Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

The Movie: Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon, credited here as Helen Harp) is out swimming one day when she runs into Betty (Lone Fleming), who she was friends with at school. Virginia introduces Betty to Roger (Cesar Burner), the man she has recently started seeing, and the troubles begin. Betty and Roger are obviously attracted to each other from the beginning, and his relationship with Virginia is still in the early stages. In fact, Roger insists to Betty that he doesn’t have anything serious with Virginia and invites her to join them the next day on the weekend they’ll be taking in the countryside. This, of course, makes Virginia even more uncomfortable. On the train, while Virginia is thinking about her time in school with Betty, a flashback reveals to us in the audience that the two girls have a more than platonic history. So, is Virginia jealous of Betty for Roger? Roger for Betty? Both? Does she even know? If this were a different movie Roger would have a ménage a trois in his future; but instead, probably more realistically, Virginia decides she can’t handle the sexual tension anymore. She hops the train and starts walking toward the creepy ruined monastery in the distance that the conductor told her was the closest thing to civilization for miles around.

The engineer’s argument with his son (who stokes the engine) over whether to stop and get her back, and his insistence that she’s as good as dead, does not bode well for Virginia. Neither does the place itself. The ruins have this real sinister vibe; and even though this is supposed to be a monastery, those aren’t Christian crosses on the graves, they’re Egyptian ankhs. Nevertheless, figuring she doesn’t have much of a choice, Virginia settles in.

That night, as darkness falls and Virginia is bedding down, a mysterious bell rings. That is the signal for those strangely marked graves to open up and their inhabitants to emerge. Said inhabitants are hideous, skeletal figures dressed in the remains of medieval knight armor. They home in on the sound of Virginia’s radio and attack. It quickly becomes apparent that they move fairly aimlessly; until Virginia screams. Whenever she does that, they automatically become more focused. Somehow, Virginia manages to escape the room and steal one of their horses. Unfortunately, they prove to be much better equestrians. The skeletal knights knock Virginia off her horse and descend on her en mass.

At the end of the weekend, Betty and Roger are a little worried about not having heard from Virginia. They ask the hotel staff about Berzano, the ruins they last saw Virginia headed towards; but all they are able to learn is that the locals are terrified of the place, believing it to be haunted by some evil, and that the hotel staff aren’t supposed to talk about it. However, they rent some horses and ride out to the ruins. It’s not a good sign when the horses run off in terror. Once there, Betty and Roger discover Virginia’s things, and two police officers. Virginia’s body was discovered a little way from the railroad tracks, drained of blood and covered in bite marks. Human bite marks. The cops take the couple back to town for questioning, and to identify the body.

When Betty returns to work at the small mannequin factory that she owns, she learns a little bit more about Berzano from her assistant, Nina (Veronica Llimera), who grew up in a nearby village. Nina explains that the place was owned by the Knights Templar, and that they are supposed to haunt the place after nightfall. However, the full story is learned when Betty and Roger consult Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) a noted medieval historian.

Professor Candal explains that the Knights Templar came back from the Holy Lands with, among other things, knowledge of a blood ritual that granted immortality. They terrorized the area for a while, but the locals finally had enough of their virgins disappearing and rose up. The Templers were executed for heresy and strung up where the birds could peck out their eyes. Unfortunately, their immortality ritual worked, and so they continue to haunt the region in search of blood to keep on living.

After this is explained, a cop appears to tell the professor that his son, Pedro (Jose Thelman, credited as Joseph Thelman) has become a suspect in Virginia’s death. He leads a group of smugglers in the area, and the cop’s suspect that stunts like Virginia’s murder are performed to scare people away. Our couple seeks Pedro out, and determine that odious human being though he might be, he isn’t a killer. They convince him and his girlfriend, Maria (Maria Silva), to join them on an expedition to see what really happens at Berzano at night. That night, Virginia’s body rises from the slab, kills the morgue attendant, and then heads over to Bette’s factory (which happens to be right next door to the morgue) to stalk Nina. Meanwhile, our little expedition is on hand to witness the Templers rise from their graves…

The Review: Tombs of the Blind Dead was among my very first real introductions to the eurohorror of the 1970s. I had read about it online, and was eager to see it for myself. I will admit that at my first view, I really wasn’t sure what I thought of it. By that time I had seen plenty of American style horror movies, and this was something very different. While a bit more streamlined and coherent than its brethren, Tombs still tends to work more on style and atmosphere than it does on plot or characters. That can turn viewers of the more conventional, Hollywood-style movies off; and judging by his reaction I know it has at least one friend I loaned my copy to.

First of all, if you’re used to the near constant adrenalin fueled jump-scares Hollywood uses in all its recent movies, then Tombs is going to feel really slow for you. It creeps along and builds up to its few big scares. Also, while there is blood, there is none of the elaborate gore most people associate with horror these days.

Likewise, the plot, as in so many films of this subgenre, tends to be full of holes you could drive a semi through. Getting the characters over to Berzano often takes having them act in blatantly stupid ways. Okay, the first time around Virginia is definitely upset, and strong emotion prompts everyone to do really stupid things sometimes. When Betty and Roger arrive for the first time they have legitimate reason; they’re worried about Virginia, they feel guilty about their part in her turmoil, and as of yet they have no real reason to suspect there’s anything wrong out there. However, the final trip out to the Berzano for the movie’s climax, really? Your friend died in a truly horrible way, so that even if you don’t actually believe the stories about the undead Templers, you know for sure that something awful has happened there; and you’re still going out there at night without any real backup or telling anybody where you’ve gone? And to top it off, you’re doing it with a man you’ve just met, but who you know is a criminal.

That last part leads to the movie’s most tasteless and objectionable scene. In short, Pedro talks Betty into taking a walk with him, and then comes on to her. When she tells him she’s a lesbian, he rapes her. Firstly there’s just the horrible crassness of the setup; I’m firmly of the opinion that if the only way you can think of to show some bare boobs in your movie is to shoehorn in a rape scene, you really have a problem. However, on top of that I’ve seen several of Amondo de Ossorio’s movies, and this is not the only one of them that features the theme of lesbians being raped by men. Obviously, the guy had some major issues. Fortunately, it’s a very small part of the movie.

The final major plot issue in Tombs that I’d like to address is Virginia’s resurrection. Based on the back-story we’re given, it really doesn’t make much sense. Also, it only comes up in Virginia’s case, and is never addressed again. I’ve read some other web reviews that have summed up the issue by addressing it from the Templers’ point of view: “So, I spent all this time and effort learning the secrets of immortality, and lost my sight in the process, and now everybody I bite is equally immortal? What a rip-off!”

Where Tombs of the Blind Dead does work, however, is in the horror scenes themselves. Despite all its flaws, Tombs ultimately works, like the majority of the best eurohorror, as the triumph of style over substance. The ruined castle used for Berzano, for example is a great place to start. Europe is full of abandoned castles, and as such European directors, particularly low budget ones, have often utilized them as set pieces. As I believe I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the atmosphere of these places is such that even the most incompetent of moviemakers seem unable to completely take away from them. However, Ossorio displays a talent for aptly employing the inherent creepiness of the ruins. The camera shots of Berzano convey to the viewers that this is, indeed, a very bad place for mere mortals.

Likewise, the soundtrack is amazingly effective. The background theme is a deceptively simple Gregorian chant, played at an unsettling tone, and interspaced with screams. Along with that are Ossorio’s use of sound effects throughout; the doleful tolling of the unseen bell that announces the Templers’ rise from their graves, the clack of the train on the tracks, to name but two examples.

The scene where Virginia stalks Nina at the mannequin factory, while problematic plot-wise, is extremely effective in and of itself. First of all, early on Betty’s factory is established as an unsettling place. First of all, there’s just something unsettling about mannequins and their resemblance to living people (or dismembered body parts as the case may be); and Ossorio takes full advantage of that. On top of it, the lighting is established to be screwy; early on Betty explains to Roger that on the floor above is a place that makes and tests neon signs. The actual stalking sequence is very well done, and combined with the unsettling location it produces a scene straight out of a nightmare.

But the most effective element of the movie is the blind Templers themselves. First of all they just look nightmarish; they’re basically rotting skeletons, with just enough skin to retain the remains of facial hair, dressed in rotting chainmail and moldering cloaks. The way they move is also disturbing; a slow, shuffling gait, but one with a definite intelligent menace. On top of that is their obvious blindness; and how any noise, even the smallest, causes them to descend upon the source with a determined and obvious purpose. Even the scenes where they’re riding horseback, though shot in slow motion, come across as disturbingly majestic.

And the Templers don’t just look terrifying, either. Watching them in action, it’s clear just how outmatched the human characters are. Even their most glaring weakness, their blindness, is shown to not be a major hurdle for them. After all, what good is being still and quiet when they can still hear the beating of your terror-stricken heart? And the climax and denouement, where this horror that’s been festering in an out of the way location for so long is inadvertently brought back to civilization; it’s something that really sticks in your mind.

So in conclusion, Tombs of the Blind Dead is nothing like the Hollywood horror films you’re probably used to. Also, it does have its flaws. However, overall, there is a reason many people consider it a classic of the genre.