La Noche del terror ciego

(Tombs of the Blind Dead, Spain/Portugal - 1971)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Lone Fleming, Cesar Burner, Maria Elena Arpon, Jose Thelman, Rufino Ingles, Veronica Llimera
Genre: Horror
Director: Amando de Ossorio
Screenplay: Amando de Ossorio & Jesus Navarro Carrion
Cinematography: Pablo Ripoll
Composer: Anton Garcia Abril

The combination of the easing of censorship regulations and horror films returning to vogue in the early 1970’s led to most everyone trying to cash in by simply sexing up old genre staples such as vampires and werewolves. One of the most original works of the period came from Spanish writer-director Amando de Ossorio, who reenvisioned the Templar Knights - a debunked western Christian military order pivotal to the Crusades who fell out of favor after the loss of the Holy Land and were tortured until they were burned at the stake due to their forced confession - as succeeding in their quest for eternal life to the point their new master Satan reincarnated them. They move at a snail’s pace as they are muertos sin ojos, literally dead without eyes, the mythological reason changing in each of the four Blind Dead entries, in this case they were left on the stake so long the crows picked their eyes out. The loss of one sense renders their others keener, the undead hunting by sound to the point they can hone in on a beating heart if it’s quiet enough. They would be easy to outrun if not for their ability to summon their ghostly steeds at will.

Though the first sequel Return of the Blind Dead owes much to George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead with a small group of villagers holed up in a church bickering amongst themselves and conspiring to abandon and betray everyone else who isn’t in the room to save their own skin, it’s important to note the Templar Knights aren’t simply mindless zombies. In fact, de Ossorio protested this narrow and confining definition, insisting their withered and decayed physical appearance was more similar to mummies, but more importantly they were intelligent predators.

Due to de Ossorio actually doing something original, the clueless U.S. distributors had no idea how to market the movie. Their solution was to add a riotous prologue positioning the Blind Dead as apes returning not simply from the dead, but more importantly from the Planet of the Apes to wreak havoc on the humanoids. It apparently wasn’t enough that Franklin J. Schaffner’s quality film had already been soiled by three real shitty sequels - Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with an even more anemic trifecta quickly forthcoming – we also need to poorly reedit good zombie mummy films to ape the popular trend of the time.

Though I doubt anyone would dare market it as such, the success of Tombs of the Blind Dead actually owes less to its original cool killers and far more to de Ossorio’s ability to channel Michelangelo Antonioni’s knack for spending enough time showing nature and desolate architecture our mind renders it abstractly. Roger Corman understood the horror potential of a decaying shabby Abbey in Tomb of Ligeia, but still failed to really capitalize on it. While a good film, certainly one of Corman’s better ones, he continued to primarily rely upon his traditional colorful studio atmospherics. Tombs of the Blind Dead has a dash of Mario Bava’s lush chamber bravura, but more importantly the film is among the best horrors at profiting from stillness and quiet, seeming tranquility. Combining the lack of human presence in recent times with de Ossorio’s painterly pacing and the absence of a plot to distract us from the terror of the unknown, de Ossorio allows our own mind to scare us. It’s the horror of the mysteriously abandoned rendered through lengthy takes mixed with the creepiness of the lurking crane shots that slowly consume us, filling our heads with a palpable sense of dread. Though not in the class with Bruno Dumont’s later masterpiece Twentynine Palms, the films are similar in that the horror largely lies in the anticipation of something bad happening.

The influence of Antonioni’s L’Avventura is obvious in what little plot exists, as a disappearance in a seemingly abandoned area sets the movie in motion. As is the case with many genre films, the material doesn’t live up to the artistry. The story revolves around the accidental reacquaintance of Virginia White (Maria Elena Arpon) with her old school confidant, best friend, and lesbian lover Betty Turner (Lone Fleming). Though Virginia is on vacation with Roger Whelan (Cesar Burner), he quickly invites Betty to join them on tomorrow’s camping trip, the duo flirting openly in between Roger’s assertions he and Virginia are just friends.

Quickly tired of their triffling, Virginia abandons the train and walks through a wide open field until she stumbles upon the dilapidated graveyard. This lengthy nearly silent sequence shows de Ossorio at his finest, teasing trouble through the words of the venerable train conductor but depicting a very able Virginia setting up her own campsite amidst the ruins. Few filmmakers have the confidence to try to sustain the audience’s interest during lengthy segments of a lone human, but they are innately intense as whether the outlet is horror or adventure we always expect something bad to happen since they have no safety net.

Anton Garcia Abril’s dense progressive score is crucial to the success of Tombs of the Blind Dead. It’s among the quietest scores in all of horror, done without any rhythm section and with very little repetition. Mixing religious chants, natural sounds such as the wind stirring and birds chirping, and various string and percussion instruments that appear for 1 to 5 notes then disappear, the score is so subtle you don’t discern most of the elements and are hardly aware of the feelings of insecurity it imbues.

Beyond the atmosphere, anticipation sets Tombs of the Blind Dead apart. Most films with stalking killers are deadly boring. I mean, one deserves a medal for sitting through the testament of endurance known as a Friday the 13th sequel, though such levels of masochism greatly exceed the recommended daily requirement. Amando de Ossorio pulls slow off by making the Knights exist apart from time. They creep along at turtles pace, but slow and steady wins the race. Their horseback pursuits are rendered in slow motion, so instead of catching up to the running woman in seconds we dreadfully await the inevitable. Even when a human should temporarily escape, for instance Roger makes it to the Abbey door after a mad dash with minutes to spare only to have the women battle it out over whether to grant him safe passage as the Templar Knights creep ever closer.

De Ossorio rarely allows us to see the whole of his creatures, initially filming shots of hands to withhold the revelation of the monster. In this case, we see skeletal hands opening the ancient tombs from the inside. Later, the groping bones grasp through architecture that’s less protective than the silly humans realize.

De Ossorio’s later films are gorier, though not better for it. Despite being positioned within exploitation genres, their tendency is to deeroticize. Delving into the torture genre that had recently become fashionable, de Ossorio’s mix of sex and violence tends to reveal the breasts of attractive women only to instantly mutilate them (the rubbery prosthetics are about as exciting as what passes for breasts in today’s porn). While his movies are erotic for their textures and moods, even a film such as The Loreley’s Grasp, a kind of variation on the mermaid myth where an eternally youthful sexpot alternately transforms into a reptilian chick shredder who preys on nubile young woman in heat over their new protector, a hunter played by Tony Kendall, is at best minimally stimulating. De Ossorio’s creatures tend to be in the vein of vampires in that they murder solely for their own renewal, for eternal immortality, but rather than being a metaphor for sex they seem to instead demythologize it by making us recoil from what we desire.



* Copyright 2008 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *