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So this week I went to see Black Death, the fourth feature from director Christopher Smith. I really enjoyed Smith’s debut, Creep, back in 2004, not least because it added another title to that sub-category of horror and fantasy films which feature the London Underground (go on - see how many you can name). Yes, it was sort of a spin on that 1970s' classic Deathline, but it took the ideas in a completely new direction. I found it very scary.
      That was followed by Severance, written by James Moran, who had made a breakthrough by winning a short film competition with his sci-fi comedy Cheap Rate Gravity, and who now writes for Doctor Who and Torchwood (jammy bugger). Made in the days when not everyone hated Danny Dyer, Severance tells of an outward-bound, team-building exercise that goes horribly wrong in a duelling-balalaikas, squeal-like-a-chicken version of post-glasnost Eastern Europe. In a contemporary magazine feature on the British Horror Revival, I identified the film as an example of the ‘corporate ennui’ sub-sub-genre, alongside the likes of Robert Pratten’s London Voodoo. I stand by that, although I’m struggling to think of anything which has extended the idea since then. I never saw Christopher Smith’s third film, the sea-bound Triangle, but I’ve heard it’s good. Throughout all this, Smith himself has been pretty low-key. There are one or two interviews with him out there - he’s no recluse - but he’s certainly not as high-profile as, say, Neil Marshall, who is seen by many as a sort of British Horror Revival wunderkind (and probably deserves the accolade; The Descent remains one of the scariest things I have ever seen). No, Smith has ploughed away and directed what is now a quartet of UK horror features, each of which has a great deal to recommend it. No stinkers yet.

      Which brings us to Black Death, a film you’re more likely to have heard of than seen as it has been poorly distributed. For this movie, Smith has taken us back in time to the 14th century and thereby revived a moribund but fascinating sub-genre: the medieval horror film. You can probably name a short list of these quicker than you could with the London Underground stuff. The central character in Black Death is a novice monk named Osmund, who is played by the curious-looking Eddie Redmayne - a young man whose mouth is half a size too big for his face. Osmund is waiting for a sign from God as to whether he should leave the monastery when who should turn up but Sean Bean as Ulric, a mercenary undertaking a quest on behalf on an unnamed bishop. That’s all the sign that Osmund needs and he volunteers to act as a guide for Ulric’s party.
      With their mix of personas, bad-ass attitude and fine range of metal-and-leather outfits, Ulric’s gang could have stepped right out of some ghastly sub-Tolkien fantasy quest. But there are no dragons or hobbits here; this is England, 1348, and the bubonic plague is everywhere. Check your armpits, check your neck, find one bubo and you’re done for. So, potentially, is everyone around you. Smith does a great job of portraying society’s complete inability to deal with something nobody understands, even as he shows us close-ups of rats scurrying unmolested over corpses. Is it punishment from God or the Devil’s work? In a land where devout Christianity is a given, explanations for something deadly and inexplicable must always be Biblical. There is a brief scene where the travellers meet some self-flaggelating penitents without even questioning what the hooded, bloody-backed, crucifix-bearing weirdoes are up to. This tells us all we need to know about the world we’re visiting for an hour and a half.
      This is also a world where the population is small and communication between settlements is limited. (One great advantage of setting your tale in medieval times is that you don’t need to invent some reason why nobody’s mobile phone works.) Nevertheless, a rumour has reached the Bishop that there is a village which remains untouched by the plague - allegedly because a necromancer has rejected God and made a pact with the Devil. If this is the case and the story spreads, then people will lose faith, not intensify it like the penitents. Whatever is happening at this village must be stamped out and the necromancer brought before the Bishop. This is why the band of mercenaries drag an ox-cart that contains a particularly nasty-looking device for restraining and, if necessary, torturing a person.

      One of the band is a torturer by trade, another is a mute soldier whose tongue was cut out by the French. Some of them dislike ‘the boy’ from the monastery who now accompanies them, others think he’s all right. We get a couple of along-the-way scenes, including an interrupted witch-burning and an opportunity for Osmund to bravely administer the last rites to a plague victim. But eventually the group reach this semi-legendary village after wading through a marsh (well, it’s described as a marsh but the water seems very fresh and clear and it’s only waist-deep). And it’s all that's been promised. By the standards of 14th century England, it’s paradise. Everyone seems friendly and welcoming, people are well-fed and clothed. Village girls offer to tend to the visitors’ wounds. (“I’ll tend to your wound!” leers the torturer bawdily, displaying scriptwriter Dario Poloni’s commendable knowledge of medieval slang terms for genitalia.) This is, apparently uniquely for medieval England, a village where no-one is covered in shit. Best of all, there is no sign of the plague. But there is also no sign of Christianity. This is a village without God, and the inhabitants seem very smug about it because they know that they enjoy a fine lifestyle and so are happy to ascribe their good fortune to their independent thought. Without any overt evidence of Pagan rites, there is nonetheless the suggestion that this village lives by the ‘old ways’ (which would not really have been particularly old at the time).

      Up to this point, the most apposite cinematic reference point has been that seminal work of realistic medieval fear, Witchfinder General. Although that movie is set 300 years later, both show us a land of suspicion, superstition and sadistic opportunism. If anything, things had improved by the time Vincent Price comes along. Sharpe and his mates inhabit a nadir of civilisation, beyond which life could barely get any nastier or more brutish and - taking all the plague victims into account - certainly not, on average, shorter. However, it is with the entry into the village and its creepily-content inhabitants that we recognise the other root idea, a film which invariably precedes Witchfinder General in reference books and indices..
      What we are actually watching is The Wicker Man, 600 years early.
      Instead of a Scottish island, it's a group of islands within an English marsh. Instead of one lone copper in a sea-plane representing the Highland Constabulary, it’s a half-dozen mercenaries representing the bishop. Most significantly, instead of the Christian interloper(s) being a social anomaly, railing ineffectually against a rediscovery of ancient ideas that chime with a contemporary hippie zeitgeist, in this film the visitors really are the norm, the accepted worldview.
      In late 20th century Scotland, the evangelical zeal of The Wicker Man's Sergeant Howie was already looked on as a bit loopy. This is not evident from the shortened cut of the film (starting with the seaplane flying under the titles) but was made clear in the longer cut that has prologue scenes on the mainland, which showed that even Howie’s constabulary colleagues thought of him as an officious killjoy. But in medieval horror films, everyone is a devout Christian. There are no atheists, agnostics, or other faiths. God was very much alive and well in 1348. This gives the same scenario a completely different spin. Ulric and his men are entirely justified in their actions and their beliefs. The villagers really are heretics. And just in case anyone wasn’t sure whether these Wicker Man allusions are deliberate, Smith includes an unmistakable homage when the visitors examine the village’s semi-derelict church and Sean Bean takes the trouble to place a cross on the altar.

      Tim McInnerny (who was also in Severance but will never quite shake off the ghost of Lord Percy in Blackadder) plays the nominal head man, Hob (and anyone who has seen Quatermass and the Pit knows the implications of that name!). The real power however seems to lie with the mysterious Langiva, played by Carice van Houten (from Black Book and Valkyrie) complete with blonde tresses which one reviewer described as a 'timotei wig'. She is some sort of sexy matriarch, a dab hand with herbal potions, and she takes a liking to Osmund which, though far from sexual, nevertheless seems creepily non-maternal.
      However, it is also in the village scenes that the film suffers two of its three failures.
      One is the said van Houten, whose wooden acting is marginally less distracting than her modern mannerisms and speech patterns. I don’t know to what extent Poloni (who also scripted Wilderness) wrote the character to seem modern, or at least different to those around her, but she simply sounds anachronistic. The situation is not helped by that ridiculous wig or her carefully applied, ruby-red lippy. The movie’s second problem is that everyone in the village is simply too clean: clean clothes, clean skin, clean hair.. I’m undecided as to whether the story would have been more effective if the village and its inhabitants had been dirtier, but it would certainly have been less disconcerting. As it stands, the place looks more like a reconstruction for 21st century tourists (which it might well be) than a genuine Middle Ages hamlet.

      Now you may be wondering where the actual horror lies in all this, apart from the background of the titular Black Death. Much like Witchfinder General, a great deal of the fear comes from the atmosphere, the oppressive fanaticism and the casual attitude to mortality. Plus the occasional witch-burning, of course. But Black Death is clever and its ideas run deeper than those in Witchfinder General (which, unusually among classic horror movies is a historical drama played completely straight). It is said that, in return for renouncing God, the villagers have been given the power to resurrect the dead. And we get some evidence that this may be true, shifting our reference point from the determinedly realistic Michael Reeves picture to its overtly supernatural cousin in any discussion of the medieval horror sub-genre, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Haggard’s film spent many years residing in the wilderness of genre obscurity, no more regarded as a ‘classic’ than many other non-Hammer movies of the era. But in the 1990s, a combination of a smart new print, a DVD release and a flurry of journalistic interest (I interviewed several cast and crew for a Fangoria retrospective) combined to raise Blood on Satan’s Claw to the first rank of British horror films, alongside those of Matthew Hopkins and Sergeant Howie. So much so, that the next issue (#25) of Dick Klemensen's Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine is entirely devoted to the film.

      Will Black Death join those titles as a bona fide horror classic? Only time will tell (naturally), but some of the responses I have seen from horror fans have been quite hyperbolic. Me? - I enjoyed it although it has its flaws, the third of which is an epilogue that goes on far too long, rather than limiting itself to a single scene that makes us reexamine our ideas about human nature. What I am sure about is that Christopher Smith remains a prominent if undervalued force in British horror cinema (though, strictly speaking, Black Death is an Anglo-German co-production which for contractual reasons is credited as ‘a German film’). I’m also sure that I'd like to see more medieval horror films..
      As long as everyone on screen has shit all over them.





 MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.