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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Night of the Seagulls (1975) review


Victor Petit (Dr. Henry Stein), Maria Kosty (Joan Stein), Sandra Mozarowsky (Lucy), Jose Antonio Calvo (Teddy), Julia Saly (Tilda), Susana Estrada (first sacrifice victim)

Directed by Amando de Ossorio

The Short Version: Director Ossorio concludes his quartet of Templar tales with this seaside spooker told with a Lovecraftian flavor wherein young virgins are sacrificed to appease some unnamed oceanic god. The Knights of the Living Dead may be slow, but they get a lot of mileage by an increased amount of screen time. In a change of pace, these Templars are not the blood-drinkers and flesh-eaters of past entries. Regardless, the mood is strong as is the direction in what amounts to the most polished entry of the series even if it's not as good as the first two films. Hampered by a limp ending, but climaxing with a fairly tense final siege by the ocular challenged zombies, Ossorio and his crew make this last evening with the Blind Dead a memorable NIGHT.

A doctor and his wife move from the city to a small coastal community to help care for the inhabitants who, up to that time, have not embraced modern society. Upon their arrival, the doctor finds the villagers not at all friendly and desiring they leave. The elder physician they're replacing isn't very forthcoming with details aside from a stern warning to leave. On their first night, the interloping couple witness bizarre happenings, soon learning that this tiny hamlet harbors a horrifying secret of sacrifice and slaughter. For centuries, the Templars have held sway over the town in that every seven years, for seven consecutive nights, seven virginal bodies of young girls must be offered as payment to an ancient god of the sea. 

The Blind Dead are finally put to rest in this, the last film in Amando de Ossorio's lurid quartet of flesh and blood-lusting zombie chronicles. A massive improvement over the ocean sailing dead of THE GHOST GALLEON (1974), the fourth still doesn't manage to top the pervasive horror of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) nor the action-gore combo of RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973). Even so, this film is the most polished of the bunch; and at times, looks a bit more expensive. The genuine feeling of unease returns in a big way, closing the book on Ossorio's legendary creations in a subtle, yet modestly satisfying fashion.

Ossorio harnesses a level of suspense not seen since the inaugural outing of his ocular-deprived dead. Unlike the painfully slow pace of the previous ocean-set venture, SEAGULLS is more meticulous with its unraveling. From the start, we get an eerie, even dangerous vibe from the seemingly lost to time locals of the village. This is exacerbated when Dr. Stein offers to walk further with the older, wiser doctor he's replacing only to be told, "No, you return. Inland, there's no danger... I'm warning you, you must get away, and soon. But if you do stay, don't pry into anything. Don't ask questions... and at night, don't go out for whatever reason. It's the only way you'll save yourself... the only way!"

This is the sort of foreboding menace that would find its way to the slasher boom of the 80s; particularly the Crazy Ralph character of the first two FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. However, there will be some coming to this picture who will come away disappointed, expecting more visceral thrills than what is offered. For a percentage of the audience, the chilling atmosphere of SEAGULLS will not be enough. With that said.....

Ossorio does a fantastic job of building his slow burn, periodically interrupting it with a nightly Templar sojourn... well, as nightly as you can get with day-for-night shooting. It could have been improved with some additional backstory and some stronger secondary characters, but as it is, there's a fairly strong ghost tale being told here. Still, the low body count and a lack of variance in the gore department will make this less attractive to those spoiled on the more frequent splatter antics of the first two pictures. Moreover, the Blind Dead of SEAGULLS are not the supporting characters in their own movie as they were in the previous nightmare voyage. 

The Blind Dead haven't gotten quite this much screen time since the second installment; although they really don't commit a great deal of carnage this time out. No longer on a ghost galleon, the crusty zombies are again close to the water, menacing a sleepy fishing village that has yet to modernize itself. Ossorio's story unravels in the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, which will entice fans of the eccentric New England author. Much like part 2 recalled Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Ossorio's fourth shares kinship with the Lovecraft styled MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) and even THE WICKER MAN (1973) with its slant towards ancient traditions in isolated societies being penetrated by modernity. Ossorio explores, to no great end, the clash between the past and present. Towards the end, SEAGULLS does enter Romero's territory where the spirit of his 1968 trendsetter is felt once our protagonists board up their house prior to the zombies laying siege to it.

Looking as grotesque as ever (and, in some shots, slightly less worse for wear than their previous adventures), the Knights of the Living Dead now reside in a castle up on a hill (a line of dialog erroneously states they rise from the sea) where they sleep in their tombs; the Templars revivification occurring yet again by recycled footage from TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971). We do get a new scene of the creatures rising from their graves inside the inner sanctum at the end, though. They still move in slow-motion, but in some scenes they move at normal speed, depriving them of some of their impact. In the shots where the zombies dismount their horses, the illusion is somewhat ruined as it's obvious there's an actor underneath the costume. In the earlier movies, one of the eerie things about the unseeing undead was their unique shambling style had an unearthly quality that was amplified by the slow-motion riding sequences.

In other areas, the monsters appear to have been augmented yet again for this final installment. They have an even more gaunt appearance than before--noticeable during the last 15 minutes when they assault Dr. Stein's house. Unfortunately, there wasn't as much care done with the requisite shots of bony hands extending to grab a victim. Ironically, the gutter budgeted THE GHOST GALLEON (1974) arguably had the best looking hand and arm extensions. In SEAGULLS, the Templar's hands look like jagged garden rakes reaching out to scrape you. Considering how many well-lit shots of the Templars we get, the masks of the living dead are quite detailed in their design--looking like the withered skulls they are meant to be.

Curiously, the zombies are never once referred to as the Templars nor are they given a detailed backstory--aside from a gruesome opening sequence that takes place centuries earlier. Lucy, in explaining to the Stein's, says they came from France, the Horsemen of the Sea, as she calls them. With the tolling of their dissonant bell, every seven years, for seven nights, seven young girls are given to them so they can rip out their hearts and place it in the maw of some Lovecraftian fish-god statue as an offering. Should there be resistance, the shambling, hooded skeletons will kill everyone in the village as they did years earlier. Well, this being a horror movie, the decomposed living dead are, at one point, denied a sacrifice and, regrettably, the audience is denied a mass bloodletting sequence.

The level of gore is increased from the weak previous picture, but falls well short of the blood spattering of part 2. The goriest scene occurs at the beginning when a heart is graphically ripped out of the augmented chest of a captured lass and enormous crabs come along later and devour her remains. A similar scene takes place midway through; and then there's the somewhat anti-climactic finish of the Templars. Taking a cue from RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD, the zombie knights crumble to dust, spurting blood from their eye sockets after the hero simply turns over the fish-god statue they worship, breaking it into pieces. 

This wouldn't be Euro horror without some nudity, and there's two scenes of it--one at the beginning and another later in the movie courtesy of the lovely Julia Saly. The future Countess Bathory looks fabulous in a diaphanous gown, showing off her slinky figure; but sadly, Saly is only in the film a brief time before meeting her fate at the (bony) hands of a knife-wielding Templar. This was early in the career of Ms. Saly. She would later have a working relationship in numerous Paul Naschy movies as both an actress and producer.

Like the preceding movie, there's some familiarity with some of the other films. The character of Teddy, the village idiot, recalls the Murdo character of RETURN. The difference being Teddy is the exact opposite of the malevolent Murdo. Whereas Murdo murders a young woman to bring the Templars back to life, Teddy, on the other hand, is nearly killed by the villagers for exposing their terrible secret. The script doesn't give the character a great deal to do aside from being berated and pummeled the entire time. Murdo is the more interesting of the two, but the misshapen Teddy is the most pitiable.

Among other things, Ossorio's series had a fascination with quirky characters--whether they are physically deformed, or just outright weird. The first movie had the off-kilter morgue attendant; Murdo in RETURN; the kooky professor of GALLEON; and Teddy the human punching bag in SEAGULLS.

As with the last entry, we get no new musical cues by Anton Garcia Abril, only a few select pieces from the first two productions. This isn't a bad thing, but some new music would have made for a fresher experience for the Templars' swan song. 

According to Ossorio, there was to have been a fifth Blind Dead movie. The plot concerned Waldemar Daninsky (the werewolf of many Paul Naschy horrors) seeking a cure for his Lycanthropy found only in the necronomicon; the problem is the ancient book is held somewhere within the church of the Templars. Ossorio wrote the script, but cited difficulties with the producers so nothing was ever shot. Imagine Paul Naschy as his iconic werewolf doing battle with Ossorio's sightless titans of terror. What a match-up that could have been!

Naschy did write a film that featured the Templars--a John Gilling picture from 1975 titled LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO (CROSS OF THE DEVIL). Naschy was supposed to star, but apparently Gilling (who directed three Hammer movies, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE MUMMY'S SHROUD) didn't think he was star quality for the production so he was brushed aside for another actor. Little seen, the picture isn't held in high regard by those who have seen it. It remains an obscure title in the annals of Spanish horror cinema.

NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS debuted in America in 1977 and landed on home video in 1987 from Sony bearing a more palatable title of NIGHT OF THE DEATH CULT. The onscreen title was the SEAGULL original; likely Sony altered it for their box art because 'death cult' sounded more attractive to potential renters than a flock of birds. Curiously, Ossorio stated he chose this title because seagulls don't fly at night. This is apparently not true, but in the context of the film, it makes sense considering we're told that the damned souls of the sacrificed girls become the seagulls heard flying over the village at night.

Had the series continued it would have been fascinating to see where Ossorio would have taken his monsters; possibly to space if they'd gone on to do ten installments. With a new short film coming (EL ULTIMO GUION [THE LAST SCRIPT]) reuniting Lone Fleming with the Blind Dead, a revival of the eyeless, sword-swinging blood-drinkers is even more likely; and most welcome for fans of one of horror cinema's most unique creature creations.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground Coffin Box Set. Specs and Extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; theatrical trailer; poster and stills gallery.

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