Sound and Fury

The landscapes of BLACK DEATH are the highlight — photographed by Sebastian Edschmid, they drizzle and waft with just the right blend of impressionism and tactile grit. As for the rest, what Dario Poloni’s script and Christopher (CREEP) Smith’s direction offer is the narrative shape of APOCALYPSE NOW transplanted to a medieval world influenced by Bergman and Verhoeven. But it critically lacks any sense of a climax, and gets dragged down by a prolonged postscript. Characters are, for the most part, regulation thugs, and although Eddie Redmaybe as the novice monk is clearly differentiated from the crew of bullies surrounding him, neither he nor they have any convincing relationships. It’s a film where you don’t believe anybody gives a crap about anybody else, or anything. Sean Bean is forceful as the fanatical knight leading the expedition to investigate a village suspiciously free of pestilence, and Carice Van Houten (BLACK BOOK) is good and mysterious, with her unplaceable non-accent, as the cult leader they find. All the cast are good, in fact, but none make much impression.

Basically, when the film isn’t wowing you with scenery or waaah!ing you with bloodshed, it’s a bit of a flatline. Unlike Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which seems like another obvious influence, the film seems fatally uncertain of its overall point. Reeves’ exploration of the destructive, infectious nature of cruelty and violence was very much from the heart — it’s questionable whether the director of SEVERANCE has such deep feelings on the subject. The movie is utterly devoid of humour, but doesn’t seem deep-down serious either.

Needless to say, it makes me worry about what my own horror movie scripts might be doing wrong…

19 Responses to “Sound and Fury”

  1. Reeves knew how to capture the horrific beauty and sadistic regions of the English countryside. His violent landscapes set in this quietude were also unforced and unstylised, unlike so many films of today. What’s remarkable was how realistic and menacing this excursion was into the 1600’s. His soundtrack also evoked the quietude and harmony, so startling when set against the turbulent images.

    I haven’t seen BLACK DEATH, so I don’t want to be too harsh, but after reading your review, and seeing a few clips, it seems to be edited in that predictable stunted, unfocussed way which is sadly still fashionable amongst filmmakers who continue to make films based on other films. I really believe true terror is lost when flashy technique distracts us. We feel very little when modern horror films saturate EVERY scene orange/green/sepia with no sense of how this mindless grading adds to the story. Flashy editing, flying camera work is pretty to look at, but also desensitising. Surely, camera movement and choice of colour scheme should add something to the film?

    WITCHFINDER is a rare film, which plays with sadism to such an extent we feel voyeuristic and ashamed for watching. We feel complicit, and fully immersed in Hopkin’s motivations. I am tired of modern horror films which seem to want to spare us the human despair and indignity of real death.

    The only films I can think of which successfully capture those unpleasant times would be THE DEVILS, WITCHFINDER, FLESH & BLOOD, and even Armstrong’s MARK OF THE DEVIL…

  2. I liked this a whole lot better than you did, David. May I link to my review of it here, or would that be bad form?

  3. No, go for it, Anne. Most of the IMDb reviews are pretty positive, so I guess we were in the minority on this one. Fiona liked it better than me, but not by much.

    Paul, the movie doesn’t tint things whacky colours, so you’re spared that. The fights tend to the fast-cut and hand-held, but they’re a lot more coherent visually than the worst recent excesses in this field. The technique of making the violence only occasionally explicit, with a lot of the blows suggested mainly by sound, works reasonably well.

    What would have helped for me would be either an engagement with reality, as you suggest, or with history — the flagellants we meet are straight out of the movies, and nothing in the story suggests extensive reading or research on the part of the writer. Still, the dialogue isn’t embarrassing like Centurion‘s.

  4. I suppose I wasn’t expecting much out of this, and found more in it than in most of the recent crop of British genre films. I think I liked it marginally more than you, David – principally for the coda, which, out of nowhere, seems to turn the entire thing into a prequel to Witchfinder General.

  5. Heh. That sounds incredibly cheesy, although with Glazer involved one would hope there’s some redeeming quality.

    The coda is strong… but long. It’s a weird-shaped film altogether, with rather long scenes (perhaps this was a budgetary consideration) and no real climax. Maybe if the love story had been compellingly imagined, the character’s journey would have meant something to me.

    Agree it’s better than the usual run, but I was still forced to recall Michael Powell’s dismissal of films he didn’t like: “He didn’t teach me ANYTHING.”

  6. Christopher Says:

    Blood On Satan’s Claw 1971,I think tops Witchfinder General in its oozing rich,english countryside atmosphere.

  7. Interesting the way the Piers Haggard has started to eclipse the Reeves in recent years. I like both. Haggard’s film was less messed about with by Tigon, apart from the title (Satan’s Skin was somehow considered too tame?), but really, they’re quite different.

    Claw has a strong sense of real evil, which is nominally supernatural in source but has an authentic human feel.

    Witchfinder was described as a western by Reeves, and it’s not supernatural at all, which puts it on a very different footing from the other Tigon historical horrors.

  8. > Makes me worry about what my own horror scripts are doing wrong.

    Seems like a good excuse for contemplating people who know how to write horror scripts, and how they get it *right*. Richard Matheson, perhaps (for the Corman Poe adaptations)? John Balderston? Christopher Wicking? Jimmy Sangster?

    So often “horror” depends on design work and direction and performance … but it’s gotta be there in the script (Or So One One Think).

  9. I think a lot of those writers make the smart choice of avoiding easy nihilism and actually taking a stand for some positive values in their writing. As corny as that might sound. The overwhelming negativity of modern horror has sometimes crept into my own stuff — but not always through choice. As a writer for hire…

  10. Under The Skin is a fascinating and deeply strange book. I pray they don’t mess it up.

  11. Glazer does actually have a willingness to leave things strange and not tidy them up, so he seems a good choice from that point of view.

  12. …of course, Blood on Satan’s Claw is a great film, not sure why I forgot that one… I think I had Black Death muddled with Centurion for some reason… on my list to see after reading the write-ups here…

  13. One of the pleasures of Mark Gatiss’s recent TV History of Horror was getting to see Piers Haggard discussing BOSC at the original location.

  14. Finally saw BLACK DEATH last night at a screening with Christopher Smith giving a Q&A afterward. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on it, that I’ll probably be posting in blog form later, but I substantially agree with your observations. Although (and this might just be the ignorant American in me) I thought it was decently researched (the face masks used by the grave diggers) for the setting.

    Smith did say he’d been brought in on the project after Bean was already attached and he ended up rewriting the script from basically the party in the village onwards to remove any specifically supernatural elements. I can’t help but wonder if that explains some of the unevenness in the script. I thought coda was waaaaay too long as well.

  15. The coda delivers what should have been the emotional impact of the story itself, rather than something tacked on. I can see the moral problem of implying that the witchhunts were a pursuit of a real supernatural evil, so I’m sort of glad if that’s what he cut out — although if the pagans had supernatural powers but used them for good until attacked, that might have been acceptable.

    I recall seeing those weird masks (the snouts hold herbs to diffuse the smell of death) in schoolbooks — they are good and scary.

  16. Re: the coda, you’re right. Apparently producers wanted Smith to just end w/ Redmayne getting dropped off at the church. Smith fought for the extended coda. The producers might have had a point.

    And I’m glad that the supernatural element was cut as well, but when you make major changes to half of the script w/o tracking those in the other half, it seems like a recipe for an uneven film.

    For me, the nice thing about the lack of (real) supernatural elements is that it means the audience can’t say, “oh, these characters are superstitious idiots, but those other characters are logical, modern thinkers.” Usually in these sorts of films, the character we’re supposed to sympathize with is the one that thinks the most like us, which doesn’t seem like an accurate depiction of the Medieval mind. Instead, both sides are somewhat wrongheaded. The problem’s not that the pagans are pagans, it’s that they’re being as arbitrarily cruel and vicious as the Christians. I don’t think it’s executed as well as it could have been, but on a theoretical/intellectual level, it’s a good idea.

  17. Maybe one reason I like The Devils and The Wicker Man so much is that both sides are religious, it’s just that one side is extreme. This creates a nice ironic distance for an atheist like me. I still sympathize with one side, but in a slightly more interesting way than if I just agreed with their worldview.

    In Black Death I didn’t really care about anybody, unfortunately.

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