If you're a fan of 70s and 80s Euro-horror, you're probably already familiar with these films. I know a lot of people diss them for their at times, shall we say deliberate pacing, but to me there are some great scares, amazing atmosphere, loads of blood, quite a few boobs, and, of course, the mummified remains of the Knights Templar who return from the dead in each film – albeit for different reasons, to be dispatched, or not, in different ways. The lack of consistency is my only real gripe with these films – well, that and the model galleon in the third one, but the less said about that, the better… Moving the goalposts in each film? Why not just invent new bad guys? By the way – the Templars aren't addressed as Templars to begin with, they are referred to as the "Warriors from the Orient" or "Warriors from the East", just a small point, but I'll be calling them Templars regardless, because that is quite obviously who they are meant to be.
|Director: Amando de Ossorio
Starring: Lone Fleming, Cesar Burner, Maria Elena Arpon, Jose Thelman; Tony Kendall, Fernando Sancho, Esperanza Roy, Frank Brana, Jose Canaleias; Maria Perschy, Jack Taylor, Barbara Rey, Carlos Lemos, Manuel de Blas, Blanca Estrada; Victor Petit, Maria Kosty, Sandra Mozarowsky, Jose Antonio Calvo
I'm getting ahead of myself. The fine people at Blue Underground have put together an excellent box set (shaped like a coffin, no less!) of these four films (English language and Spanish language versions), plus a disc with interviews and such with the late Amando de Ossorio (director of these four films), plus you get a forty page booklet as well. It's certainly value for money. And by the way, might I suggest you watch the first two films in the Spanish versions with English subtitles, so that you spare yourself the censored versions, and get the wonderful uncut nastiness instead.
I've mentioned what I consider to be a perceived lack of consistency in the Templar cycle, but I guess you could also see them as different takes on the same idea – different attempts at telling the same story. And really, when it gets down to it, they are good films and (with special reference to the first one) deserving of a far wider audience than horror-obsessed nerds like myself.
Tombs of the Blind Dead
I kind of look at these films as being the Spanish cousins to Romero's Dead films, but for the better part without the social commentary. The Templars aren't Uncle George's gut-munching zombie shamblers, but the oppressive almost claustrophobic nature of the films – especially this one – is quite similar. Ditto the inescapable nature of your imminent and horrible demise…
Virginia and Bet, two schoolgirl chums who haven't seen each other in a while, meet poolside with Virginia's friend Roger and decide to spend a pleasant weekend in the countryside (great line of dialogue while on the train: "Speaking of air, have you got some cream?" What?!). A bit of flirting ensues between Roger and Bet, Virginia can't take it and fucks off into the countryside – you could never convince me to leap from a moving train, but there you go… Oh, and the much vaunted flashback of a lesbian encounter between Virginia and Bet while at boarding school? It consists of Bet sliding a hand up Virginia's thigh – pretty tame stuff as far as this reviewer is concerned. Not even any boobs! I love my Euro-sleaze, and I like it a little stronger than this…
Anyhoo, Virginia, looking quite the hottie in her short shorts and tied off shirt decides to spend the evening in a ruined abbey in Berzano with the Blind Dead, not that she really has any say in their presence - you know how these things happen.
I've read stuff by detractors of this series spouting specious nonsense about how the Templars have scrawny hands, and don't really possess any real sense of menace – what fuckin' movies were these guys watching? To me they are genuinely eerie, and the sequence where they come out of their graves and riding out of the tombs (repeated in other films in the series) possesses real power and atmosphere, strengthened by the sound effects and that chanting... And the slow motion galloping towards their victims? To me it's the footfall of doom as much as the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. Excellent camerawork and the soundtrack combine brilliantly to produce an evil, bleak atmosphere.
Sorry – tangent – back to the story: we as the audience have the gaps filled in by the superstitious townsfolk and the dudes driving the train – it's a film scenario as old as the Universal version of Dracula. The locals are terrified of the deserted monastery, and any mention of it practically sends them into paroxysms of fright. But, in the grand tradition of foolhardy horror movie characters, Roger and Bet head off to find out what happened to Virginia, at the same time as the police, but as ineptly as you'd expect in a Euro-trash film. I was waiting for Jess Franco to appear at one point…
Can I stop at this moment and point out that the cinematography in this film is superb. De Ossorio knew exactly what the fuck he was doing. While the editing might not be as tight as a Romero, Argento, or (dare I say it) Fulci film, Tombs of the Blind Dead looks the business. The early scenes with Virginia at the ruined monastery are fantastic.
I don't want to spoil this film for those who haven't seen it. Let me just say from this point we get a whole bunch of events familiar to the horror fan – the disbelieving police (you can't blame them for their scepticism considering the case for the supernatural is being backed by a totally inappropriate morgue attendant who likes to torment small animals and looks like a retarded Alan Ormsby – would you believe a bearded pervert?), the history of the bad guys revealed through a dry as bone expository sequence, the Night of the Living Dead stand-off against desperate odds in a lonely place, the twist at the end (which makes the rather confusing opening scene suddenly make sense) – you know the drill.
This film stands out in the cycle for having the victims of the blood-sucking Templars come back to life as the thirsty for bodily fluids undead themselves, an idea De Ossorio seems to have abandoned immediately afterwards. So, it's zombie/vampire/mummy fun for all – but while it's tremendously entertaining to watch the Templars kill anyone who intrudes on the monastery, we're never really sure why they do it. Being on their turf seems to be enough – in later films there are more substantial reasons.
Return of the Evil Dead
So in the first film, they're vampiric mummies, often thought to be zombies. In this film they're…what the fuck are they? Spoilers abound, kids.
So basically, in this film the Blind Dead are called back, rather than rising of their own volition, by this retard peeping Tom called Murdo, who's taking revenge on the town of Berzano – y'know, mass slaughter and carnage by undead killers is kind of heavy-handed in the revenge stakes for being pelted with rocks by a bunch of pre-teens. (Poor treatment of the bewildered and confused is a major plot point of Night of the Seagulls as well – those wacky Spaniards just don't like mentals!) Oddly enough, Murdo becomes a kind of hero by the end of the film, holed up, surrounded by Templars – although he pays for his misdeeds by being decapitated, a fate common to victims of the Blind Dead.
Jack, our square-jawed hero, is initially in charge of fireworks for a town festival, and we can see that there is some kind of history between him and the Mayor's bit of tottie. By the end of the film, his back-story is revealed and he's leading a rag-tag bunch of rather frightened folks barricaded in a church from the Blind Dead. Cue Night of the Living Dead scenario. Again. And that's pretty much about it.
Seriously, this film has even less of a plot than the first one, and is even more of a Night of the Living Dead rip-off. Although the Romero-esque political element (if it's intended) is limited to the fundamentally unlikeable authority figure – the Mayor. Let's face facts: it's difficult to put any kind of trust in or have any sympathy for a fella who tries to sacrifice a five-year old girl to save his own oily hide…oooh, what a terrible cunt.
Even though it's almost totally plot-free, it's still a good, enjoyable film. The set-pieces, while not exactly memorable, are still commendable; the Templars, all gaping sockets, withered hands, wispy beards and rotting surcoats are still eerie as hell (not to mention homicidal) – this time locating their victims via the sound of their heartbeat, which was a nice touch, I thought; the score is still unsettling; the atmosphere tense – until the amazingly anti-climactic ending. Dawn breaks, and the Templars just keel over. Not so much of a threat, then. But maybe that's just me nitpicking.
The Ghost Galleon
My only gripe with this film would be some of the more aquatic special effects – the underwater shots of the coffins having been flung overboard, for example, look about as convincing as if someone painted up some Tic-Tac boxes and dropped them into their garden pond. And the galleon itself? When it goes up in flames, looking as though it was an Airfix model doused in kerosene set alight in a bathtub, the special effects are so awful it gave me cancer of the eyes. That being said, it's not a bad film, but the aforesaid effects do render it one of the weaker ones in the series.
How has De Ossorio re-envisioned the Blind Dead saga in this much maligned film? Simple: take them out of Berzano, and put 'em in a boat. Sporting goods magnate Howard Tucker (the reliably bad Jack Taylor) has sent a couple of pretty young models out on a motorboat on the high seas as part of an advertising campaign (I'm still not too sure how this was meant to work), and they run across the galleon containing the Blind Dead. When radio contact is predictably lost, Tucker and an extremely motley crew (a model, a professor, a henchman, and a modelling agent – hardly your dream team when up against the unstoppable force of the Templars) go looking for the girls. You can tell what happens next.
Again, it's a kind of siege scenario, with the Templars being repelled time and again, before they're consigned to a much more watery (if temporary) grave. One of the downsides of sleeping in a coffin, I guess.
Predictability of the plot aside, it is still an eerie piece of work at times, and does possess a kind of Romero-style claustrophobia. The galleon itself, when not seen in a long shot, is pretty darn spooky – the mist, the creaking ropes and timbers, the knowledge that you're trapped on a boat with the murderous Knights. And the scene where the Templars come out of the sea, eye sockets leaking water – now that's creepy.
I do like the fact that De Ossorio tried to mix up the whole Blind Dead series with the idea that this time the punishment meted out to the Templars was to be consigned to drift forever on the sea. It got them out of Berzano, and meant that we didn't get that footage from Tombs of the Blind Dead of them coming out of the graves again. But I do have to take umbrage at the sweater he put Jack Taylor in – I mean, the moustache was bad enough, but the sweater…jeez.
Night of the Seagulls
This is probably the weakest in the series. Some good sequences, certainly, but overall, meh…
We start off back in the day, with the Templars happily sacrificing some young lovely to their fish-god (you read that correctly; four movies in and they still haven't established in concrete why the knights do what they do) – but from there it's a bit of a snooze-fest. We leap to the future (ie the present) and to a young doctor and his wife, who completely fail to inspire any kind of sympathy whatsoever, moving into the town where it all happened. Blah, Templars, blah, doctor and wife treated as outsiders by the gruff and uncommunicative townsfolk, blah, slow motion camerawork, blah, desperate last-ditch stand-off, blah, definite end to the series.
As a story it's all a bit lack-lustre, and the dialogue is worse. Even the actors seem a bit embarrassed when expounding the links between the deaths and the seagulls. The villagers of Berzano sacrifice young women to the Templars on a regular basis, in order to prevent the Templars from riding through town, running riot. The young women end up chained to the sacrificial rock Clash Of The Titans-style awaiting the Templars, who drag them off before they have their hearts torn out and fed to the fish-god, their blood is drunk by the knights and their flesh devoured by crabs.
That's right: crabs.
No one in movie history has ever risen imperiously from their throne, adjusted their robes for maximum regality, summoned their henchmen and, pointing at the quivering malcontent, roared, "Guards! Throw him to the crabs!" Because crabs aren't a source of menace. It'd be like being threatened by Dr Zoidberg.
And they certainly aren't menacing here. One interesting cultural point is that yet again, we get to see the Spanish mistreating mentals. Strikes me as something odd that De Ossorio would put this into two films in the same series.
In terms even of being a genre film, this is weak stuff. If you watch this more than once, I'd be amazed. There are some good moments, but frankly they're pretty few and far between. A bit of a pity that this was the Templars' last hurrah.