Horror movies aren’t period pieces for the most part. Yes there are some good period piece horror movies: I Sell the Dead, The Woman in Black, Sleepy Hollow, to name a few recent ones; I’m ignoring the countless adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, since those period pieces are a reflection of the source materials, which were set in the present when they were written. Feel free to post other period pieces in the comments if you would like, but it seems the vast majority of horror films are set in the present. I think horror films tend to be set in the present because it hits closer to home, so to speak. Setting a film in the past risks making it less frightening because it’s put at a historical remove from the audience that distances them from the characters and the horror. Of course, I could argue that most films aren’t period pieces and the audience’s identification with the character gives the audience a sense of sympathetic horror unhampered by where and when the film takes place. However, I believe there still is a presentist tendency in horror, as evidenced by the numerous remakes and adaptations of old horror stories and monsters. Take vampires for example. Vampires are legendary and the monster is still frightening since it’s mythological inception hundreds of years ago, but that’s because we continue to adapt the monsters to our own times. The vampire in Dracula who’s afraid of garlic and crucifixes or can transform into a bat would seem hokey in a modern version of the vampire myth like in Daybreakers or Stakeland. Even classics stories by writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft that are as or nearly as creepy as when they were first written have gotten numerous modern adaptations. Aside from the obvious monetary reasons why horror stories get retellings, we retell old stories to keep them relevant and close to home to make them that much more frightening. I think that’s what makes Black Death a good period piece. We care about the characters in spite of the historical remove from us and we’re frightened because their plight is very real and the issues they deal with are modern.
I realize that I’ve already written “Some Spoilers” in the blog’s subtitle, but I’d still like to take a moment to say to anyone who doesn’t want the film spoiled that they can find Black Death on Netflix or Youtube (if you pay for it) or some other streaming service. It’s a bleak film, but if you’re into these kinds of movies you won’t regret it.
Black Death starts somewhere in Europe in 1348 in a monastery. Bubonic plague is ravaging the local population and a young monk named Osmund is sending his secret sweetheart Averill to their respective former homes near Dunwich Forest to escape the plague. When he balks at going with her because of his vows, Averill tells him that she will wait in a certain spot in the forest for a week before she leaves him for good; for those of you who are about to object, ostensibly celibate Christian monks did take up secret loves even though they weren’t supposed to; medieval monks needed loving too. Osmund prays to God, asking for a sign whether he should go after his love, whether he can still serve Him outside of the monastery, and either providence or good luck provides him with his answer. A group of witch hunters led by Ulrich arrive at the monastery and ask for a guide through the Dunwich Forest; they’ve been sent on a mission from the bishop to investigate the rumors of witchcraft and necromancy at a remote village untouched by the plague. Osmund readily volunteers and leads the men in spite of the other monks’ concern.
Osmund is timid and boyish, especially compared to the rest of the group. There’s Ulrich, the leader who pursues his divine mission to hunt witches, Wolfstan, the tough but likable elder, Griff, Wolfstan’s friend and early victim of the plague, Ivo the heroic mute, eely and cowardly Swire, Dalywag, an enthusiastic, scuzzy torturer, and Mold, gruff and tight-lipped.
The group has several grisly encounters as they go through the forest. They come to an accused witch tied to a ladder, hounded by villagers who intend to burn her; Ulrich frees her, but then stabs her as she walks away, trying to save her the pain of burning, since she would inevitably be recaptured. When the group finds out that Griff has the plague, Osmund absolves Griff of his sins and Wolfstan kills Griff so that he doesn’t have to suffer the effects of the plague. Osmund only finds Averill’s bloodied, tattered cloak in the forest and thieves attack the group; the group staves off the attack, killing most of the thieves, but Ivo dies saving Osmund.
The group finally arrives at the remote village in a swamp, an eerily peaceful place completely untouched by the plague. It’s headed by a pale apothecary named Langiva. They stay under the pretence of needing hospitality, intending to expose the witches and necromancer by getting closer to the villagers. Unfortunately, the group is drugged at the night’s feast; Osmund follows Langiva and sees his love, Averill, resurrected from the dead, but he too was drugged from the drinks and falls asleep later. The men wake in a cage filled with freezing water. Langiva and the rest of the village put the men to the test, telling them to renounce God, who afflicts the Christians with the plague. Dalywag the torturer refuses to give up his faith and is crucified for it. Swire renounces his faith, but he’s hung from a tree out of sight from the other men. When it’s Osmund’s turn, Langiva points him to a nearby cottage where Averill is. Osmund finds Averill dazed and mumbling, unaware of her surrounding or who he is, and so he kills her, believing she’s trapped in purgatory and needs to die to go to heaven. She brings her out of the hut, lays her down, and takes a swipe at Langiva with a knife; he’s knocked out by one of the men before he can inflict any serious damage. Ulrich is taken out and he’s drawn and quartered, but not before he reveals that he’s infected with the plague an has brought it to the village. Mold and Wolfstan escape the cage while the villagers are distracted using the knife Osmund dropped. The villagers are chased off or killed and Mold is killed in the process. Osmund chases Langiva into the marshes, first threatening to kill her and then demanding she bring Averill back. She reveals that the villagers had found Averill injured in the forest and that Averill was only drugged; the resurrection was a sham. Osmund is left to wallow in his own misery, since Langiva escapes. A lengthy epilogue with a voiceover from Wolfstan shows/tells us that Wolfstan took Osmund back to the monastery, but Osmund became a witch-hunter, like Ulrich, and he tortures and kills potentially innocent women in an effort to get vengeance for Averill’s death and to punish Langiva.
There are a lot of themes and ideas to unpack, but I’d like to just start with the feel of this movie. In spite of what the compression in my synopsis might suggest, this is not what I would call an action-packed movie. There are plenty of quiet scenes and the film moves at a measured pace; it’s not slow or boring. Coupled with the grainy quality of the film and subject matter, it feels like a drama more than an action film. I was even hesitant to label this film as horror partly because it stays rooted in realism. This is not to say horror films are all unrealistic, but many have fantastic or surreal elements, and even the purportedly realistic like serial killers are often portrayed as more monstrous than human. It is a horror film, particularly in the sense that the events contained within it are horrifying, but it feels odd to call it horror.
The biggest overarching theme in the film is the problem or corruption of religion, a concern that makes the film’s horror relevant to the modern day. There are two competing fundamentalist discourses, Ulrich’s Christian one and Langiva’s pagan/atheistic one. Ulrich claims moral superiority because God has told him to hunt witches; he also has the added support of the bishop and presumably even higher leaders. Langiva claims moral superiority because she claims that the Christians and their God are violent and vengeful, that the plague is a Christian disease; she and her followers are afflicted with neither the Christians’ anger nor plague. It’s a kind of parallel of the Christian/religious fundamentalist vs. militant atheist debate that has been rather heated in the past decade; I’m sure to tread on a few toes phrasing it that way, but it’s definitely been a debate dominated by uncompromising hardliners from both sides. The funny thing about this is that I remember reading comments on IMDb where different members posited different interpretations of the film, that it was a pro-Christian one or a pro-atheist one, but I think the film makes it awfully ambiguous. Ulrich and his companions are undeniably violent and ultimately misguided when we learn that Langiva had no powers; witchcraft is just tricks in this film. Furthermore, Osmund is ultimately perverted by his anger and kills innocent women in a quest for vengeance he claims is divine. However, all of Langiva’s bullshit about Christians being violent and the plague being a Christian disease fall apart when the villagers drug, torture, and kill the group of me and then subsequently fall ill with the plague when Ulrich is killed; never mind that the argument of self-defense doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when they torture the Christians, seeming to take joy in the Christian’s suffering. Neither pagans nor Christians are vindicated by their actions.
The question remains, were these people awful because of their religious/antireligious convictions or is it just human nature? I would posit the latter if we take Osmund and Langiva for examples. Osmund is a model of nonviolent, gentle piety, but he’s twisted by hatred when he is betrayed by Langiva and unwittingly kills Averill; his crusade against witches seems more like a disguise for pursuing vengeance, since he would have retained his gentle Christian nature had he not been betrayed. For all Langiva’s rhetoric, she shows her true colors when Osmund asks why she drugged Averill and pretended to bring her back to life. She claims that people need miracles and people worship miracle-workers. It seems that her actions were more of a ploy to gain power and fame than to genuinely benefit her followers. Her beliefs, whether in earnest or not, were a convenient system to control the village and perpetuate her power without the threat of being punished for witchcraft. The film draws on current religion vs. atheism debate to illustrate the horrific potential of both sides, but I’d be hard-pressed to try and draw any direct specific parallels to real people; it’s too morally ambiguous to be allegorical or even a parable.
The second theme with a link to a controversial, modern topic is the issue of assisted suicide or ‘mercy killing’. It happens thrice in the movie. Ulrich kills the suspected witch to save her the pain of being recaptured and burnt at the stake. Wolfstan kills his friend Griff to save him from the pain of dying from bubonic plague. Osmund kills his love, Averill, to save her from a living purgatory, to free her so that she could go to heaven. Each case has different circumstances and the movie makes no attempts to show whether the characters made the right decision in those circumstances, though Langiva does highlight the conflict between the group’s Christianity and their actions, particularly with reference to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” In the case of Osmund, it’s clear that he shouldn’t have killed Averill, but it’s still up to the viewer to decide whether Osmund made the right decision given what he knew or thought he knew. Nevertheless, we are given a full sense of Osmund’s pain when he realizes what he’s done and no matter our view on mercy killing or assisted suicide, it’s clear that it’s not a simple or guiltless measure.
The last major theme in the film comes straight from English class, the always-loved loss of innocence; unlike the previous themes and ideas, this does not involve a connection to modern events. In spite of the obvious, technically illicit with Averill, Osmund is a vision of innocence, purity, and naïveté. He doesn’t fight, he’s very trusting of others since he believes the evil village is really just peaceful, and he doesn’t know how the world works vis-à-visthe suspected witch. The head monks didn’t want to let him leave the monastery because they were afraid the world would change him. Although the other men are leery of his innocent nature at first, they try to defend him at all costs, especially in the face of Langiva, because he’s just a boy. Ultimately however, Osmund loses his innocence when he realizes that Langiva, who pretended to be his friend and ‘brought back’ Averill for him, betrayed him and that he has unwittingly killed his perfectly healthy lover. In Wolfstan’s epilogue, he hopes that Osmund hasn’t become bitter and vengeful because of what happened to him; Wolfstan still holds out hope that Osmund remained innocent. I maintain Osmund’s loss of innocence is the ultimate reason for his later, vengeful nature. However, I wonder if Osmund was destined to become a vengeful zealot like Ulrich is. Could Osmund have avoided the loss of innocence or at least lessened its impact, if he had stayed in the monastery or if he had gone with Averill instead of send her before him? Could a world as tragic as the one in Black Death support that kind of innocence for long?
I decided to watch Black Death because I thought it would be a nice good horror movie that would be a change of pace from the mostly bad movies I’ve been watching; I love bad movies, but even I need a little break from them. In no way was I disappointed. Although Black Death is not a typical horror movie, it’s a great film and the many ideas it played with were great food for thought. It succeeds as a horror period piece, if you even call it horror, because its themes connect to modern controversies and we care for the characters’ plights.