Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 May


Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.




Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.



Why Watch?


  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Black Death – at Amazon






Melissa George in Triangle


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 March



The USS Cyclops disappears, 1918

On this day in 1918, the USS Cyclops disappeared at sea, with a loss of 306 crew and passengers. It remains the single largest naval disaster not involving enemy attack in US history. The ship was carrying manganese, an ingredient in munitions production, and so the suspicion was at the time that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, with whom the US was at war, though this has never been confirmed. The other theory is that the ship encountered a heavy storm after leaving Bahia, Brazil, bound for Baltimore, Maryland. The ship was probably overloaded with manganese ore and had a cracked cylinder in its starboard engine, which rendered the engine unusable. En route for Baltimore she made an unscheduled stop in Barbados, due to water being over the Plimsoll line, indicating overloading. The Cyclops left Barbados on the 4 March and was never seen again. No wreckage was ever found. The sister ships of the Cyclops, the Proteus and the Nereus, also disappeared in similar circumstances, heavily laden with metallic ore, in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. One theory has it that all three ships suffered catastrophic structural failure. Another posits that they were all victims of the Bermuda Triangle.




Triangle (2009, dir: Christopher Smith)

The British director Christopher Smith made a couple of promising pictures – monstered-on-the-London-Underground flick Creep, then monstered-in-the-woods feature Severance – before making this UK/Australian co-production, a monstered-on-the-high-seas movie starring Melissa George, who dons the white T shirt early on to denote that she is going to be “final girl”. Smith, though, is ahead of us, with a story that sticks very close to what we’re expecting before taking off with two unexpected and entirely welcome shunts sideways. The basic plot sees single mum Melissa George parking her autistic kid somewhere (safe? we’re not sure) before heading off for a day’s sailing with friends. The boat hits a terrible storm, capsizes and suddenly the friends find themselves grouped together on the upturned hull of the boat, terrified. Then, from out of nowhere, a hulking old liner passes by and they all get on. No one is on board, Melissa George is pulling the sort of spooked expressions her pillowy lips equip her for and then director/writer Smith pulls the first of his two plot dummies by visiting terrible murder on the assembled gang. I’m not going to say more than that about the plot, except that MG obviously survives – the power of the white T shirt – and that there’s another twist coming which will be sucked up by people who love parallel universes and time-travel paradoxes, an actress who is capable of playing bad, good, bewildered and scared and who have the patience to explain to the ADHD contingent just who is doing what to whom and why at any given moment. Concentrate, in other words. Continuing to tweak genre expectations right to the end, this offbeat sci-fi offering is Smith’s best film to date.



Why Watch?


  • A skilfully plotted film from a talented director
  • Avoids the dreaded green screen and uses real sets when possible
  • On lots of “under-appreciated” films of the year lists
  • An early movie role for Liam Hemsworth


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Triangle – at Amazon






Franka Potente, Creep


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 January



London Underground opens, 1863

On this day in 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London, UK. It was called the Metropolitan Railway and it ran between several significant mainline railway stations – Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross – before terminating at Farringdon in the City of London. It was built to deliver workers to the booming financial and commercial heart of the country and empire, and was necessary because London’s too-numerous railway termini were removed from its centre. When railways had first arrived in the capital, none of the mostly aristocratic owners of central London real estate would countenance a railway station on their land – hence London’s major railway stations’ siting in less salubrious parts of town, on the periphery of the action. The Metropolitan Railway, driven by steam, lit by gas and wooden of carriage, was an instant success and carried 38,000 passengers on its first day. Plans were immediately fast-tracked to connect up other railway stations in London with a grand circular line (of which the Metropolitan Railway would become part). Because of the extreme difficulty of getting anything built in London without approval of influential landowners, much of this original line was built under main roads, using a “cut and cover” technique (dig trench, drop in tunnel using precast sections, cover over). These days London Underground aka the Tube has 270 stations, 55% of which are in fact overground.




Creep (2004, dir: Christopher Smith)

Six years on from Run Lola Run and only two years after The Bourne Identity, Franka Potente is once again being pursued, in this cheap debut feature from writer/director Christopher Smith. Potente plays Kate, though the name isn’t important, since she’s one of very few people actually in this film, which is about a slightly up-herself model booker who, after dropping down into the bowels of London to catch a Tube home after a PR event, starts being pursued by an ungodly creature, something of a cross between Nosferatu, Hellraiser’s Pinhead, and Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface. What follows is a chase movie set in tunnels, a showcase of techniques by Smith, who demonstrates sound knowledge of J-Horror and early torture porn and shows he’s seen more Hammer horror and giallo than is good for a man. I’m not going to pretend Creep is a great film; it isn’t. In fact some of the acting is way off, and from talent who are usually a lot better. But it is the debut of an extremely interesting horror director – if you’ve seen Smith’s superior “slasher in the woods” follow-up, Severance, or his extremely good multiverse thriller Triangle, then you’ll know this is a writer/director who is worth watching. And though I say this isn’t a great film, it is full of great moments. At the screening where I saw it, a woman next to me periodically started screamed and started jiggling her legs about as if someone had grabbed them. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, was chortling. The attractions of horror explained in a nutshell.



Why Watch?


  • Debut of a great horror writer/director
  • Last “blink and miss him” performance by great British eccentric Ken Campbell
  • Ingeniously cheap
  • Old horror scares presented with a new twist


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Creep – Watch it/buy it at Amazon