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Thursday, March 14, 2013

The People Who Own the Dark (1977) review

THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK 1975 (released in 1977/1980) aka ULTIMO DESEO aka PLANET CIEGO

Alberto de Mendoza (Professor Bill Fulton), Nadiuska (Clara), Paul Naschy (Borne), Maria Perschy (Lily), Julia Saly (Marion), Teresa Gimpera (Berta), Tomas Pico (Victor), Diana Polakov (Tania), Leona Devine (Luna), Antonio Mayans (Vasily), Emiliano Redondo (Dr. Messier), Ricardo Palacios (Dr. Robertson)

Directed by Leon Klimovsky

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

"Dear friends, I welcome you to Villa Amour. Even those who have come for the first time, know what this name signifies... and what shall be offered to them here -- the grand ceremony of pure pleasure. Once here, prejudice, all compassions, conventions, craven doubt shall be put aside. I expect you to be ruthless in the gratification of your desires... so you can be transformed into worthy disciples of our grandmaster, Donatien Alphonse Francois Marquis De Sade."--Maria Perschy as the head madam of a country club style bordello doing introductions before "The Big One" hits.

The Short Version: The plot of this modest little tale of Armageddon is more ambitious than the low budget will allow, yet the performances carry the picture leading up to a surprisingly, and suitably downbeat finale. It's a bizarre Spanish horror-science fiction production with a touch of erotica that never totally satisfies with its peculiar melding of genres. Klimovsky can't deliver the enormous potential the script offers, but periodically the film has a saving grace of morbidity to invigorate the proceedings. The Gothic, hilltop mansion and superb cast aid immeasurably in making this a worthwhile viewing experience, although it will likely find its best audience with diehard Euro genre fans and Paul Naschy devotees. 

A diverse group of wealthy businessmen gather at a secluded, mountaintop mansion that doubles as a bordello for a cult of De Sade worshipers. Meanwhile, a nuclear bomb explodes somewhere in the vicinity leaving the exposed populace blind and gradually descending into madness. Eventually, a mass of these blind maniacs from the nearby village lay siege to the mansion. The survivors fight for their lives to escape the crazies and to escape the contaminated countryside.

Spanish horror strikes again from Leon Klimovsky, who this time graces his film with shades of science fiction paranoia in the spirit of such productions as THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) and a dash of the Disaster movies that dotted the decade. But while those epic cataclysm pictures featured a dozen or so big Hollywood names, Klimovsky's movie features many recognizable faces from Euro genre cinema in a minor tale of pseudo Armageddon.

The holocaust in question is the "aftermath" of a nuclear blast. It's hinted at during a phone conversation at the beginning between Professor Fulton (De Mendoza) and a colleague. But when the disaster actually takes place, there's nary a sign of devastation save for the white, burned eye sockets of the two maids and everyone in the village below (in an apparent budget saving move, only the two maids are seen bearing bleached white eyes while everyone else wears sunglasses or have their eyes covered). Wherever the actual blast took place, the aftershock has somehow incurred blindness on those exposed to the radiation. 

The fallout has also caused the irradiated survivors to display murderous tendencies, marching onto the mansion's grounds in an effort to kill everyone inside, or seemingly anyone that still possesses their sight. However, the blind killers aren't the only problem for our financially established protagonists. Some of them turn on each other. At one point, one of the doctors loses his sanity highlighted by a scene where he scurries down a hallway on all fours while wearing a pig mask!

The horror element builds ever so slowly till around the 50 minute mark when it becomes apparent the main cast that remain alive can no longer stay in the besieged mansion. The action is pretty much nonstop from that point on. The violence, while never overly graphic, is at its strongest during the last reel. The gore is minimal and limited to a scene where a cast member has her eyes gouged out (we only see the aftermath). The gloomy ending, while somewhat telegraphed ahead of time, is still effective.

The script presents some fascinating ideas, but the scope is simply too much for the meager budget to explore sufficiently. We're teased with so many things, but rarely get to savor the taste as there's always an ingredient or two that's missing. The highlights include the bizarre dinner sequence near the beginning wherein the aristocratic clients prepare for a night of debauchery. The sight of the men in their rubber masks with deformed faces is an eerie sight. It's made all the more bizarre as five sexy women enter the room in see-through nightgowns wearing nothing underneath.

Another memorable moment occurs when the blind assailants storm the house. The survivors attempt to hide in the basement -- but unlike Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the basement proves to be anything but a safe haven. It's during this nighttime siege that the sightless antagonists display their growing penchant for brutality.

The script has a noticeable subtext running through it depicting social class disruption between the aristocracy with their wealth, power, and gluttonous behavior contrasted against the "subjugated" peasantry that dwells in the village below. This is possibly commenting on the Francisco Franco dictatorship that had recently ended in 1975 when this film was made.

Speaking of those with money, the wealthy characters of this movie are not shown to be bad individuals, or as those evil rich as is often popularly designed and propagandized all too often. The dichotomy of the rich and the poor is made clear early on between a blind beggar and one of the high class sex performers (see above photo with Julia Saly at right). The beggar is tapping his empty tray with his cane till she gives him a coin. After the bomb blast, the men descend into the village for food and are approached by the same blind man who asks them for help in the monastery where the others are herded. They do try to help, but one of the men remains outside and is attacked by a mob of cane wielding blind guys. This is where the trouble begins for the cast.

Alberto de Mendoza is the leader of this diverse pack of wealthy associates, doctors and politicians and gets the bulk of the films screen time. We never learn what precipitated this alleged nuclear attack, but Fulton knows more about it than either he, or the script lets on. Mendoza's very good here in such a heroic role as he also excelled as villains of one sort or another. He was the main villain in the excellent and underrated operatic oater THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO (1969); a sadistic bandit in A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (1969); a crazed monk in HORROR EXPRESS (1972) and also as a tortured captive hunted down by Peter Fonda and John Phillip Law in OPEN SEASON (1974) among others. For THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK, the late Mendoza added another act of versatility to his lengthy resume.

Maria Perschy was a stunning Austrian beauty who appeared in numerous Spanish horror pictures during the 1970s. Here, she plays Lily, the head mistress of this sex club for high society. In the opening minutes, she's preparing for the nights festivities and lets it be known that she has become tired of this sort of life; although the audience is unaware that sort of life involves hosting orgies in the name of De Sade. Her character is also among the most interesting of the lot. We later learn she prefers women, and a love affair with one of her hired girls is touched upon towards the middle portion. Like most everything else in this movie, the script (or this dubbed version) never gives much breathing room for this arc. 

The mesmerizing beauty of Nadiuska will entrance viewers from her the moment she first appears onscreen. She has the co-lead with Mendoza. She gets more screen time than Perschy does, but we learn less about her character, relegating her to damsel status with little to maintain interest outside of those hypnotic eyes and full lips. Fans may remember her as Conan's mother from the opening sequence of Milius's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). She also has a major role in the incredibly trashy HK kung fu movie, CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER (1980) directed by one of Bruceploitation's most prolific performers, Bruce Le.

Julia Saly, who plays the young, naive Marion (one of the main call girls), carved out a nice career for herself in Spanish horror, with more than a few movies featuring Paul Naschy. Some of the horror pictures include the witch-hunting movie INQUISITION (1976), the bizarre modern thriller HUMAN BEASTS (1980), the retro monster brawler NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1981) and another late blooming 70s throwback, PANIC BEATS (1983).


Last, but certainly not least, there's Paul Naschy. The Spanish wolfman has basically a supporting role here, but he dominates the picture as Borne, the ex French Foreign Legionnaire, drug trafficker, and all around bad guy. Naschy takes command making his role feel much bigger than it actually is. Some of the man's best work is in this picture. Possibly his disdain for putting up with the primadonna behavior of Mendoza and Nadiuska (as stated in his own memoirs) contributed to his dominating presence. Naschy packs in some terrific nuances to make his role stand out. For example, his character enjoys his alcohol and an attempt to acquire a taste for milk has less than satisfying results.

The same year he worked on this production, Naschy took the lead in the eighth Waldemar Daninsky werewolf epic, NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST (1975) and tackled the subject of demonic possession with EXORCISM (1975). THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK was significant in that it marked the last time Naschy would work with his frequent collaborator/director Leon Klimovsky. It was likely for the best, as Naschy produced his best, most focused work when he was directing himself.

The film was finished in 1975, but for whatever reason, wasn't released in Spain till the latter part of 1977. Reportedly, the US release came even later in 1980. The US poster is one of the best examples of in-faux used to sell a product. The cast listing is made up entirely of pseudonyms (Naschy is billed as Paul Mackey, for instance) and Sean S. Cunningham (producer of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and FRIDAY THE 13TH for example) is listed as a producer despite not having anything to do with the movie whatsoever.

Klimovsky's intriguing film is somewhat of a disappointment, but it does enough things right to make it worth a bit more than mere curiosity value; and it has enough good points to warrant its rescue from the bowels of obscurity. The music score sounds like a patchwork of cues lifted from other movies including THE BLOB (1958) and even some classical tunes, yet it all works. The authentic and isolated Spanish locales add much flavor and contribute to the apocalyptic aura even though no true apocalypse is visibly seen. A missed opportunity, but also a film with immense possibilities and one that shouldn't necessarily remain shrouded in darkness.

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD.

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