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11 September, 2010

“The Best [Euro-Horror] Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen”

For fans of European Horror Films, Amando De Ossorio is one of the legendary directors of the sub-genre.  Not as well-known as Fulci or Argento, not as prolific as Franco or as talented as Bava, he nonetheless is remembered as one of the greatest European film-makers ever, based solely on his iconic creations, the Knights Templars of the BLIND DEAD series of films.
Beginning in 1971, with the release of LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO  ~aka~  TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, a unique form of undead menace graced the screens of theaters and Drive-Ins in Europe and North America.  While similar in style to the Romero Zombie-Verse of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, De Ossorio’s Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, flesh-eating Knights of the Egyptian Cross were in a class all alone.  Evil in life, they became even more so after death, chasing down victims on gray-black spectral chargers, hunting them down by the sound of their beating hearts.
Based on the historical Crusaders known as Knights Templars, De Ossorio’s version, to put it mildly, deviates significantly from the historical record.  These Knights are a cult of Devil-worshippers, executed for their crimes, blinded so they could not threaten people, even after death.  But neither killing nor blinding them kept them from seeking out fresh prey through a series of four films from 1971 to 1975, continuing from the first with EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS  ~aka~  RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD; EL BUQUE MALDITO  ~aka~  THE GHOST GALLEON; and LA NOCHE DE LAS GAVIOTAS  ~aka~  NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS.
While the quality of the series varied from film to film, hitting it’s nadir with the very weak EL BUQUE MALDITO in 1974, it was always stylish and atmospheric, highlighting De Ossorio’s talent as a director and photographer if not as a screenwriter.  The best of the series, at least in my opinion, was 1972’s EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS.  Not only does it retain the stylistic elegance of the first film, but throws in some of the best action scenes of the series, including a suspenseful scene where the survivors of the initial Templar massacre struggle to rescue a young child caught outside with the dead knights.
Now those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I’m a big fan of Euro-Horror, and you probably know why.  The answer is a simple one:  Innovation.
Let’s examine one year, a year that featured the release of several landmark Horror Films—1960.  While Hollywood was churning out such blockbusters as THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN and THE LEECH WOMAN, European film-makers were producing bona-fide classics like ET MOURIR DE PLASIR  ~aka~  BLOOD AND ROSES and LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO  ~aka~  BLACK SUNDAY.  Does that mean there were no good American Horror Films produced that year?  Hardly.  Am I trying to imply that Hollywood was totally incapable of original, innovative Horror?  No, though that statement’s not far from the truth.  One of the greatest, most innovative Horror Films ever made, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, came out in 1960.  THE TIME MACHINE and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER were also excellent 1960 releases, though neither was exceptionally innovative or original.
Innovation, though, is something that Hollywood finds itself unwilling to do.  Whether from fear of failure, or lack of imagination, Hollywood simply cannot get its collective thumb out long enough to come up with an original thought.  While this syndrome has become more pronounced of late, it’s hardly a recent phenomenon, as demonstrated by our look at 1960.
However, European directors felt no such constraints… or if they did, they didn’t let them affect the quality of their work.  Directors like Bava, Argento, Fulci, Rollin, and Franco may not have always been successful, but they made movies that were unmistakably their own, films that stood apart from the common herd.  You may not have liked their work, but you damn sure recognized it as theirs.
De Ossorio was that type of director.  Though his movies have their share of detractors, and his themes left him open to personal attack, (most often describing him as “misogynistic”…) he made the films that he wanted to make, and they were unlike anything else.  From the history he constructed for the Templars, to the distinctive design of their reanimated corpses, even to the unique method of filming the Blind Dead Knights in slow-motion that so effectively imparted a sense of the unreal, an air of supernatural, to the Templars, these films were different.  The combination of these factors, and others, have made these films some of the best of European Horror, even though few Americans are, or rather, were, familiar with them.  And those who have seen them probably saw a heavily edited VHS release, which could hardly convey the true quality of De Ossorio’s work.
That hopefully changed in 2005, when Blue Underground released an absolutely breath-taking boxed set, The Blind Dead Collection.  Beautifully restored to their original release condition, with the original language tracks in place, it’s easy to see just why these films were so highly thought of when they first hit the screens of European cinemas.  By the time they reached the American Drive-Ins and Grindhouses, cuts had already been made that reduced the films’ effectiveness.  The movies were each cut further in order to fit into broadcast slots, as well as making them Television friendly.  Along the way, De Ossorio’s original concepts became so muddied and disguised that in direct comparison, they seem like different films.
And thanks to Blue Underground, that direct comparison, at least for LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO, is easily accomplished.  In addition to the original wide-screen Spanish release of De Ossorio’s masterpiece, they’ve included the edited, dubbed, pan-and-scan U.S. video release in its entirety.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did recently, only made me appreciate the original all the more.  The plot, which seems to make little sense in the edited version, jumps into crystal clarity in the original.  Though I speak not a word of Spanish, the dialogue between the principal characters became far more comprehensible in the original, sub-titled version than in the one where I could actually understand what the actors were saying.
When I say that these are the best Euro-Horror films you’ve never seen, I’m fully aware that many of you probably have seen them; may even have the beat-up, fading VHS’s in your collection, just as I did.  You might even now be composing angry e-mails, ready to inform me just how big a fathead I am.  Fine.  But unless you’ve seen these movies the way they were meant to be seen, the way De Ossorio wanted them to be seen, then just hit that delete button.
Because, unless you have seen them in their original form, they are the best Euro-Horror movies you’ve never seen.

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