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Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

Who are these unholy savages who hunt out their victims by sound alone?

In the 13th century, there existed a legion of evil knights known as the Templars who conducted black magic rituals and drank virgin’s blood in their quest for eternal life. Executed for their crimes, the Templars were left for the crows to peck out their eyes. In 1970s Portugal, a group of people stumble upon an abandoned Templar monastery, reviving the unholy knights in their quest for eternal life.

 

Anchor Bay has become a staple ingredient of any horror fans’ DVD collection. The company has restored and released many long last classics here in the UK, some great, others not so hot. It’s with great pleasure that the company has now released an excellent five-disc collection of a European horror franchise I knew nothing about – that of The Blind Dead. Four films featuring the unholy Templar Knights were made by Amando de Ossorio and the set contains all of them, restored to their former glory and released for the first time. I’m so glad they did because any horror fan can’t call themselves that unless they’ve seen at least one of these classics.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is oozing atmosphere right from the get-go and relies in this throughout its running time to cover over plot and script weaknesses. Maybe it’s the chilling Gregorian chant soundtrack which gets the blood freezing. Or maybe it’s the really eerie monastery in the village in which the film is set. Or maybe it’s the sight of the undead Templars slowly stalking and searching for their victims knowing that they won’t stop. Once they’re after you, there’s no stopping them and they’ll keep coming. Director Amando de Ossorio has managed to create his own brand of screen monsters with their own mythology and it’s a credit to him that the Templar Knights come off as so scary and credible as they do.

It’s not easy making new monsters stick on the screen but the Templars are so unique in their appearance (at least for 1972) that it’s hard not to forget about them. The make-up effects job on them is excellent with their skeletal visages shrouded in old, worn robes. They move slowly because they hunt by sound (as their eyes were pecked out) which makes them even more deadly than one would expect. You may try and keep quiet but as the film shows, there’s no slowing down your heart beats and pulse rate and this is just like a homing beacon to them. Like lingering zombies, they stumble around in search of blood. You certainly wouldn’t want to get anywhere near these monsters. The resurrection sequence with the Templars rising from their graves is superb, with rotting hands sticking out from the ground and moving tombstones to escape their earthly imprisonment. Whenever they ride on their undead horses, Ossorio opts to slow the film right down and make it almost-silent, giving the horses a horrific phantom element with the only sounds coming from the hooves of their feet clopping off the ground.

Unfortunately Ossorio also drags the rest of the film down to this slow pace and it’s like watching paint dry at times. The first half of the film is excruciatingly dull. Some scenes drag on for ages, including Virginia’s exploration of the town. And like many monster films, it really drags when the Templars aren’t on the screen. The acting isn’t hot (the dubbed version is horrid) and the film is really weak on story apart from the Templar mythology. There’s a fair bit of gore on display (although not as much as I was expecting), some flesh and an underlying theme of sadism with rape and a flashback sequence of a sacrifice adding to its nasty tone.

Thankfully, the final third of the film when the Templars rise is excellent. It’s basically one long sustained scene in which they hunt down and kill the visitors before following one survivor to a passing train where they board and attack the passengers (no one is spared in this scene, even the small child!). It’s a suitably dark and nightmarish ending which just tops the film off the way it should – not some happy go-lucky, everyone is safe, we survived ending.

 

Minor quibbles aside, Tombs of the Blind Dead is a visual and atmospheric shocker from Spain which pulls no punches with its ability to strike terror into the audience. The Templar Knights are easily one of the greatest horror icons to come out of cinema since the early days of the Wolfman and Frankenstein. Tombs of the Blind Dead is essential viewing.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Jack the Ripper (1976)

Jack the Ripper (1976)

Close your eyes and whisper his name…

By day, Dr Orloff is a respected physician helping the less-than-fortunate patients who flock to him in 19th century London. But by night, he is Jack the Ripper, a deranged killer who murders prostitutes. Scotland Yard are baffled and the Chief Inspector allows his girlfriend to step in as bait to trap the killer once and for all.

 

Apart from using the name of Jack the Ripper, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to do with the real murders in this rather sleazy outing from notorious exploitation director Jess Franco. Re-writing the Ripper’s history? Making a sequel to the original Ripper murders? Cashing in on the name of Jack the Ripper? Whatever the director had in mine for this flick, he certainly never intended it to be historically accurate so any Ripper purists will be best advised to skip this. However Franco revels in his usual perverted, sordid and violent approach to the subject matter by creating arguably one of his most well-made films.

The plot is actually coherent enough to keep the film going even though there’s no mystery in the film to uncover. Right from the opening scene we’re shown who the Ripper is – this is a bit of a shame because the film can’t go down the ‘whodunit’ route. Once the audience know who the killer is, it’s up to the rest of the characters in the film to play catch up. This cuts out any potential interest we have in the murder mystery side of the story as we wait impatiently for the characters to finally surmise who is doing the killing. The script doesn’t do the film any favours with this surprising choice either. You’d have thought that since we know who the killer is, the film may spend the time it’s saved on keeping his identity secret by delving a little deeper into his psyche. But the Ripper doesn’t get too fleshed out as a character. We know his mother was a prostitute and this is why he targets them for death. We never really get into his head. The script assumes that the scraps we’re given about his past will be enough to tide us over. All he pretty much does in the film is kill, rape and run away. Without the ‘whodunit’ and without any real character development, a lot of the film is sluggish because there’s little to fill up the screen time. At least the film looks good. The Swiss locations double nicely for 19th century London and he gets good mileage out of the traditional fog-drenched streets so associated with the Ripper era.

The film only works whenever Dr Orloff is around, mainly due to the excellent performance from the often-unhinged Klaus Kinski. He adds a touch of class to proceedings as the Ripper and his odd, piercing facial expressions certainly give the character a more unusual edge than your regular murderer. The anger, the menace and the evil that Kinski can convey with his eyes is fantastic. It’s like the guy is always thinking about killing someone, even when he’s supposed to be playing it straight during the day as a good-natured doctor. He plays both sides of his mental state well.

I can’t discuss a Franco film without covering his usual obsession with sadism and sexuality. Sex and violence usually go hand-in-hand in Franco’s films and there’s no better example of it than here. The Ripper has a tendency to rip off his victim’s clothes before killing them and then he usually has sex with them after they are dead or dying. The murders are bloody and brutal as Franco loves letting the camera linger over the carnage. This Ripper is intent on not only killing his victims but literally ripping them apart with his knife. His frenzied attacks are chilling and all played out in graphic detail.

 

Jack the Ripper isn’t the best film based on the notorious murderer but it may be the most violent. It’s not classy and it’s not factual but what you’d come to expect from a man like Franco at the helm – nudity, gore and violence.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Seagulls (1975)

Night of the Seagulls (1975)

For seven nights every seven years, the Templar Knights rise from the dead to claim their sacrificial offerings from a fishing village in return for the safety of the rest of the townspeople. When a new doctor and his wife move to the village, they are ignored by the locals. But when night falls, an eerie distant bell rings and a flock of seagulls hovers around the beach at midnight, the doctor and his wife stumble upon the secret the villagers have.

 

The final instalment in the Blind Dead series, Night of the Seagulls once again pulls out the stops to create a moody, effective piece which sends the deadly Templar Knights off on a high. It’s briskly paced with quite a lean running time and once again assumes that the viewer hasn’t seen any of the other films by reworking the origins of the Knights so that although it’s the third sequel, it’s almost a standalone film more akin to something like The Wicker Man.

Night of the Seagulls adds nothing of real note to the series though and just slaps together the series’ trademarks of gore, nudity and a truly haunting atmosphere with a rather flimsy story which doesn’t do the Templars justice at all and gives them little reason to be in the film. The Templars aren’t on screen for that long and the residents of the fishing village have become the villains of the piece here, acting as generic horror film locals who fear outsiders and cast them aside (you know the type, The Wicker Man, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.).

However when the Templars do appear, they are once again the highlight of the film. There is a highly effective siege sequence where they surround and then break into a house before fighting with the survivors inside. And there are plenty of slow motion scenes of them riding on horseback along the beach in pursuit of their nubile virgin sacrifices. They look as crusty and decomposed as always which really ups their creep factor. You never believe for a moment that these are simply men in costumes – they are zombie knights looking for blood. Their whole aurora is awesome – right from the sounds that they make to the slow, lumbering way they turn and just the whole sense that you can’t escape them despite their obviously limited speed. They are truly unique horror creations and it’s a real pity that they haven’t become as iconic or famous as Romero’s zombie hordes.

As I’ve already said, one of the trademarks of this series is atmosphere and Night of the Seagulls reeks of it. The day-for-night scenes of the beach sacrifices have a dream-like quality to them as if they’re not really happening. The white beaches contrast immensely with the procession of black robe-wearing villagers and then the horse-riding Templar Knights. I honestly can’t really pick too many faults with this film. I think the only main problem is that it tones down on the gore and nudity from the previous films which is a shame considering some of the virgins sacrificed are way too hot to be left that way! I guess the obviously toned-down budget had a lot to do with what they had to cut back on and unfortunately the most expensive things were the things that made the other films so successful – namely plenty of Templar action and lots of blood. And it does take a while to get going but like many similar-themed horror flicks, the pay-off is well worth the wait.

 

Night of the Seagulls is a strong final showing for the Templar Knights. It’s a brooding horror flick which delivers the goods with both jumpy visual shocks and more spine-tingling moments. Although not a patch on the original couple of films, it’s still a quality sequel to a series which really does deserve a lot more respect and fame than it gets.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆