British horror director Christopher Smith pours contemporary anxieties into his bleak medieval horror movie, Black Death
Christopher Smith's films have been a treat for gore-bores ever since Franke Potente (Run, Lola, Run) found herself up against a deranged killer living in the depths of the London Underground, in the Bristolian director's gruesome 2004 debut feature, Creep. But while there is plenty of grisliness to slaver over in his steadily growing oeuvre, Smith's movies are more than just the sum of their dismembered body parts – and often more than just straightforward horror movies.
His sophomore effort, Severance, might have starred Danny Dyer (to be fair, he's actually quite good fun), but underlying its story of weapons salespeople being hunted by masked psychos during a team-building exercise in eastern Europe, was a sly, blackly comic commentary on the absurdity of the war on terror.
The point is that Smith, whose favourite horror films include the classics The Exorcist and The Shining, has always consciously tried to do more than just scare people. In everything he has done, says the former EastEnders writer, he has “always ended up finding a kind of subtext that becomes really meaty. But that's what all the best movies do,” he enthuses. “In Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – brilliant movie – it was Communism. And when I watched Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde again recently, really it's about being a drug addict or an alcoholic and coming back and not realising that you've beaten-up your wife when you were drunk. I think all those stories are classics because you understand that subtext, but it's not in your face.”
Likewise his latest and most sophisticated film to date, Black Death, might be set 600 years ago, but after inheriting the project, with Sean Bean attached, from film-maker Geoffrey Sax (Stormbreaker), Smith reworked Dario Poloni's screenplay and turned it into something with striking, though not heavy-handed, contemporary resonance.
In it a young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), who is torn between his devotion to God and his love for a young woman, joins a mission to capture a necromancer that a bishop believes is using black magic to protect a village from the plague ravaging the rest of the country. What follows is a dark tale of innocence corrupted as the monk's liberal religious views, influenced first by the mission's fundamentalist leader, Ulric (Bean), then by events in the village, get twisted into something far less forgiving and uncompromising.
"For me the horror is how do you take a young soul and turn that guy into a monster?” says Smith. At the end of the version being developed by Sax, Osmund wound up actually in Hell. Smith wanted a far more realistic approach.
"To me it's the story of a suicide bomber,” he says. “It's about this boy who's radicalised and how does it happen? And do we like him? And do we understand how he has become what he has become at the end?” He had considered finishing the film with a coda entitled 'Modern Day', but opted for something less on the nose. Besides, his producer, Robert Bernstein, kept telling him the film wasn't about a suicide bomber. “I was saying, 'It's about radicalisation,'” Smith recalls, “and he was all worried. But I said, 'I believe when you touch on stuff [that's real], it gives you a dirty kind of uncomfortable feeling,' which is what I believe then opens up a certain part of the brain.”
I suggest that Black Death is the part of the story missed out by Chris Morris and his co-writers in Four Lions (they should put them on a double-bill, Smith jokes in response), where the lack of context made the would-be terrorists' actions seem all the more ridiculous and abstract. It is also the part of the story that often goes unexamined in, or is oversimplified by, the media, offers Smith. “In the press they give you the impression that [suicide bombers] are brainwashed. But if you look at the suicide bombers of 9/11, Mohamed Atta was a bright boy, a university student. He wasn't brainwashed. So where was his starting block? At what point did his journey towards radicalisation begin?”
The film-maker hastily adds that he is not trying to justify any act of violence. He is simply saying that “people are doing [these things] because they feel they have to or there's no other way. But, whatever happens, they're wrong and they shouldn't do that.”
When Smith was at university, his goal was to find a way of taking “really clever art house cinema ideas and twisting them into a palatable format” for the mainstream. Black Death, with its mixture of action, mystery, theology, politics, ideas about faith and God, and the potentially corrupting influence of (any) religion, is his boldest and most accomplished step towards this aim yet. However, there are risks involved. While the film should appeal to a broad audience, he says: “I have to be careful that I don't push myself into a box where my films become more interesting but not commercial, because then you find yourself in that difficult area where they're interesting but they never make any money. People are then likely to say, 'Where's that guy that made Severance? Let's get that guy back.'”
Actually, he had planned to make a sequel to Severance in which the Americans would have been the bad guys, but the time passed. “Now that Obama's in the White House we're all back in love again and everything's cool,” he laughs. “It would've been kind of fun but that was a Bush movie.”
Instead he is writing a road movie and wants to make a noir thriller independently in the United States. There is also a “twisted little kids film” in the works adapted from the first book in Robert Muchamore's acclaimed CHERUB series about an MI5 unit that uses kids as spies. “It's characters like you would see in a Shane Meadows film but in a thriller environment,” he says.
This does not mean he is leaving horror behind him. He is justifiably proud of Black Death but still feels that he hasn't yet made his Exorcist: something really twisted and nasty but that also has substance.
"I haven't made that scary horror yet where I just feel, like, 'Wow!' I want to make that movie. I really want to scare people in a really traditional way. So I'm laying in bed at night trying to think up the idea that's going to do that.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2011