Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once proposed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but the inverse can be true as well. Even with all the information available to us about ancient history, if we were transported far enough back in time, the world would seem dark, alien, and governed by forces we couldn’t understand. That notion pervades Black Death, an action-horror film set in England in 1348, as the spreading plague leads many to believe that they’re living through God’s punishment for forsaking Him. Eddie Redmayne plays a monk drafted to accompany a band of warriors on a quest to investigate a village untouched by disease, led by a woman (Carice van Houten) rumored to be a witch. Along the way, the men lay waste to anyone who behaves suspiciously, urged on by their leader, Sean Bean, a knight whom Redmayne is told is “more dangerous than the pestilence itself.” In short: It’s a time of dread and danger, in which the average person can’t go a day without seeing something monstrous.
Black Death was directed by Christopher Smith, a British filmmaker whose cult favorites Creep, Severance, and Triangle all treat horror premises with jittery realism and a fair amount of wit. Black Death bears some similarities to a zombie movie in the way the plague inevitably overtakes the populace, and it also has one foot in the “creepy community” genre, alongside films like The Wicker Man and Two Thousand Maniacs! But Smith plays the material with an eye toward veracity, not fantasy. Screenwriter Dario Poloni focuses squarely on Redmayne, who experiences a crisis of faith once he realizes he’s sent his beloved to van Houten’s village for her health, not knowing it was a community of pagans. If renouncing God can save her life, is it worth it? Black Death’s action elements aren’t as thrilling as they could be, nor are the horror elements as terrifying. But Smith effectively recreates the chaos of the medieval era, where the educated and ignorant alike make life-and-death decisions based on superstition. And Poloni’s script takes its central issues seriously, showing how in a time of great uncertainty, a leader can get people to do anything just by showing them something real, be it a loaf of bread, a healthy body, or the sharp end of a sword.