Black Death comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p resolution, encoded using the AVC codec and framed within a theatrically correct 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The disc itself is locked to region B.
Bearing in mind the budget of the film and the fact that large sections are in low light, this transfer perhaps already had to punch above its weight. The good news is that the wonderful cinematography that incorporates shadow, smoke and mist is not blighted by obvious banding. There is a little, but it’s more of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type than a painful eyesore. Shadow detail is reasonable, but can give way to a more murky appearance of the multitude of greys and browns depicted in the half-light.
The washed out palette is consistent, but skin tones, particularly on Eddie Redmayne can jump around somewhat from pale to bronzed. Delineation is solid in brightness but can’t always hold its own when there is complexity in the frame or lighting conditions are insufficient. These were all to be expected from a lower end budget, but what couldn’t be foreseen was the amount of print damage apparent. Black Death has some of the most abundant scratches seen for a recent offering. Perhaps the dark browns and blacks accentuate the white lines and flecks, but it is almost impossible to forgive such a thing in a 2010 production.
The other factor that may grate is the excessive grain. Now I’m not an advocate of slapdash DNR, but the structure of the grain here shifts constantly and subsequently noise finds handy cover to hide in. The other problems are just as irksome, such as marks on the left and right of the frame even whilst the camera moves, akin to your father’s thumb encroaching on the lens of a camera when taking a holiday snap. However, given the large blob of water that was obviously deemed acceptable to be on the lens during one prominent scene I can only assume these were errors that were made during the film-making process and a hurried production meant there was no opportunity to correct them or they just slipped through the net.
Ultimately this is a reasonable enough picture that can be sharp but becomes dragged under by inconceivable print damage and inconsistency.
There are only two tracks to choose from, and I’m afraid neither is lossless. They are English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0. I focussed on the surround sound option.
For what is billed as an action adventure film, the sound design is surprisingly low key. Smith has spoken of his wish to avoid fancy effects and the old sword “swoosh” through the air. This may be commendable in his strive for realism, but it does no favours for those keen to show off their systems. Clever pans are eschewed in favour of a brutish reliance on the fronts and the LFE. Your sub will get a healthy workout as this track is quite loud and the bass permeates through the excellent score with ease, but it lacks a degree of tightness.
Action sequences rely on volume rather than complexity, but the rear speakers are utilised to add a sense of cacophony, even if they don’t seem to pick out discrete noises to place the audience truly amongst the melee. Generally the rears serve up the ambience, with crickets, fire and birdsong whilst the fronts hit you head on. The centre speaker can be hit and miss, though this does seem to be more based on Smith’s reliance of shooting on location and poor sound design rather than the mix itself. It’s a pity that voices can go from rich and striking to less than clear as Bean’s gravelly vocals in particular demanded more.
This is a robust but unpolished track that feels more like it was made for TV than a feature film, showing its 2.0 roots. It is perfunctory and tries to make up for its shortcomings through sheer volume but ultimately shows up its rough edges.
Commentary with Director Christopher Smith
Deleted Scenes (with Optional Director’s Commentary) – 576p – 4:58
Four scenes: Extended marsh/absolution scene, Hob’s ridicule of Ulric, Ulric’s plan and Wolfstan’s confession. A couple would easily have been welcome additions to the final film but unfortunately as Smith explains they were omitted because of pacing and narrative issues, though I’m surprised the absolution was cut for reasons that the viewers wouldn’t understand its significance. What’s that old saying about underestimating your audience’s intelligence?
Bringing Black Death to Life Featurette – 576p – 11:34
Central players from the cast and crew discuss what drew them to the movie and the like. Unfortunately this quickly descends into a cringe worthy love-in where all and sundry profess how great Smith and Bean are in a strangely edited disproportionate manner. There are a few choice morsels of film-making information scattered amongst the sycophancy as well as a great gag by Nyman.
Behind the Scenes Footage – 576p – 10:43
Usually this means more talking heads but this is actual behind-the-scenes footage. There is no dialogue but merely clips of the film being made. Some moments show complete shots whilst others have cast and crew milling about or pointing at things, about which we are given no clue as to their significance. If the previous featurette was heavy on the backslapping talking heads this removes them entirely in favour of the dry and bizarrely unexplained.
Interview with Director Christopher Smith – 576p – 8:15
This re-uses bits from the first featurette (as well as areas covered in the commentary), and covers the basics like what the story is, how much he loves Bean, the German locations and the religious elements of the feature.
Interview with Producer Phil Robertson – 576p – 3:29
Briefly talks about the appeal of the project, Bean and Smith.
Interview with Producer Jens Meurer – 576p – 3:05
Snippets from the German producer as he crams in what attracted him to the script, Smith as director (he calls him an auteur) as well as modern parallels, likening Donald Rumsfeld to the fanatics. All in the space of three minutes!
Interview with Sean Bean – 576p – 5:12
In what proves to be the most insightful and level headed interview, Bean discusses his fascination with the period, the script, fight scenes and filming in Germany.
Interviews with the Cast – 576p – 12:25
Mini-interviews with Carice Van Houten, Eddie Redmayne, Kimberly Nixon (who wins the prize for the most gushing schoolgirl appraisal of Bean), Emun Elliot, Andy Nyman, John Lynch, Johnny Harris and Tim McInnery.
Theatrical Trailer – 576p – 1:18
Photo Gallery – 1080p – 2:35
The usual slide show of stills in a stylised frame.
Black Death is a film that is almost certain to be underrated by some and overlooked by many mainly due to its budget genre roots and elements of clichéd material. Scratch the surface though and what stares back at you is not merely a pulp swords and shields hackathon but a more troubling and ultimately shocking peek into an era that was ruled by faith and fanaticism.
The region B locked disc is below par in the areas that count most – picture and sound, though the former is capable of some stunning sequences but lacks consistency and a clean print. The audio is always going to be something of a letdown when not of the lossless variety, but at least the track here is vigorous when it needs to be and remains reasonably clear.
Brooding, dark and often uneasy viewing, Black Death makes its mark in no uncertain fashion. Though not a classic, it presents us with a new slant on medieval sorcery and with it a more identifiable, pertinent and unsettling horror.
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