Christopher Smith’s Black Death certainly aspires to be holier-than-thou with its morbid, deeply unsentimental darkness, and it almost gets there. Aspirations of Herzog and Bergman abound, and while Smith is much more plainly a genre-fried director than Herzog or Bergman ever aspired to be, he gets points for effort, and almost as many for success.
Following Sean Bean as the leader of a cadre of warriors-of-god on their way to an untouched village in the middle of a Capital-P Plague in 1348 England, Smith submerses himself in the mud and generally revels in the festering pestilence of a Europe that had and, for the characters in this film, never would see better days again. Sebastian Edschmid’s cinematography, heavy on the chiaroscuro, effectively splits the difference between husky naturalism and a throatily omnipresent sense of mythic dread, adopting lighting that conveys an odyssey more than anything else. Meanwhile, the production details lend a really hearty impact to Smith’s malnourished take on the destitution and outcast terror of the film’s hellishly frosty Europe. No doubt, some of the malnourishment is a product of filming the scenes in the order they occur in the film, likely causing the actors and crew to grow weary and dejected over time as the characters do in the film. The effect is a hurting, bruised film that relishes in meaty melancholy, and we feel the plague-ridden sickness of the characters in the air of the film itself.
An exceedingly well-crafted film, then, and also a thoughtful, reflective one. It finds a heart in young Eddie Redmayne as a youthful, untested warrior following in the footsteps of the more well-worn soldiers, eventually realizing that the world of the Lord doesn’t exactly have as much to bring to a world in need as he might have suspected. The ending is a bit belabored, admittedly, but it has a fire-and-brimstone effectiveness none-the-less, and it fits the film’s scrappy anti-adventure take on a genre as old as time. All of which makes Black Death feel like a great unifier, attacking the philosophical themes of an art film without being encumbered by their sometimes rambling pretension, all the while wielding the brutal efficiency of a genre pic without bringing along their aimless weightlessness. Smith is one to be watched.
Doomsday is less a film than it is a mimic, but it isn’t half-bad mimicry all the same. It is also easier to enjoy it seven years post-release, when it is no longer the crushing disappointment of “the third film by Neil Marshall and the one to prove that he may not be all he’s cracked up to be”. Now it is simply “a film”, and a decent, unencumbered one at that. Certainly, in 2008, Doomsday showed a then extremely exciting new cinematic force giving in to an enhanced budget and letting his mind run away with the toys and his better senses. What he concocted was nothing close to the startlingly singular cinematic vision of The Descent, and it remains that way now, but it is easier to view the film on its own terms post-release. Those terms, by the way, are that of a decent but disappointingly episodic work of passionate copy-cat filmmaking that is notable primarily for how it melds the whole cloth of the 1980s cinematic landscape into a whole that somehow stays afloat amidst the weight of its forebearers.
It certainly isn’t original, tackling an infected slight-future where Britain has walled off Scotland due to a rampant disease, before the film cordially moves into John Carpenter territory (it is at least nice to see filmmakers wanting to look to John Carpenter for advice, if anything) when a special agent (a wholly competent Rhona Mitra) leads a team into the quarantine zone to find a cure for the disease after it appears in London.
All of which is basically a functional science fiction actioneer without much personality, excepting the personality of melding together other more distinct, singular personalities into its own fan-fictiony stew. It isn’t particularly good, although it is certainly a far cry from bad. Marshall, for all his failure to embody his inner self over the decade since The Descent, has proven at his least to be a competent craftsperson with a solid, if no longer exceptional, visual sense and a feel for weight and impact when he assembles scenes.
He is also, and the record has shown this through, a great manipulator of shadows and small budgets into works of suspicion and implication, a strength he has largely abandoned in the ensuing years. It is no surprise that the best moments of Doomsday are the most indebted to horror, but that bigger budget – and the ensuing need to turn everything into an action film – is always there calling him and turning him away from what he does best. As passing as the film ultimately is, Marshall’s direction is functional and streamlined and the accompanying set design is enticing (if the film is going to rip-off the punk costume-party side of Mad Max, at least it boasts a pretty gnarly set of punk costumes). Still, it is hard to drum up more excitement for Doomsday than “well, that The Descent was pretty good, wasn’t it?”.