's a rather pleasant village with welcoming people and one of the ladies there, Langiva, dresses their wounds. But, as they say, looks can be deceiving.

And that's about as far as one can go into the plot without entering unacceptable spoiler territory.

I mentioned Season of the Witch, which can be best described as an unholy mess, but was at its best when it was the most over-the-top. This movie goes the exact opposite route and tries to be as serious and realistic as it could be. It really benefits from that tone. The realism makes the violence have a lot more impact, for instance. It also makes the talk of demons and witches seem, while historically accurate, more disturbing. If there were winged creatures flying around throughout the movie, there would be no suspense about what to expect when they got to the village. Ulric spoke of a demon, so there would have to be a demon. Here you don't know if the villagers are the bad guys who are using supernatural forces to keep the plague away? Or have they simply been spared due to their isolation and the dangerous journey to get to them. Is Ulric's religious fervor going to result in him murdering innocents in the name of God?

Along with the excellent mood, there are several very strong performances, even if some of the characters are less than fully developed. (There's a reason I simply refer to Ulric's men, as individually most are not exactly fully fleshed out.) The story does compensate for that deficiency, so while you know some of these people are little more than potential victims, there's still a sense of character for the overall group.

It is a slow moving film at times and it's halfway done before we finally get to the village. That's not to say there's no action before that, while the action that takes place is quite brutal, thanks in part to the movie's realistic tone. However, you will likely appreciate the film more if you don't go in expecting a more traditional horror film instead of a suspenseful one where you don't quite know what to believe.

The Extras

Extras start with four deleted / extended scenes that run just over four minutes. Next up is an 11-minute making of featurette, Bringing Black Death to Life. It's a good mix of behind-the-scenes, talking heads, and clips from the movie. Heavy on the talking heads. Interestingly, the next two extras are more talking heads and behind-the-scenes. There 33 minutes of interviews with the director, a couple producers, and much of the cast. (Some of these clips are also in the making of featurette.) This is followed up by 11 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage. And finally, there's an HDNET look at the film. It's short at under four minutes and is mostly stuff we've seen in other featurettes.

I don't have the Blu-ray to compare, but it costs 30% more than the DVD, which is acceptable, even if there are no additional extras.

The Verdict

Black Death had to deal with a a badly timed release and I think the earlier bomb kept people away from theaters. That said, it's probably not a film that would thrive in limited release, despite its quality, as it is simply the wrong genre. (Had it opened wide in place of Season of the Witch, it might have earned significantly more money.) Hopefully now that it is on the home market, people will give it a try. Neither the DVD nor the Blu-ray have a huge amount of extras, but I think they are worth picking up over just renting.

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Filed under: Video Review, Black Death