Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Tombs of the Blind Dead

1971
Dir. Amando de Ossorio

AKA
Crypt of the Blind Dead
Mark of the Devil Part 4: - Tombs of the Blind Dead
Night of the Blind Dead
Revenge from Planet Ape
The Blind Dead
The Night of the Blind - Terror
Tombs of the Blind Dead

Whilst on holiday, glamorous couple Roger and Virginia bump into Betty – an old friend of Virginia’s. Roger invites Betty to join the couple on a train ride the next day but Virginia, confused and embarrassed by her boyfriend’s obvious interest in Betty – and by the lesbian fling she and Betty had whilst in college together – jumps from the train to seek solace. Finding refuge after nightfall in the ruins of an ancient monastery, Virginia is horribly murdered and her blood greedily guzzled by the resurrected corpses of the Templar knights buried in the ruins. When she doesn’t return to the hotel, Roger and Betty set out to find her. They don’t however bargain on running into centuries old living-dead knights, hungry for young, nubile flesh…

After directing several non-descript westerns and bizarre vampire flick Malenka (1969), Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio really made his mark on the landscape of horror cinema with his series of Blind Dead films, the first of which was Tombs of the Blind Dead. The film and its sequels (Return of the Evil Dead, The Ghost Galleon and Night of the Seagulls) revolve around the exploits and murderous rampages of a group of living-dead Templar Knights. The Templars, medieval knights who were put to death for their wicked ways and satanic practices, rise from the dead as mummified skeletal beings, shrouded in their bloodied and soiled hooded garbs, to drink the blood of the living. As a result of having their eyes plucked from their hanging bodies by crows, they rely on sound to track their victims.

Tombs of the Blind Dead has such a simple premise, and while the story is paper thin, the direction is handled so effectively by de Ossorio, who really shows his strengths when it comes to concocting an overwhelmingly creepy atmosphere dappled with inventive and utterly nightmarish visuals throughout. As this was the Seventies though, he does have a tendency of relying a little heavily on his zoom lens; which leads to more than a few unintentional laughs.

The fact that the Templars rely only on sound to stalk their victims is a great twist. It just so happens that the idiotic characters inhabiting this particular story are some of the noisiest ingrates imaginable: stomping and thumping around wildly, listening to transistor radios whilst being all ‘groovy’ and becoming ludicrously hysterical when confronted with the spectacle of the hideous and bloodthirsty Templars. When the small group of survivors eventually realise how the Templars are tracking them, they quieten down and the tension can at last mount higher. Templars, crafty scoundrels that they are however, can even hear the beating of a human heart…



The eerie atmosphere and morbid visuals are really what makes this a horror film worth checking out. The acting is wildly uneven, the characters are utterly useless and the dialogue is absolute trite. One of the most random flashbacks imaginable is inserted into the narrative; not to shed some insight on the characters or add depth or intrigue to proceedings - but rather to provide some ‘kinky’, and downright laughable, lesbian ‘action’, in which Virginia and Betty canoodle on a sun-kissed bed and stroke each other’s hair whilst dressed in VERY skimpy underwear. Jess Franco, eat your heart out. This is here purely for exploitative purposes and to titillate. Obviously. Though anyone ‘titilated’ by this probably shares de Ossorio’s assumption that when two women are alone they like nothing better than to strip down to frilly lingerie, brush each other’s hair and have giggly pillow fights. The flashback, accompanied by the noise of the steam train the characters are travelling on, is to say the least, unintentionally hilarious. Even some of the steam from said train wafts into the flashback, making it all soft-focused and, erm, ‘highly erotic.’

Also hilarious is when Roger and Betty team up with a smuggler and his bitchy girlfriend they initially believed to be responsible for Virginia’s disappearance. The smuggler’s father, conveniently enough, is a highly regarded professor and expert on the Templar knights who is able to shed some highly expositionary light on the history of the fiendish creatures. Cue a flashback to the Templars in their heyday, sacrificing a young woman and drinking her blood. Cue also many close-ups of a large knife being plunged into latex breasts and bright red gore effects.
When Roger, Betty, the smuggler and his girlfriend stay the night at the ruins in order to try and find out what happened to Virginia, there is a lot of wandering around through dusty, cob-webbed hallways, slowly opening doors and splitting up to investigate, well, completely inconsequential stuff. It’s just a lazy excuse to get the characters by themselves so they can be devoured by the creepy knights.



A couple of gratuitous sex scenes are present too, you know, just in case things aren’t quite exploitative enough for ya. There’s really no need for the aforementioned lesbian flashback or indeed the rather dodgy rape scene. Neither holds any relevance to proceedings whatsoever and de Ossorio needn’t have bothered, as there are far more interesting things going on. Like the whole living-dead Templar knights murderlising people and drinking their still warm blood thing…

Speaking of which, it is without a doubt the Templars who steal the show. De Ossorio himself crafted the unique appearance of their horrid features - he designed the make-up effects that were utilised to create their ghastly visage. To his credit, they are indeed the stuff of childhood nightmares. The images of the rotting and fetid knights wearily rising, empty-orbed, from their graves are striking and supremely sinister. The knights also ride on the backs of spectral horses, and they do so in slow motion, which adds to the spooky and surreal atmosphere. Even the day-for-night photography, a staple of most low budget horror films from yesteryear, adds a touch of the uncanny to the film. The fact that these mummified and shambolic ghouls are decomposing doesn’t stop them from slowly but surely closing in on their prey. To begin with, the frantic, panic-stricken and hysterical actions of the victims as they desperately try to flee their attackers, contrasts nicely with the shuffling, yet unstoppable advancement of the Templars, and quite a bit of tension is created. However it soon becomes quite tiresome. There’s only so much care and concern you can invest in characters that seem to have problems with such basic tasks as simply opening a door, or, I don’t know, just stepping out of the way of the advancing, arms-outstretched living-blind-dead.



Aside from the eerie appearances of the Templars, another memorable moment occurs right at the end of the film, just as the two remaining survivors board a packed train to seek rescue. The knights also board the train just as it moves off and wreck bloody havoc on-board. When the train plunges into the busy station the ghouls disembark to slaughter more innocents on the platform and we are left with the haunting image of the sole survivor of the carnage as she huddles helplessly in the coal bunker.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is a good old fashioned schlocky horror fest with genuine moments of tension and jaw-droppingly astounding visuals. As the first in the series of de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films, it serves as an eye-opening and appropriate introduction to the ghastly escapades and spectral ridings of the gruesome Templar knights. The series is quite significant in Spanish horror cinema - because of its commercial viability for one reason - and it has a deserved cult following today. Of course, while watching the film, and depending on how much rioja has been consumed, it is not difficult to draw parallels and read into an intriguing, if rather tenuous subtext centring around the brutality and oppression of the Fascism that was rife throughout Spain when the film was made. Horror films have long been claimed to mirror what is particularly extreme and controversial in the societies and times in which they were produced. Franco’s dictatorship crumbled only a few years after the release of this film. Now, I’m not saying that Tombs of the Blind Dead, or indeed any of the Blind Dead films, had anything to do with that… although everyone knows Fascists only come out at night to drink the blood of the living…



Highly recommended for those who like their horror atmospheric, creepy and at times sporting that inimitable Seventies retro kitsch that we all love so much.

Travia: When Tombs of the Blind Dead was initially released, in some places it bore the forehead-smackingly stupid title Revenge of the Planet Ape. Obviously greedy and unsympathetic execs wanted to shamelessly cash in on the recent success of Planet of the Apes (1968). The mind still boggles though.

3 comments:

Radiation Cinema! said...

James: This one sounds like a winner. I'm going to have to give it a try. I have recently become a Fulci devotee, and this sounds much in the same tradition. You said the magic words with "good old fashioned schlocky horror fest with genuine moments of tension and jaw-droppingly astounding visuals." That's it, baby! Sold! Excellent post.

I like your blog a great deal. I'll be back. I have linked you up over at my place. -- Mykal

James Gracey said...

Cheers Mykal. I reckon if you like Fulci, then there will be much you will love about de Ossorio's Blind Dead films. They are so incredibly atmospheric, and yes, much of the time they are unshamefully schlocky too. Though I'm sure you'll agree - this is sometimes a good thing, particularly while enjoyed with a nice bottle of wine...;)

Carl (ILHM) said...

Ive yet to see the last two entries in the series, but Tombs of the Blind Dead has quickly become one of my all time favorite Spanish horror flicks (Cant top Naschy's wolf man though!). Excellent review for a top notch movie.