Saturday, 23 November 2013

Black Death (2010) Christopher Smith

One of the great adventures of contemporary cinema (as opposed to the relative assurance of the past) is tracking young directors. New voices, new visions, and whether they arrive fully formed or need time grow, take shape. Whether they do indeed grow, or are sustained or even decay. And the roads directors take, direct progression/regression or the more convoluted. Although accomplished from the start, Christopher Smith has taken rather the convoluted route by tackling several distinct subgenres, Black Death his most recent and it seems, the apex of his powers so far. Evoking Witchfinder General and at least one other classic Brit horror, though it pales by comparison it really shows a talent on the cusp of greatness. 

The story sees a young monk caught between religion and the world, who takes on a mission of escorting holy troops through treacherous territory to dark destination, a village exempt from the plague in which it is said God no longer reigns. In the best spirit though, the mission and destination reveal the underlying idea, society for all its contrasts permeated with rot and savagery. Religious isolation that controls rather than aids, and violence spread through the righteous, the lawless and the simply uneducated. Essentially a condition in which something as significant as plague is still just a catalyst. 

Unfortunately things don't come through quite as strongly as they should. Most have the easy chemistry of English veterans coming together (Tim McIninerny is particularly fun), while Dutch stunner Carice van Houten owns her evilly regal character. It's well paced and attractively shot too, moving nicely from damp and grim to light and alluring as events progress. But much of the potential blood, gore and general unpleasantness here is avoided, a move which one suspects was made to keep the audience from being distracted from the point by having fun but really comes across as squeamishness. To be fair, objectionable editing and speed cam are largely avoided, the grisliness is often just out of frame and there's a fair sprinkling of effective grue. But things are a little squeamish and offputting all the same. More troublesome though is the climax, which affords powerful turns to just two characters, largely abandoning the rest. The others may not have been key to the main drama, but their abandonment hurts the film as a whole, and the avoidance of most possible fireworks also dampens things. Then we get a coda which though smart in idea is sketchy and muddled in execution. All a bit of a bringdown from what is pretty striking for a good spell. 

But for the most part this is solid, thought provoking stuff, that it doesn't fully succeed is ultimately less important than its general qualities. So pretty well recommended dudes and dudettes. 

The Thaw (2002) Mark A. Lewis

Watching a film like The Thaw I get a small sadness that's different to the feeling I have of other generic fare. Big ideas here, the very future of the Earth, idealism carried beyond reason into calculated horror, the contrast of cold calculation with bloody reality and underlying all, two of the most momentous discoveries in the whole field of natural history. Big ideas but small, evasive and downright flawed execution. And there's the sadness, more than the endless iterations of nutbar with a knife, twisted family values, crazy crazy virus crazies or whatever, I come to this stuff to dream and here is dreaming denied. 

The beginning points to the rest here. The nature of the horror is made explicit within minutes, killing suspense and wonder, and by the end of the opening credits all has either been spoiled or over strongly pointed at. After this the construction becomes straightforward, but the course of things still inane. I've never been a science student, never gone on any exciting field trips in dangerous, unfamiliar territory, but I imagine that if we arrived at base camp to find no welcome nor even adequate power, we might be shocked and wary rather than just cranking up the generator and otherwise heading off to bed down or get amorous. And I think that if I had an insect bite that rapidly turned into a gruesome, unusual and painful sore I would get onto sorting it out pretty sharpish. I also think that if I found what seemed to be a well preserved specimen of a long extinct species with something clearly living inside it, I'd either be up and down whooping with amazement or at least jaw dropping dumbstruck. Furthermore, if I were a writer and I had established that two characters had a history, then that one gave the other an STD, I might actually do something with this point instead of making it and immediately dropping it. 

But setting aside what I might have done, essentially this is all worthy of something other than turning into a predictable riff on The Thing with incredible creature effects replaced by bugs. Not even weird looking bugs at that. Just regular old bugs. This disappointment aside though, these are an effective menace. Small, fast moving, swarming nicely when needed and always well realised on screen, they are about as cool as bugs can be. And they lead to nicely grody wound effects and vomiting. Combined with a fairly swift pace they make for pretty diverting fun in a vacant sort of way. The film is also crisply shot and appropriately lit, it all looks reasonably classy. Plus the acting is all at least competent, with an underused Val Kilmer a grizzled highlight. 

So overall this just about works on an entertainment front, despite shortcomings. Some gross goods and a few tense moments, just don't get suckered into expecting more. Partially recommended I suppose.