Call me crazy, but I don't think there are enough films about the bubonic plague out there. We're talking about a massive epidemic which wiped out a massive amount of people, one where we know the science behind it nowadays to accurately portray it, yet it doesn't get the cinematic respect it deserves. Perhaps the plague being the backdrop of one of the all-time film greats (Ingmar Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal') may have a hand in the matter, as the territory invites instant parallels, and therefore an impossible to win comparison. Perhaps studios don't think audiences would be all that interested in period epidemic flicks, unless they were futuristic. It's not like period pieces haven't been greatly successful in recent years due to lavish costumes, cinematography, and wide arrays of characters...
In comes 'Black Death.' Guess what? It's about the black death. That may be all it has in common with the fifty plus year old masterpiece of foreign cinema. Filmed in Germany, this English flick doesn't attempt to imitate any flick of its type. Instead, it goes for a wholly unique experience...of sorts.
It's 1348, and the area is being ravaged by pestilence, with areas suffering casualties higher than 50 percent of their population. Word has reached a bishop of a village not suffering from the plague, as though it were beyond death's icy grasp, and he has hired a band of mercenaries to seek out and discover the truth behind the story. Hiring a young monk having a crisis of faith as a guide, the warriors seek out on their secret mission: to discover and kill a suspected necromancer in league with some sort of demon. The dangers awaiting the men will thin their ranks, as bandits try to snuff them out, the death in the air trying to take as many with it as possible, and the truth awaiting those that reach their destination. The village in question isn't quite as it appears. It's possibly much worse.
'Black Death' earns awesome points in my books, solely due to how amazingly manly and brutal the film is. The cast, led by Sean Bean (he of period piece lore), Eddie Redmayne ('Powder Blue'), and Carice van Houten ('The Black Book'), are wonderful in their roles, believable from start to finish. No star is "face" enough to distract you, and the one major star, well, we're so used to seeing him thrusting swords that it'd be awkward to see him not chopping away at someone. The faces, the haircuts, the garb, it's really perfect. It puts you in the mood for the film, the practicality over appearance mentality of the mercs especially. The themes of faith in the film are well done, involving persecution performed by both sides of the story to great effect. The characters, their motivations, it all seems realistic, legit. The leader of the village, without spoiling her true beliefs or mentality, is a wonderful shade, the character made to cast doubt in the men of faith on their mission.
While the story does mention necromancy, this isn't some odd zombie flick with a bunch of ghouls doing someone's bidding. The film leads you to believe something that severe may be taking place, putting you in the shoes of the mercs and monk, though, to help make the fall even greater. When the village appears normal, perfectly calm, yes, the threat of danger stinks like something was stepped in, unavoidable, impossible to remove, but the apparent tranquility is disarming, to say the least. It may be a bit too smart for its own good, in that way. 'Black Death' constantly shows us the rigors, the toils of the time, the superstitions about witches, so to see such peace, it's a wonderful setup.
'Black Death' doesn't fall apart, amazingly, and the climax, where the survivors see their faith tested under penalty of death is quite powerful. Characters show such depth, and the plot twists are so apparent yet still striking, it makes the whole affair seem straight out of a history book. And then, there's the epilogue. 'Black Death' doesn't end where it should, some will say, or have said. In fact, the particular tangent taken by the closing of the film may upset some viewers. Personally, it made perfect sense to me. We see the one character, the most true in his convictions, unravel, haunted by his memories, of his loss, what he helped cause and what he did, it is so very fitting. The film talks about demons, and we see them through him, as he's haunted by them, and lives life on a different path, seeking to end his pain by taking down those that brought it to him, in his mind. Yes, it's tonally different from the rest of the film, but man is it effective! 'Black Death' is a film greater than the sum of its parts, a medieval adventure through lands unknown, seeking out death, bringing death, wallowing in blood, daring you to come back and watch the film again. It won't win any awards any time soon, and may be forgotten in some short amount of time, but this motion picture definitely brings something of its own to the table, creating what may be, in my eyes, one of the best films on the topic, as few as there may be.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Black Death' comes to Blu-ray from Magnolia, on a Region A marked BD50 disc. This release includes an embossed, foiled slipcover, which on Magnolia releases also indicates there's a Digital Copy to be found, as well.
With a 1080p, AVC MPEG-4 encode, 'Black Death' is an accurate depiction of its material. It's also troubled due to the jarring transitions of appearance in the film.
'Black Death' is a two tone film: one really, really good tone, and one really ugly tone. It's just not consistent. It's all noticeable by the grain structure, and it isn't just dark shot grain spikes. Rather, random day shots are the problem, as detail cannot get through, and there's random softness that accompanies the spikes. When the grain isn't going haywire, we see great textures (save for flesh, which is rarely all that great), and some amazing detail levels, along with solid depth, pop, and contrast. The picture does seem a bit overly brightened, an aesthetic choice that in some scenes means the film looks a tad unnatural.
This isn't a bad Blu-ray, and there is no real banding, artifacting, or tampering to speak of. It's just not a beautiful film.
'Black Death' isn't so much a case of clumsily loud, unforgiving audio as much as it is a well executed, excellently immersive experience on Blu-ray, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that doesn't pull punches, and regularly swings with all its might.
The film is loaded with atmosphere from all angles, with perfect volume levels making it seem all the more believable and realistic. Bass roars aren't so much used for pronouncing objects or movements as much as they are used to put you in a mood, in a scene, and the powerful low thumps work wonders to keep this somewhat-supernatural thriller going, keeping you involved in the intrigue. Dialogue has no problems with clarity, and the one scene that had what I thought was static was just a fire in the distance, crackling beneath a spoken word. Dynamics? Perfect. The only thing is, as regularly employed and utilized as the rear speakers are, there are scenes that seem front heavy that shouldn't be, where too little sound creeps to the rears, to envelop you in the same way the characters are surrounded.
Pinpoint precise, yet powerful, 'Black Death' sounds awesome.
'Black Death' isn't a timeless classic, nor will anyone ever claim it to be. It is, however, a solid little action/suspense/supernatural flick, filled to the brim with some pretty awesome characters and settings. And Sean Bean. He may have been alive back then, dude is so awesome he may as well be immortal to boot. Magnolia's Blu-ray release of this flick is pretty solid all the way around, making it an excellent blind buy.