Monday, June 20, 2011

Bring Out Yer Dead!

One of the things that's really started to bother me about some horror movies is the way that they function as Christian propaganda. This is most prevalent in vampire movies, but it's not exclusive to them. The Exorcist, for one example, is one of the most cunning pieces of Catholic propaganda ever filmed. This is, of course, the nature of the beast. Most horror movies postulate a supernatural universe, so it's almost inevitable that they would turn to conventional religion as a counterweight to the forces of darkness. There is, however, a smaller subset of movies in which religion itself represents the forces of darkness. Movies about the horrors of The Inquisition, for example, or movies about sinister priests. It's a rare movie that tries to have it both ways. Such a movie is Black Death (2010, directed by Christopher Smith), in which the forces of the Church and the forces of secularism are two sides of the same rotten coin.

As the title suggests, Black Death is set in the plague year of 1348. It concerns itself with Osmund, a monk, who urges Averill, the woman he loves, to escape to the countryside. He intends to follow her, if he can, and when he prays for guidance, a cadre of holy warriors show up at his monastery seeking a guide to a village where the plague is unknown. There is a necromancer there, their leader, Ulrich, says, and his men are bound to root this evil out. This is the sign that Osmund is looking for, and he hies out with Ulrich band of soldiers across a landscape ravaged by pestilence. On the way, he tries to fulfill his rendezvous with Averill, only to find evidence that she is dead. They find the village by and by, and the stories are true: the pestilence has not touched it. The village seems welcoming, but Ulrich notes that the church has seen no use for a very long time, and he finds evidence of a previous expedition. The leaders of the village are Hob and Langvia, and they know exactly why Ulrich's men have come, and soon, they trap them. Langvia, in particular, is the necromancer they've been seeking, and she holds the village in her thrall. They will be permitted to live, they are told, if they renounce god and the Church. It ends badly for everyone...

Here's the thing about Langvia: the movie sets her up as a villain, in opposition to the principled determination of Ulrich and Osmund, but she has a genuine beef with Christianity. For a while, the movie suggests that she really IS in league with the forces of darkness--or at the very least with the forces of Paganism, which in a Christian-themed movie is more or less the same thing. For the period that the movie suggests all of this, it seems like Black Death is a rougher version of The Wicker Man, and it seems hellbent on the same kind of denouement. Of course, the truth is that Hob and Langvia are atheists, and the whole necromancy business is a bunch of parlor tricks to keep their followers in line. This flips the script on our holy warriors, who now appear to be a pack of howling fanatics, but the movie doesn't settle for that. Instead, it casts Hob and Langvia as the same kinds of cynical manipulators as the Church. I'd say that the movie was trying to have it both ways, but the ending is suggestive. Langvia escapes the eventual destruction of the village, and Osmund has become obsessed with her because of the way she deceives him during the course of the movie. He becomes an instrument of The Inquisition, and he sees Langvia in the face of every woman. In the film's very last scenes the movie reveals that its true monster was lurking in the eyes of its ostensible "hero."

Black Death is a grim movie. It's not a self-aware movie, as such. It's deadly serious about its agenda, which makes watching it a bit of a slog sometimes. There is no comedy relief. No real manifestation of joy or happiness. There's violence, sure, but mostly there's death and pestilence. It's a movie with scenes designed to push buttons, too. Pagans of every strip will find something at which to bristle, though mostly the context of the "Paganism" presented in the film. The scenes where Langvia attempts to coerce Osmund and Ulrich to renounce their faith are bound to make a Christian viewer squirm, just as Osmund's depredations at the end are bound to be an affront to a secular viewer. It's significant that this is the film's final word, methinks, because it's emphatic.

The movie has good actors. Eddie Redmayne is Osmund and he goes from innocence through grief and into madness quite effectively. The light of madness is there in Redmayne's eye from the get go, but it does double duty as religious fervor. Sean Bean's Ulrich is a darker version of Ned Stark, a man of principle overburdened with the task at hand, though one with the strength of his convictions and a willingness to follow them to the ends of the Earth. The movie is stolen from all involved by Carice van Houten, though, whose Langvia is sexy and ambiguous and steely. She's obviously the smartest person in the room wherever she goes.

As a production, this is another depiction of Medieval Europe that wallows in blood, mud, and shit. Black Death presents the Middle Ages as an apocalyptic landscape, and its story as a kind of revision of Heart of Darkness filtered through Witchfinder General. It's a monochrome movie, for the most part, which only serves to highlight Carice van Houten's presence when she appears wearing a red dress. It's crude symbolism, but it works. It's also surprisingly sunlit, though it's that cold sunlight of Northern Europe that makes everything under it look bleak and foreboding. The locations in Germany are picturesque and highlight why Europeans make a lot of these movies and Americans make so few: they've got the "look" of the film just lying around the countryside. Director Christopher Smith ports the visual invention of his other movies (notably Severance) into this one and it makes for some striking set-pieces. I'm liking Smith's filmography more and more as he continues to make films. I wish that this had made it into theaters here, but I understand why it didn't. This is a film that couldn't even be made in America, given the religious climate of the current zeitgeist. More's the pity.

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