The black plague that decimated Europe in the 1300s doesn’t generally evoke excitement, except in Christopher Smith, who directed the indie film “Black Death,” a gripping slog through the deadly pandemic out in theaters on March 11 but currently available on XFINITY On Demand. The early release of the movie’s poster caused excitement among fans in of the horror genre, and in this world where Smith is considered “one of the more interesting directors to watch,” “Black Death,” starring Sean Bean and Kimberley Nixon, lives up to expectations. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the film’s most horrific note may be its take on radical fundamentalism. An affable, funny, and enthusiastic man, Smith, 40, whose previous credits include “Creep,” “Severance,” and “Triangle,” spoke to us about “Black Death” while walking to a pub in London, where he lives with his wife and one-year-old son, Harper.
How did you get interested in this movie? I was halfway through the edit of “Triangle” when the script came through, and you have to stop and pay attention when there’s a story about a plague that literally killed half the population of Europe. Really, as soon as I opened the script and it said ‘England 1348’ and ‘the Black Death’ I wanted to do it. In addition to the horror of what happened, it was also a time of rampant fundamentalism, and I felt would be a good way to kind of make a film that looks in the past but actually says well let’s also look at today. In a strange way, I thought it was all very relevant – and that’s what drew me to it.
I’m interested in what makes people become evil and what makes people do bad things. The Black Death was real and it’s a tragedy of epic proportions. I wanted the story to be about what was real in that period. The scariest thing during that time for me, apart from the Black Death itself, was the way people felt about religion. They killed thousands of women for being witches, but not one of them was a witch. I find that terrifying and that religious fanaticism came from fear and hatred at the time of the Black Death – the Jewish population was persecuted and accused of poisoning the wells. People of different religious orders are always blamed when something goes wrong and I think that that’s interesting and that’s very relevant today.
How would you classify the film? Horror? Thriller? Something else? It’s kind of a medieval mission movie but done seriously. It has elements of a horror movie, a thriller, without making you jump at every moment. I’d say it’s very serious. In this film there are a lot of dark ideas and dark events. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s this idea of radicalization that I think is very scary – and relevant to the moment.
What’s the story? It’s set during the time of the Black Death which wiped out 50 percent of the population of Europe and is about a young monk called Osmund who is torn between his absolute love for God and his love for Averill a girl he grew up with. He knows she has to leave the village or she’ll die, so he tells her to hide in the forest. He prays to God for a sign and God sends him Ulric and his band of men who are on their way to investigate a village that’s plague-free. This village, deep in the forest is the one Averill is now in. He leaves the monastery and heads to the village but realizes the men are not on a mercy mission, they’re on a mission to kill a necromancer and he must get to Averill before she’s killed by this demon.
How do you want people to feel after they see “Black Death”? Well, it is a proper dark movie. But as with all my films, I try to make sure you have a good time and also come away thinking a little bit. What I love about a genre is it gives you all the thrills and spills, and when it’s done really well you also come away thinking about something more. Take a movie like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” You watch that movie when you are a kid or whatever and really enjoy it, and then later you learn what it was really about, that it had this other thing going on, that it’s actually about witch hunts, a metaphor about witch hunts that go on throughout history.
Make the pitch: Why should people looking through the guide on their set-top box choose this movie? Because movies like this aren’t made very often. By that I mean, anything that deals with medieval is always a kind of sword and sorcery movie that becomes a kind of – just a pure supernatural kind of farce. I enjoy those movies too. But with “Black Death,” I made a very, very, very hard, very punchy and very brutal look at what would it actually have been like to live in the kind of fundamentalist chaos that was that period. On top of all that, it is basically the story of a group of guys going on mission to hunt down a village. Is the plague sent by God? Is it sent by the Devil? I promise you, you’ll love this film. I’m never usually this passionate. But I absolutely love this one. It’s my favorite of all my films. I hope everyone really likes it.
Do you have a favorite scene, one that our XFINITY customers should watch for when they see the movie? I’ll tell you a coupple. There is a scene I particularly love where one of the characters in the movie gets a boil on his neck, which means he has the plague. And at the time it feels like a strange scene because it is quite a long scene in that they have to kill the guy, put him out of his misery, and yet by the end of the movie when you reflect on that scene, you realize that pretty much the whole movie and all of my fears about the movie are kind of put there. And the idea of being what is misery? What is putting someone out of his or her misery? And are those decisions ever really totally selfless? And what impact does putting someone out of their misery have on you as a person?
And I think my favorite scene in the movie is a long sequence in the cages where all of the guys are in these cages, and they’re all being killed and tortured one after the other. It’s a relentless sequence, and what I liked about that sequence is the idea that people were giving their lives for what they believe in. And I think that is something whether it is a war or whether it’s a face that haunts you is relevant today.
It’s very intense. it is a medieval film. So it should be really dark and really dirty, and it certainly is.