Since the heyday of Cecil B. DeMille, the sword-and-sandals epic has been defined by brawny men dressed in skimpy armor shouting orders to the wind. More recently the genre has been resurrected in excessive terms ranging from the CGI-enhanced virility in "300" to less successful entries like "Centurion" and "The Eagle." These bare-chested outings are typically empty headed, but the bubonic plague tale "Black Death" breaks away from the silliness. When the yelling and the stabbing eventually begin, it's earned the gravitas.
Working from Dario Poloni's screenplay, director Christopher Smith ("Severance") follows young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) in 1348, when his dreary British town has fallen prey to the plague sweeping the continent. After sending his young lover (Kimberley Nixon) fleeing into the woods, Osmund joins forces with an ominous group of knights led by the malevolent Ulric (Sean Bean). Taking orders from a Bishop to track down villagers supposedly living "beyond death's grasp," the unlikely team of warmongers and their resident pacifist head in the direction of an unknown foe.
Smith soaks in the grim surroundings, capturing images of dead bodies piled in the streets in stark, disquieting glimpses. Initially, ham-fisted dialogue overplays Osmund's crisis of faith with innumerable lines in the mode of "God's grip has loosened," "God has slipped over the horizon," and so forth. However, his excessive displays start to make sense when "Black Death" reveals its more ghoulish intentions.
When Ulric announces a heretofore unknown plan of tracking down a demonic necromancer, then nimbly executes a woman accused of witchcraft in front of the innocent Osmund's eyes, the holy man's pristine vision begins to crumble. Stabilized by Redmayne's intense performance, this transition gives the movie its effectively morbid core, allowing it safe passage from manly showdowns to straight-faced suspense. The relentlessly bleak scenario starts to grow redundant as the men continue their trek through the woods, but finally arrives at a thrillingly gruesome finale -- with substantial payoff in terms of character arc. (Imagine "The Seventh Seal" as envisioned by "Hostel" director Eli Roth.)
When the team eventually finds its target, Osmund must reconcile his personal convictions with the allure of a seductive pagan (an appropriately icy Carice van Houten), whose cunning agenda only becomes clear to the Christian warriors once they have fallen into her trap. At that point, "Black Death" indulges in torture porn frights before finding its way to the wild catharsis of a revenge fantasy. While a little too self-serious to mimic the dark comic inspiration of Smith's "Severance," it's still a unique genre combo that never totally plays it straight -- but never plays it stupid, either. "Black Death" embraces its horror roots with ample bloodshed, at which point the silly costumes and anachronistic dialogue no longer seem so absurd.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The movie has performed well on VOD for the last several weeks, but probably won't get nearly as much attention during its limited theatrical release. Still, it will please genre fans, thus keeping Smith's reputation intact.
criticWIRE grade: B+