Maybe it was because Spain lacked a folkloric tradition amenable to the fantastique; or maybe because a heavily censorious atmosphere held the country's morbid imagination in check for longer than elsewhere (particularly during the rule of Generalissimo Franco); but Spain didn't really develop a vivid taste for the horror or fantasy movie until the beginning of the Sixties, when all of the hitherto pent up influences from foreign imports came rushing-out under the influence of idiosyncratic talents such as Jess Franco and Jacinto Molina Alvarez (aka; Paul Naschy). Soon, directors such as Franco and Leo Klimovsky were producing hybrid monster flicks influenced by the old Universal classics, but awash with cheap gore and nudity to take advantage of the more liberal climate that made the addition of blood-soaked breasts for International markets mandatory. (Mainly to please the clientele of the sleazy, back-street cinemas which is where most of these films probably made their money!)
Meanwhile, classy directors like Chicho Ibáñez-Serrador also began to occasionally turn their hand to the genre -- resulting in wonderful films like "La Residencia" and "Who Could Kill A Child?". Although the work of Franco, Naschy & co was extremely distinctive (usually, thanks to their creators being as mad as a box of hares!) Spain's lack of home-grown supernatural-based folklore meant that the subject-matter of their films was usually pilfered from the foreign sources that had made such an impression on the young genre directors as children: vampires, werewolves and mad scientists populate these strange Iberian fantasy movies; there was little sign of any original, newly conceived content until. ... along came another maverick Spanish writer-director by the name of Amando de Ossorio!
In many respects, de Ossorio's career parallels that of Lucio Fulci: like the Italian "Godfather of Gore", he was a skilled filmmaker whose early promise as a respectable auter eventually gave way to a late flowering of commercial success as a purveyor of low budget horror schlock that gained him a world-wide cult following. By all accounts a mild-mannered humble man with little regard for his own under-appreciated talent, Amando de Ossorio died a few years ago with his reputation largely hinging on many Euro-horror fans' continuing love for four cheaply-made but fondly remembered films which appeared between the years 1971 and 1975. These films spawned one of Spain's few home-grown horror monster icons: The Blind Dead -- a rather unhistorical vision of the Medieval Knights Templar who are roused back from the dead to skulk around picturesque Iberian ruins and munch on the flesh of any stray senoritas who may happen to stumble upon them! These eyeless, villainous skeletons locate their prey through sound, and can even hear the heartbeat of a human from their cobwebbed crypts and mouldering graves -- although this talent is often unnecessary to be honest, since all their victims insist on making such a big rumpus that the Knights' job is usually made incredibly easy!
The plots of all four films are actually pretty threadbare -- usually revolving around rather generic b-movie scenarios involving cursed villages or even just pampered city folk getting lost in mysterious ancient landscapes they have no ability to navigate (especially when the crumbling cemeteries in the Abby ruins bring forth hoards of calcified bearded skeletons in rotten, mud-caked robes). What makes all four films a delicious pleasure for the Euro-horror fanatic though, is the care and attention paid to the appearance and mannerisms of the films' fiendish antagonists, as well as the fake mythology surrounding them. In the world of de Ossorio's Templars, Christ's police force were really Devil worshippers who came back from the Orient with the secret of eternal life; sacrificing young maidens and drinking their blood gave them the power of immortality, but the authorities condemned them to death and hung their bodies from the trees where crows eventually pecked out their eyes!
Or at least that is the story told in the first film in the series, 1971's "Tombs of the Blind Dead" (La Noche del Terror Ciego"); in fact, del Ossorio wilfully changes the details in every film in order to generate more simplistic b-movie plot lines in which his wonderful creations can operate. In the first film, the Templars are reanimated by the mere presence of a live human in the general area, rising from the ruins of their long-forgotten Abby to feast on anyone foolish enough to venture near the abandoned town of Bezano: a place subject to morbid legend and fearful rumour which the jet-set holidaymakers at a nearby beach holiday resort ignore at their peril! A train journey through the picturesque countryside by three Spanish tourists re-ignites old passions and leads to one of the female travellers leaping from the moving train in order to escape unwanted memories of a fumbled lesbian coupling with her old school-friend -- who has suddenly, unexpectedly, returned to her life to join her and her lecherous boyfriend on what should have been a pleasant day trip.
Like most Euro-horror, sex and lesbianism has to be introduced into the plot somewhere along the line! It's fairly clear though that de Ossorio isn't really interested in titillation in these films and that the sex angle is a mere necessity to please the distributors. Even so, the subject-matter is treated with surprising sensitivity in this first film and the nudity is rather fleeting and almost coy. This is a trend that continues right through the series but it is noticeable from viewing the gallery of publicity stills included on each of the discs in this boxed-set, that some of the films were dishonestly marketed as being much more salacious and sleazy than they actually were! While many directors of low budget European horror flicks often shot two versions of their films -- one with nudity and one without -- de Ossorio shot only one version with a modest amount of naked flesh. But many of the publicity shots for some of the films feature much more nudity than you ever see in the finished product!
The whole plot of the first film hinges on the love triangle (or sex triangle!) between the older unashamed lesbian, her younger ex-lover, and the younger girl's macho boyfriend. It's clear that the younger girl wants to deny her continuing sapphic
sensibilities by throwing herself into a heterosexual relationship; while the macho male of the trio is evidently not very heavily committed to her anyway, since he makes no attempt to hide his blatant flirtation with her lesbian friend -- no doubt considering the chase a test of his macho prowess! There's a nice scene where the two women are standing at the end of the train as steam from the engines billows past them; the younger girl reminisces about their early sexual encounter and the steam and sound from the engines begins to intrude into her soft-focus memories (which never develop into the usual exploitative lesbian romp as one would expect). Clever touches like that elevate this, and the other films in the series, way above the usual cynical Euro dross and show that de Ossorio was attempting to work around the conventions of these movies to create something much more lasting.
The rest of the plot is rather predictable: the younger girl leaves the train, stumbles upon the cemetery of the Blind Dead and gets killed. Her two friends go back to try and find out what happened to her (with a couple of other people in-toe who've been enlisted in order to raise the body count) and soon find themselves in a similar situation. What makes this film such a pleasure is not the feeble narrative, but de Ossorio's beautiful visuals and the macabre atmosphere he conjures thanks to the film-making skills instilled over the course of a thirty-year-long career. Like many films from the period, not a lot happens for vast stretches of screen-time; but it matters not one jot as we bask in the bucolic beauty of Spain's sun-scorched landscapes or marvel & shudder at the evocative ruins so sensitively shot at picturesque locations such as the El Cercón Monastery. There are times when this film looks more like some sort of macabre travelogue than a horror film -- only composer, Anton Garcia Abril's iconic score of sonorous monk-like chants and jarring rattles & echoes gives the game away! Abril's brilliant score emphasises the dark, ruinous, supernatural world of the Templar's lost countryside wilderness against the frivolous holiday atmosphere of the scenes set in Madrid, by featuring wildly contrasting musical cues for each section of the movie: sombre chanting and forlorn church organ riffs for the Countryside scenes; tinkling, jazzy lounge cues for the City sequences!
Whenever the Blind Dead antagonists are on screen, any other faults are immediately forgiven; this is even more the case with some of the sequels! There is something half-comical but also quite menacing about their silent, (mostly) nocturnal creepings, wherever they may take place -- whether it be amid the forbidding ruins of old monasteries or the deathly bowels of a ghostly galleon. These quasi-zombie killers make your run-of-the-mill, slow-moving aggressors seem like Kelly Holmes in comparison! Accompanied by their usual cacophony of chants and weird echo-chamber clanking -- the brittle, crumbling, skeleton Knights edge their way carefully out of their ancient tombs upon the signal of a ghostly tolling bell, and proceed to totter precariously toward their hapless victim (who is usually conveniently paralysed with fear while making enough noise to raise the dead at the best of times). Even when they mount their spectral steeds and gallop determinedly after anyone who may have put up a bit of a fight and tried to escape, they still move in a crawling, silent, dreamlike fog of slow-motion -- accompanied only by the persistent sound of echoing ambient clatter on the soundtrack. This perfectly captures the concept that the Blind Dead Templars are not quite of this world; and even though it appears that a good sprint would easily evade them, and a gentle tap would probably turn them to splinters and dust, they remain impossible to evade! Their chilling, quiet relentlessness simply delays the inevitable and makes their stalk scenes seem like protracted nightmarish teases. The Templars may take their time, but when they finally catch up with their victim they silently nibble away at their flesh like determined terriers or hungry, rabid rodents!
The slow-motion horse-riding from another dimension; the echoing scrapes and clunks of the soundtrack; the silent, arms outstretched stalking; and the disintegrating appearance of the bearded, eye-less, skeleton-like Knights in their filthy cowls and robes (and what remains of their armour) remain the same from film-to-film. And, with the constant reuse of Anton Garcia Abril's saturnine score, and the cut-price recycling in each of the sequels of the first film's scenes of the Templars rising from their graves, these constants help give a consistency of tone and atmosphere to each of Amando de Ossorio's three sequels. This is despite the fact that there certainly isn't any consistency in the back-story each film gives to the Templars to explain their re-emergence time and time again!
Although the first film has an open-ended conclusion, the second in the series, 1973's "The Return of the Evil Dead" ("El Atague de los Muertos sin Ojos") shifts location completely, from the outskirts of Madrid to a small village in Portugal. Here we are shown, in a pre-credit flashback to the 14th century, the Templars being cornered and having their eyes burned-out by the flaming torches of the angry peasants of the town of Bouzano -- completely contradicting the explanation for their blindness given in the previous film, but providing the antagonists with a "vengeance" motive for returning to cause havoc in the present day among their original tormentors' descendants. The townspeople are busily preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the legend of their triumph over the Satanic Templars with a "Burning Ceromony" where they burn guys on a bonfire and hold fireworks displays! The resurrection of the Blind Dead is precipitated by a deformed, Reinfield-like cemetery caretaker called Murdo who is regularly bullied by the town's children and so seeks revenge by helping to bring back its original Templar rulers to reign again! He does this by sacrificing a young woman, in traditional Templar's style, by gouging out her heart with a knife; her blood trickles into the ground in the Cemetery and brings the rotting horsemen out of their tombs for yet another round of slow-moving carnage!
This time, the horsemen gallop right into the modern-day world to find their victims rather than staying confined to the grounds of their monastery waiting for someone to venture into their world. This development has some benefits, but also a few drawbacks: The negative side of this more mobile version of the Blind Dead is that we lose the otherworldly quality of the first film's picturesque sequences in the countryside. But, on the plus side, de Ossorio no longer has to worry about thinking up daft ways to get people to travel into an abandoned village and spend a night in scary dilapidated ruins! In the previous film, a sub-pot about the Templars' first victim coming back as a zombie to seek out and kill her two friends had to be introduced to bring a bit of horror to the film's long, Madrid-set middle sequences which do not feature any Blind Dead action at all since the horsemen are confined to the abandoned village of Bezano. (Incidentally, this is another element that is dropped from the second film onwards: non of the Templars' other victims come back as flesh-eating zombies!) But in "Return of the Evil Dead", the unsuspecting townsfolk of the similarly named Portuguese village, Bouzano, suddenly find their homes invaded by the undead emissaries of Satan and their streets teaming with bony ghost horsemen hacking at them with swords! The director is able to bring an air of genuine apocalyptic chaos to the proceedings and, for the second half of the film he brings the disparate characters -- elaborated in the opening act -- together in an old church for a siege sequence that is highly reminiscent of similar scenes in John Carpenter's "The Fog" and "Prince of Darkness". There are several standout moments along the way including a gloriously cynical sequence where the sleazy mayor of the town uses a cute little girl (whose father has just been slain) as bait to distract the horsemen while he attempts to make his own getaway! Thankfully, the plan fails and he gets his just deserts!
At the end of the film, we find that the coming of dawn abruptly ends the terror. Although the supernatural occultist soldiers have successfully had their revenge and reduced the town to ruins, the few remaining survivors of the regressive medieval onslaught emerge to discover that their aggressors have turned into harmless inanimate skeletons, their bones crumbling in the morning sunlight! This is just another piece of lore to be shamelessly ignored come the third flick in the series: the unjustly maligned "The Ghost Galleon" (1974). That film ends with two survivors of an inexplicable encounter on the Spanish seas with the Templars' ghostly, fogbound Galleon, swimming ashore only to find their persistent pursuers emerging slowly behind them from the waves ... in broad daylight! (Looking a lot like Doctor Who's Sea Devils, it has to be said!) This third entry doesn't seem to be very popular with anyone, least of all its director, who rightfully bemoans the minuscule budget and ridiculously tight shooting schedule which meant he was unable make this third picture look the way he wanted it to. But, aside from the easily ridiculed toy ship which has to pose unconvincingly as the Templars' mighty oak Galleon in long-shot (with the camera moving up and down to simulate the rise & fall of waves!) the film maintains very well the atmosphere created with the previous two entries and, though they take far too long to appear, once the Blind Dead do emerge from their crypts in the undercarriage of the ship, the film features some wonderful set-pieces that take full advantage of these dark, claustrophobic, nautical surroundings. Though they are deprived of their slow-motion horse-riding in this sequel, we do get some great scenes of the Dead in their dank lair, feasting on dismembered limbs of one of their victims! And it shouldn't be forgotten that the whole cut-price enterprise is considerably ennobled for Euro-horror fans by the presence of Jack Taylor: a regular in the films of Jess Franco who always managed to bring an air of dignity to the most salubrious of ventures! The plot is pointless dross about a fashion shoot with some swim suit models on a motorboat being disrupted by the sudden appearance of the ghostly vessel which originally brought the Knight's Templar back from their travels in the Orient; but one needn't worry too much about that! The second half of the film more than makes up for the languorous pace of the opening section with its beautifully rendered scenes of creeping Blind Dead menace and Anton Garcia Abril's score, once again, helping out to give this wayward series entry a consistent tone with the other films.
And so to the fourth and last of the Blind Dead films (although de Ossorio had planned on producing a fifth), the strangely titled "Night of the Seagulls" (1975). This title, which makes the film sound like a poverty row "creature feature" cash-in on "The Birds", actually refers to a further elaboration of Blind Dead lore not previously mentioned in the other films: we learn from another of the writer-director's Gothic village idiot character types -- similar to "Return of the Evil Dead's" ill-fated Murdo the caretaker -- that the souls of the Blind Dead's sacrificed victims can be heard in the form of Seagulls who cry at night! (Real gulls cannot be heard at night, apparently.)
This time out, a City-trained Doctor and his young wife find themselves reluctantly having to leave modern life behind them, since a placement in a small, bleak, coastal village (where the people are -- as the Doctor puts it -- quite "primitive"), is the only job the newly qualified doctor can find! It seems these brutish villagers are just as weary of their new neighbours as the out-of-towners are of them: the doctor's wife cannot get served in the local shop and the two are ignored in the street. Eventually, it comes to light that the villagers must sacrifice a young virgin to the Templar Knights (this time back with their ghostly galloping mounts) every night, for seven nights, every seven years -- in order to evade the murderous wrath of the Blind Dead! When the doctor and his wife try to interfere in the sacrificial rites and give sanctuary to a young girl in their own home, the spectral horsemen unleash their fury on the village.
One might ask why the bad-tempered villagers hang around and simply accept the sacrifice of their prettiest girls, but then it's probably no more outlandish than many traditions I suppose! This final film goes out with a bang and features more cheap gore than all of the other three combined. Among the most memorable scenes are those that depict the remains of the Blind Dead's victims being devoured by flesh-eating crabs! I've no idea if these are meant to be zombie crabs -- it seems rather an unusual diet for such creatures! But, in any-case, it is certainly fitting, since the crabs move as slowly as the Templars do! Once again, Abril's score and stock scenes from the first film provide a consistent atmosphere, and again, the Blind Dead back-story is completely different: the Templars now worship a stone occultist idol -- brought back from their travels in the Orient -- which gives them eternal life for as long as they feed it the blood of the sacrificed villagers' daughters every seven years! The main body of the film is taken up with the siege at the doctor's house which, along with the hostility from the locals experienced by the "foreigners", and the coastal setting, gives this entry in the series rather a "Straw Dogs" feel. The scenes of the Blind Dead on the rampage are as evocative as ever, especially when they finally invade the doctor's home, and although things end on a positive note, with the Dead's power neutralised by the destruction of their idol, the girl who is initially rescued by the doctor still ends up meeting a sticky end!
Arriving hot on the heels of the US boxed-set from Blue Underground, Anchor Bay UK's set features the same transfers and most of the extras, the majority of which can be found on a fifth disc of special features. Each disc is available individually or as part of the box set; the extras disc though, is only available as part of the set. You won't get the coffin-shaped box cover with this release, but you still do get the full colour 40-page booklet written by Nigel J. Burrell. The transfers aren't the best that Blue Underground have produced, but these films still look pretty decent overall, despite some print damage here and there. Anchor Bay UK have also added fairly good 5.1 Surround Sound and DTS options as well as the original Stereo 2.0 track! The film discs themselves only really include trailers and photo galleries as extras (although "Tombs of the Blind Dead" does include the "Return to Planet Ape" alternative title sequence). The fifth disc of special features includes one half-hour Spanish produced documentary which gives a good summery of Amando de Ossorio's career and explains the background to the Spanish horror boom and the men behind it during the late sixties/early seventies. Then, we also have a ten minute interview with the director who gives his own personal account of the making of these films. Biographical texts on some of the stars and the director himself, and an article on de Ossorio and his legacy written soon after his death, can be accessed by DVD ROM.
The good news is that this set can be purchased for nearly half the price of the Region 1 set. The bad news is that, unfortunately, the BBFC have been at work again on the first film in the series and have enforced sixteen seconds of cuts from a rape scene. Also, while the R1 set includes both Spanish and English cuts of the first two films and Spanish and English audio tracks for all four films, licensing issues mean that with the UK set, we only get the Spanish cuts of the first two films (with Spanish audio and English subtitles) and only the English audio options for the third and fourth films. This will undoubtedly deter the hard core Blind Dead fans from picking up this set -- but if you're curious about the strange world of Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead and have never seen these films before, then this release is still a worthwhile addition to any budding Euro-horror fan's collection!