Thursday, October 8, 2015

Night of the Seagulls

Night Of the Seagulls (1975)
Dir. and written by Amando de Ossorio
Starring Víctor Petit, María Kosti, Sandra Mozarowsky

Well, huh. This was a surprise. And not just because despite the name, this isn’t one of those when-animals-attack movies like SLUGS or FROGS or NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. I knew what I was getting into going in, or so I thought. But even so, this isn’t quite what I expected.

Frankly at this point I was really only continuing with Spanish Templarsploitation maestro Amando de Ossorio’s loose Blind Dead series of zombie Templar movies out of morbid curiosity. TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD was a barely competent low-rent Living Dead knockoff, RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD was an actively idiotic waste, and then THE GHOST GALLEON was a spectacular black hole of content, a movie which takes 40+ minutes of enervating nothing to set up the most rudimentary plot imaginable, wherein 5 people are on a boat, and there are Templars. While I sincerely doubt I’ll ever return to parts I or II, I do have a masochistic fondness for the brazenness with which Part III presents its wheel-spinning anti-entertainment as a real movie, and hence I was honestly looking forward to this installation to see if the medium could sink any further and still qualify as a movie in even the most primitive technical sense.

What I got was a surprise: In almost every imaginable way, this is clearly the most competent movie of the series. It’s a simple story of two city slicker yuppies arriving in a hostile rural village where the villagers clearly harbor some terrible secrets which they are not especially good at hiding from curious newcomers. It seems to be cribbed largely from THE WICKER MAN (which had premiered two years earlier) but still, it’s much simpler and more effective than any of the previous films of the series. I mean, this is a movie which almost never introduces a simple and obvious horror trope which needs no explanation, and then spends 20 minutes of screentime laboriously over-explaining it, in the process of which it becomes so convoluted that multiple new inconsistencies pop up, which it then feels it needs to unsatisfactorily half-explain using more exposition. That was kind of Ossorio’s trademark before this, so something must have happened between 1974 and 1975 that really helped him streamline the process. Hell, even the stupid title is actually kind of explained.

It’s a nice production, for starters. A dreamy, dilapidated seaside village perched on the side of a cliff provides ample character for the sinister locale, and the classic Templar theme actually kind of works with the haunting, paranoid atmosphere. It’s a great theme, but the previous movies are so crappy it didn’t really register with me before; here, it actually feels not only appropriate but sort of effective. The camerawork is perfectly adequate, and the acting is… well, calling it “good” doesn’t exactly sound right, but at least it’s about as good as you could realistically expect for something like this. The leads do fine, nothing too embarrassing, and there’s a strong backing cast of (presumably) real locals with interesting faces. There is one pretty embarrassing village idiot character who just won’t. go. away. And there are a few humorous moments, like when our heroine, pursued by murderous zombie Templars to the second floor of her house, decides climbing three feet out a window onto the roof of a first-story shed is too terrifying, and elects to run back inside until she remembers, oh shit, murderous zombie Templars! and goes back and escapes with no further complaint. So it’s not exactly a flawless victory, but really, this is a surprisingly solid effort overall.

Which presents a weird problem: this is obviously the most competent of the series, but does that make it actually good? The design of the undead Templars still looks pretty nifty, so it’s nice to see them used in a scenario which actually gives them their due. And I really like their frog-faced “sea god” statue, to which they sacrifice the hearts of young virgins (which look to be something of an increasingly scarce resource in this village populated by gnarled old people, which is hardly surprisingly since they’re killing them off so fast. Possible metaphor for peak oil?), which is also a funny reminder that these Templars can’t seem to keep straight exactly what Pagan god they worship from movie to movie (though their penchant for stabbing boobs seems as strong as ever). But despite these strengths, it’s hard not to notice that our beloved Templars still don’t really do anything interesting (except, pleasingly, have their eyeballs melt out upon death). They looks cool riding their horses in slow-mo and menacingly advancing on people, but man, there is precious little whammy to be had here. It’s got some decent atmosphere for once, but not nearly enough to carry the whole picture on it’s own. There are a few pleasing gore scenes, but they’re too infrequent for something so obviously reliant on sleaze to give it any purpose.

Hey, the image from the poster! They always love to put horrible beasts carrying prone white women away on these horror posters, but it's rare they actually follow through on their promise. Good for you, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS.

This, then, is still solidly B-movie exploitation territory, just slightly more competent than usual. Unfortunately, “more competent” really ends up feeling more like “less funny” rather than “actually good” by the film’s end. We’re all familiar with the old’ “So bad it’s good” axiom, but is there such a thing as “So good, it’s bad?” Because that’s what this feels like. This is a clear improvement over its predecessors, but it’s still a long way from unironically enjoyable, so in a way actually kind of a letdown after its comically inept brethren. But you could do worse. Ossorio, who would crank out a couple of pornos and one final horror film after this, probably picked a good one to retire on. But the Blind Dead were not quite finished yet -- tune in next year for the unofficial sequel, LA CRUZ DEL DIABLO, directed by Hammer veteran John Gilling.

And for God sake, somebody buy me one of Ossorio’s paintings for Christmas.


Play it Again, Samhain

SEQUEL: Yes, part of Ossorio's loose BLIND DEAD quadrilogy
SLUMMING A-LISTER: None whatsoever, although 16-year-old Sandra Mozarowsky became something of celebrity due to her rumored affair with King Juan Carlos I and her controversial death at 18.
SEXUAL ASSAULT: The Templars like to stab naked ladies in the boobs, but they don't seem to find it a very sexual experience
THE UNDEAD: Zombie Templars!
PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
EVIL CULT: Yes -- both the Templars and the fiendish villagers
VOYEURISM: Our creepy village idiot is first observed creepily peering into the window and spying on our heroine, but in his defense he turns out to be a nice guy.
MORAL OF THE STORY: Stop trying to unravel the twisted secrets of mysterious small towns.
TITLE ACCURACY: Unbelievably, they do explain it in the movie. The explanation is kind of a stretch, almost like they wrote the weird title first and then tried to use dialogue to explain it (which does sound like Ossorio's MO) but yeah, it's in there.

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