Anazapta was one of the brief flourish of British horror films that emerged during the early 2000s (Rob Green's The Bunker , Nick Hamm's The Hole and Stuart Urban's Revelation were all made in the same year). For some reason, it didn't receive a proper release until 2004, when it was met with all the usual blinkered critical derision that you'd expect from the mainstream press. This was decidedly unfair, as it's a decent fist of a genre outing; nothing groundbreaking and hardly a classic, perhaps, but certainly far from an embarrassment.
Partly a reworking of Corman's The Mask of Red Death (the past, in the form of the plague, catches up with a selection of wrongdoers), partly a medieval version of High Plains Drifter (a ghostly stranger returns to the village he was previously wronged in), the plot is hardly original, but at least has a little ambition behind it. Curiously, it's not entirely dissimilar to a couple of other UK productions that came out at around the same time: Paul McGuigan's The Reckoning (2003) - a slightly more stylish middle-ages mystery - and Michael J. Bassett's Deathwatch (2002), a likewise mud-caked, grimy tale of spectral vengeance (albeit set during the first world war).
The story commences with the return of a group of soldiers from a spell of fighting in France. Unfortunately their inspirational leader, Sir Walter de Mallerby (Jon Finch) has been captured in battle, but they do have a little something to make up for it: a hostage in the form of Jacques (David Le Haye), the son of a French nobleman. Sir Walter's much younger wife, Matilda (Lina Headey), is especially glad of this, as the ransom will help to pay off the considerable debts that the estate has accumulated thanks to her husband's warmongering. Her present situation, however, is made no easy by the lecherous presence of a corpulent Bishop (Ian MacNiece), who's not only impatient to claim the estate but also to inveigle Matilda into granting him sexual favours.
Jacques, however, isn't quite what he seems. Doubts are raised as to whether his supposed background is entirely accurate, he starts exhibiting mild telepathic skills and has a strange mark on his chest which seems to be disturbingly familiar to certain members of the community. Even worse, people soon start turning up dead: killed in a variety of creative ways, but all exhibiting the signpost buboes of the Black Death (not to mention liturgical words carved into their flesh). Could it be that the cause of these deaths originates not so much with a disease as with an event in the past; an event involving Sir Walter's first wife, who died several years previously?
Alberto Sciamma, a UK based Spaniard, first made a name for himself with the decidedly eccentric Killer Tongue (96), which balanced up its technical deficiencies with a huge dose of pure chutzpah. Anazapta represents a considerable step forward, with a more complicated story, higher production values and less need to resort to camp theatricals. Despite a smallish budget, this looks great, with the somewhat dismal settings and scenery used most effectively. The plot is involving enough, despite its borrowings from previous films, and contains enough twists and turns to keep it from being predictable. On the downside, there is too much of a reliance on intercutting (although innovative in the sixties, I'm growing increasingly weary of this stylistic technique), the dialogue tends to the ripe and the film possibly tries too hard to be clever.
When the pace does lag, there's also plenty of entertainment to be had from the incidentals. This has just about everything you'd expect from its medieval milieu: self flagellating priests, falcons eating eyeballs, pug-ugly supporting characters, witch (or wizard) dunking and maidens in chastity belts. As with any film like this, it's never able to truly escape the shadow of Monty Python, and in its favour you get the feeling it's never entirely trying to. Curiously, the one thing it is missing is animals - a couple of scraggly Irish Wolfhounds apart - the result of being filmed in Wales just as the Foot and Mouth outbreak kicked off (the irony of this is really quite striking). There is another exception: at one point the irate villages sow a pigs head onto the unfortunate Jacques, pure nastiness, of course, but also perhaps a veiled reference to Leslie Megahey's excellent 1993 medievel thriller The Hour of the Pig?
Although top billed, Jason Flemyng (who also appeared in The Bunker and From Hell (01)) gets killed off pretty quickly, leaving most of the thesping work to Lena Headey and Canadian actor David Le Haye. They both do a reasonable job, but the whole show is stolen by Ian McNeice, who positively relishes his role as an utterly revolting Bishop (who keeps a stack of pornographic lithographs to demonstrate exactly what he'd like Matilda to do to him). Anthony O'Donnell is also effective in a role that could have been written for Roy Kinnear.