Many probably know Christopher Smith for at least one of his trio of British horror films, Creep, Severance and Triangle. However, his latest effort, Black Death, offers up a different flavor of horror. The movie is rife with tension and supernatural underpinnings. It scares you, but in unexpected ways — which was Smith’s intent, as he told Spinoff Online in a recent interview.
“I love the idea of the way fear is sold, back then and now. The way we’re told something and the way that something gets out of hand,” he explained. “The movie’s got this really creepy vibe all the way through it. Even though it’s not explicitly a horror movie for most of the film, you’re always feeling that there’s something around the corner.”
The story follows Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk sent by his superiors to guide Ulric (Sean Bean), a fundamentalist Christian, and his conscripted band of cutthroats and thieves to a remote village left untouched by the bubonic plague. Rumors suggest the village’s citizens are followers of Satan, and Ulric is tasked with investigating the claim and cleansing the land if that’s the case.
While the setup certainly suggests plenty of demon-fueled action, Black Death instead toes a more realistic line. It didn’t always, however.
“When I originally read the script, the first half of the movie was pretty much as you see it and the second half was much more supernatural,” Smith revealed. “It was literally a completely different film. The writer, Dario Poloni, who did such a great job, went with my idea that we should push this as real as possible. You very rarely see medieval movies that don’t become fantasy or aren’t fantasy movies.”
He continued, “The first half of the film, 90 percent of the journey and the introduction were pretty much as per the original script. You had all this promise of evil and promise of the Devil. But when I was reading it, I read it realistically and … in a real context.”
Smith just didn’t find the shift toward the supernatural in the script’s second half as interesting as this very real story about a group of soldiers on a mission. So he went back to Poloni, who was fortunately game to rework the screenplay. He and Smith would brainstorm, after which the writer would go off on his own and make the edits.
While the story and the performances that drive it are certainly standouts, the use of handheld camera plays no small role in the strength of Smith’s execution. It pops up frequently throughout the film, establishing a sense of perspective and bringing you right into the action.
“The great thing about handheld for us is, it’s kind of a modern style. It’s kind this kind of war footage [feel],” Smith explained. “You’re in amongst the men, you’re always behind their shoulder. It gives you that kind of modern immediacy. You stop using the camera as a second eye, it becomes driven only by the characters.”
That modern feel, coupled with the period setting, creates an interesting tenor for the unfolding events. There are moments when you are literally following a character from an over-the-shoulder perspective, almost like a video game. Your field of view is limited to the character’s, and tension builds quickly based on everything you’re not seeing but expecting to.
This kind of “on the ground” perspective is uncommon in a period story such as this one, but Smith feels that it only adds to the sense of realism. “What I’m most proud of is the way the pace feels modern but [also] very, very old. I think what happens with period stuff is people become obsessed with showing the production design off. What we do is we have all of that location built up like that, but we film it in a different way and it actually makes it feel more alive.”
Before the interview ended, I had to ask Smith what’s coming up next. He mentioned two projects in particular that are closer than the rest to happening, two which also might appeal to fans of Black Death: a film noir and a werewolf movie.
“I’m working on a film noir. I want to do a really cool … medium- to low-budget road movie that plays around with time a little bit,” he said. “The working title of it is Detour, but it won’t be called that because obviously Detour is a great film from the ’40s. But it comes from the spirit of that film. I’m also working on a werewolf film. It’s not a comedy, but — I really loved Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant and that kind of humor. So you’re laughing at … the chaos of the real world.”
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