“The Templars in De Ossorio’s films are the perfect embodiment of fascism, because they are both soldiers and priests.”
– Lucio Fulci in conversation with the author.
The Order Of The Poor Knights Of Christ And The Temple Of Solomon (The Templars to thee and me) was founded by one Hugues de Payens in 1118, with the mission statement of protecting pilgrims in The First Crusade, and they quickly evolved into a kind of medieval SAS (“‘the Militia of Christ”). Although each Templar Knight took a Benedictine vow of personal poverty, the organisation itself grew massively rich on donations from various religiously inclined groups and individuals. Meanwhile in The Holy Land, the Knights were being exposed to various strands of Jewish, Muslim and Gnostic mysticism… reputedly they even had links with the legendary Hashishim or Order Of Assassins. Whatever, they were said to have absorbed all manner of esoteric knowledge and, on a more secular level, used their increasing riches to become involved in what was essentially the birth of international banking. Due to their connections with the Cathar heretics of Languedoc, it was even suspected that these knights were intent on setting up their own theocratic state in that region of France. Certainly, King Philip IV thought they were getting too big for their military boots, a decision presumably influenced by the fact that he owed them a fistful of francs. In 1307 Philip arrested, tortured and executed all the Templars he could lay his hands on and put pressure on The Pope to disown the Order, which was official disbanded by Clement V in 1312. History is written by the victors and the devil worshipping atrocities claimed by Philip to justify his actions are best taken with a pinch of salt. The Templars have remained active, if nowhere else, in the annals of conspiracy theory, which detects their dark hand at work everywhere, shaping the course of human destiny on behalf of a secretive, sinister elite. A lively literary and now cinematic sub-genre flourishes, enriching (if not The Order) the likes of Dan Brown and Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, 2006).
Of more interest to Freudstein followers is the cycle of Spanish movies detailing the darker side of the Templar story, spearheaded by a quartet of classic horror flicks from Amando De Ossorio (and collected in a spanky Blue Underground DVD box set which you might still be able to pick up if you hunt around a bit.) De Ossorio was born in Galicia anytime between 1918 and 1925 (accounts vary… strangely, he was also reported as deceased several times before actually breathing his last in Madrid on 13.01.01) and earned his living from shorts, documentaries and industrial films before making his feature debut with the paella western Tomb Of The Pistolero in 1964. Jack Taylor once told me that horror films, with their attendant hordes of damsels in distress, were one of the few ways of expressing anything vaguely sexual in the buttoned-down, uptight milieu of Franco’s Spain. De Ossorio’s first credit in this genre was the sexy (Anita Ekberg starring) vampire effort Malenka in 1969. Night Of The Sorcerers (1974) is a ludicrously schlocky leopard cult / zombie epic whose purported African setting (actually a park in Madrid) provided the perfect pretext for plentiful sub-National Geographic female nudity and The Loreley’s Grasp (1974, a particularly busy year for our man) was based on an old Germanic myth about a beautiful siren luring sailors to their deaths on The Rhine. Most profitably though, De Ossorio returned to certain Galician local legends that had haunted his childhood, those of the terrifying Templars. Whether he personally added the element of blindness to these scary stories is a moot point.
Ossorio’s La Noche Del Terror Ciego / Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) reveals that instead of Templars rescuing maidens, the maidens need rescuing from them when, having been initiated into sinister occult practices during their stint crusading around The Holy Land, they return to 13th Century Spain with a drastically revised take on knightly chivalry. The Templars ride into town, select the juiciest local nubiles, throw them over their saddles and ride back to their clubhouse, where the girls are crucified and slashed by the swords of jousting knights, whose colleagues stand around looking on sternly, with their arms folded, looking for all the world as though they about to break into a rendition of “Templar rap”. Instead, they dive in on the unfortunate victims’ punctured boobs, gulp down their blood and hack out their hearts before messily gobbling them down. These shenanigans are supposed to secure eternal life for the Templars, but party-pooping villagers break up their revels to string the naughty knights up so that crows can peck out their eyes. A know-it-all historian in “the present day” (i.e. early ‘70s Spain) tells protagonists Roger (César Burner) and Betty (Lone Fleming) all about it and predicts the vengeful return of the Templars. To nobody’s great surprise – and the delight of gore-hounds everywhere – this is precisely what happens.
Sexually confused Virginia (María Elena Arpón / “Helen Harp”) jumps off a train after her girlfriend Betty (Fleming) starts flirting with hunky Roger and camps down in a derelict Templar monastery, where her crop top and hot pants are enough to raise the dead (did the trick for me too, actually!) Centuries of decomposition have reduced the Templars to skeletons, but they’re still pretty sprightly and – despite the tufty little beards growing out of their jawbones and their dusty duffel-coats, which make them look like trad jazz-loving CND activists – they’re certainly not pacifists! Scrambling out of those tombs in the banks of fog that always roll down during this sort of thing, they ride around on their skeletal horses in slow motion (to the accompaniment of Anton Garcia Abril’s spell-binding score, which mixes mumbling monks, tolling bells and the echoing of horses’ hoof beats and would become one of of the most memorable features of the ongoing Templar series), using their supersensitive hearing to locate fresh victims. After snuffing a couple of cuties who were reckless enough to wander into their cemetery territory, the Templars hijack a train and put its passengers to the sword – cue the oft-censored shot of a babe in arms being soaked in its mother’s blood.
That’s about it as far as plot is concerned and there are some passages that do drag a bit, but these are mitigated by the chuckles to be had at the the early ‘70s fashions on display and, a propos of nothing in particular, De Ossorio tosses in a soft focus flashback to sixth-form sapphic shenanigans. There’s an equally gratuitous rape scene, though the perpetrator immediately meets a well deserved messy fate at the boney hands of the censorious Templars. The suspicion lingers that De Ossorio didn’t get all the footage he wanted, on account of budgetary or scheduling problems, or whatever… certain plot threads remain undeveloped, for instance the suggestion that Templar victims can return from the dead to transmit their contagion to others. This Romeroesque touch is never embroidered in the film nor indeed anywhere else in the subsequent Templar series. It also has to be said that the film’s final shots are oddly chosen and anti-climactic…
… though they did leave the door open for the Templars’ sophomore outing, El Ataque De Los Muertos Sin Ojos / Return of the Evil Dead (1973). The revisionist opening of this one displays a cavalier attitude towards the Templars rulebook, as vengeful villagers with flaming torches, rather than ravenous ravens, put out the eyeballs of Spain’s coolest ghouls. “Do you think you will find your way back without eyes?” they are taunted. No problem, actually and their mummified remains are soon gatecrashing an ill-advised “modern day” festive re-enactment of their dastardly deeds, with predictably drastic results. After the Templars have taken time out to punish an adulterous coupling (the girl’s escape attempt climaxes in the shocking revelation of a zombie horse to a disbelieving switchboard operator) and massacre the festival revellers, not to mention some incongruous “comic” sequences involving the lazy governor and his improper relationship with his housemaid, the balance of the picture unfolds with the rescued girl from the initial attack cooped up among a squabbling bunch of characters (including Lone Fleming from Tombs) besieged in a church (making De Ossorio’s constant denials that he was influenced by George Romero sound a bit feeble). In a direct lift from Night Of The Living Dead, one guy makes a run for his car and ends up as the centre-piece of Templar barbecue. Corrupt mayor Fernando Sancho trues to ensure his own escape by decoying the Blind Dead with a defenceless tiny tot (boo! hiss!) and there’s a well-sustained, suspenseful sequence in which Murdo (the mandatory gibbering village loon) loses his head over a girl, quite literally, leading her through an underground series of passage-ways, only to be greeted by sword-wielding undead Knights at the other end. Finally the Templars petrify and crumble in the morning sunlight, hunky Tony Kendall leading what’s left of the human characters between their desiccated husks to freedom, in a tense “resolution” reminiscent of that to Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Our favourite visually challenged, deceased dudes notched up their hat-trick of screen appearances in El Buque Maldito (also 1974, aka Ghost Galleon / Horror Of The Zombies). Unfortunately this is the weakest entry in the series by a long chalk or, shall we say, several fathoms, despite an enthusiastic endorsement from late Cramps front man and trash movie connoisseur Lux Interior. Ossorio is on the record as attributing the Templars’ slow motion movements to “a displacement in the space / time continuum”. Perhaps this would explain why they turn up in Ghost Galleon, sleeping in their coffins on board… well, on board a ghost galleon, which has apparently been sailing the seven seas since the 16th Century, stuffed with their ill-gotten loot and accompanied by a perpetual pea-soup fog. You can bet your ass that when the ghost galleon’s course is crossed by a smaller boat packed with drug-crazed, bikini-clad, lesbian glamour models (De Ossorio also throws in the now mandatory recreational rape scene) the puritanical Knights are soon out of their coffins, waving their swords and slaughtering swingers left, right and centre. From their point of view this is made easier by the fact that although they’re moving as slowly as ever, their potential victims have pretty much nowhere to run except elsewhere on the galleon. The downside though, from the viewers’ perspective, comprises a completely static “plot” and the conspicuous absence of those slow-motion skeletal horse-rides that worked so well in the previous two instalments. Jack Taylor and the last surviving bimbo model have the brain wave of driving the Templars back into their coffins with fire then slinging them overboard. At this point the eyes of the horned skull which the Templars worship start glowing red and their vessel (laughably rendered by a model that will have all Spinal Tap fans thinking “Stonehenge!”) bursts into flame. The two survivors struggle to the shore and collapse on the beach, only to find themselves surrounded by the clutching deadsters. The freeze frame closing shot suggests that there’s no stopping the Templars though, in truth, this substandard effort suggested they were washed up in every sense of the term.
After their living death on an ocean wave, the Templars took to the sea so well that they spend 1975’s La Noche De Las Gaviotas / Night Of The Seagulls bumming around the beach, brandishing buckets and spades, holding bloody beach barbecues in honour of a Lovecraftian fish-god (OK, so I was kidding about the buckets and spades). Only briefly do we get atmospheric shots of them riding their horses through the surf, and far too sparing use is made of Anton Garcia Abril’s Templar theme, one of the series’ trump cards (here largely supplanted by irritating tinkly incidental muzak). Otherwise, thankfully, it’s back to Templar basics. In the pre-titles sequence Medieval honeymooners are sacrificed to the Deadites’ grotesque amphibian gargoyle god. In “modern times”, Dr Henry Stein and his wife Jean (Victor Petit and Maria Kosti) arrive to take over their new practice, whose regulars are rural retards from central casting. Everybody fears the coming of darkness, especially Teddy, De Ossorio’s gooniest village loon yet (“Teddy’s afraid … they always beat teddy!”), though relatively sympathetically treated. The doc and his wife eavesdrop on an eerie torch lit beach procession, unaware that it’s intended to placate the Templars with the sacrifice of a virgin, who’s been taken away from her wailing family by black-shawled old biddies.
The Steins make friends with one pretty village girl called Lucy, whose own number soon comes up in the lottery for virginal sacrifices. Henry frees her, prompting a Templar siege of his home. With Lucy out of the picture, Henry matter-of-factly tells his wife: “It’s obvious that they need another victim for their ceremonial rites … and it looks like they’ve chosen you!” That’s some bedside manner you’ve got there, doc… After the expected atmospheric horse-back chase, the Steins upturn and smash the Blind Dead’s idol at which point The Templars return, visibly crumbling, to their coffins, for a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, though Seagulls is undoubtedly a better note for them to bow out on than Ghost Galleon.
The aforementioned Blue Underground box set, comprising these four films (and plentiful bonus material), is touted as the complete Blind Dead saga, but a truly complete account of The Templars’ horror film exploits would also have to include John Gilling’s directorial swan song, The Devil’s Cross (1975), in which they populate the troubled protagonist’s dreams. Readers might recall my interview with Paul Naschy, in which he complained bitterly that Gilling had hijacked this picture from him.
Unfortunately we must also account for one of Jesus Franco’s sloppier offerings, in which he tried to jump the Templar bandwagon approximately a decade after it had stopped rolling. The Internet Movie Data Base identifies Franco’s Mansion Of The Living Dead as a 1985 production, though I’m more inclined to trust the bad film boffins from Severin, who put it out on DVD in 2006 and claim it as a 1983 effort. Admittedly Franco’s fractured filmography (in which films are typically re-edited and ransacked to be combined with footage from other, completely unconnected efforts, even unto porno editions) lends itself to precisely such confusion. It could also be reasonably suggested that, sorry Jess, with films of this calibre… nobody really gives a toss! MOTLD “boasts” similar production values (OK, the cinematography is actually quite nice in this one, even if that zoom lens is as overworked as ever) and plot mechanics (down to the “comic relief” peeping Tom character) to Franco’s insufferable “video nasty” (one of three) Bloody Moon, which was shot in 1982.
Allegedly based on a novel by one D. Khunne (one of Franco’s many pseudonyms) the story, such as it is, kicks off with four topless waitresses of varying attractiveness (including Franco’s muse Lina Romay / “Candy Coster) arriving from Munich at a luxury holiday resort in the Canary Isles, with the primary intention of getting shagged by as many men as possible ( “The Sadean Woman” according to Jesus Franco!) Unfortunately there are no other guests, male or otherwise, and equally mysteriously, the hotel seems to be staffed by just one guy, the mean and moody Carlos Savonarola (“Robert Foster” / Antonio Mayans). Undaunted, our hot pants wearing “lovelies” quickly pair up for some hot’n’heavy (though never, at least in the Severin release, quite crossing over into hard core territory) girl-on-girl lovin’. “This vacation is gonna be unbelievable” predicts Candy as her lover laps away at her… truer than she knows! Needless to say, Carlos is soon grabbing himself a piece of the sweaty action, though he hastily breaks off from another spot of cunnilingus with the observation “My God – it’s 4 o’clock…. I’ve got to go and feed a sick woman” (change your douche, darling!) Turns out he’s actually got to go and torment his rather butch-looking wife Mabel (Mabel Escano) with some food which she can’t reach from the corner of the room in which he’s chained her up.
Just in case the girls haven’t twigged yet that something rather rum is going on, their next sunbathing session is rudely interrupted by a near miss with a flying meat cleaver. “Who would want to murder four hotties like us?” asks one of them, indignantly. Who indeed? A fan of good acting? Their efforts to crack this mystery involve wandering around the hotel corridors endlessly in various states of undress. Is that a shadow, a tuft of hair or something more sinister protruding from between Candy’s ample cheeks at one point? (“Emergency delivery of toilet paper, please, to the mansion of the living dead!”) When the girls finally tire of those corridors, they stroll off separately to the island’s nearest dilapidated church, which turns out to be Templar HQ… and yes, the mouldy monks are well up for chastising some promiscuous females.
Now, Amando De Ossorio really made an effort to get his Blind Dead dudes looking like mummified corpses, but Franco’s budget obviously only extended to a few white sheets, a couple of joke shop skull masks and, because there weren’t enough of those to go around, a bottle of calamine lotion to splash on the faces of the other ghouls. Though not looking too impressive, these guys wax eloquent about their unholy intentions… “Our brother Savonarola has brought another sinner to the court of the Cathars, the saintly men with white robes and black hearts” (Ooh-er) …“I propose that she is put to death while she enjoys carnal sin, so that her desirable body many join the ranks of Satan’s servers… she will receive the mark of the accursed semen”. Sounds like a plan. The unfortunate victim is stripped of her sparkly hot pants and enthusiastically raped and stabbed by the Templars, whose legs don’t seem to have suffered any discernible decomposition over the Centuries (their todgers still up to the job, too!) “Bless you and damn you…” intones the top Templar: “Enjoy the mortal sin… may your sins never be forgiven!” I bet he says that to all the girls…
Candy discovers Mabel, still chained to the table, and learns of the sadistic way in which Carlo has been treating her. “We work in a topless bar… we’re waitresses showing off our boobs!” is her helpful opening conversational gambit, and she further advises the hapless captive that this career option is very “in” at the moment. It’s probably at this point that Mabel decides to eat the rat poison which her husband has thoughtfully left for her. None of this seems to dampen Candy’s ardour for Carlo, who announces that he’s one of the Templars and has recognised her as a reincarnation of the Princess Irina (an ongoing character in Franco’s tangled mythos) who had cursed the Cathars while they were burning her at the stake, condemning them to an eternity of living death. You crisp the chick, you gotta pay the price…
I won’t give away the ending, because a) I don’t want to spoil it for you and b) it made absolutely no sense whatever to me. Severin present Mansion Of The Living Dead in a lush 2.35:1 transfer, enhanced for wide screen, which is probably better than it deserves. English subtitles compliment the Spanish language soundtrack and as bonus material you get a featurette, The House That Jess Built, in which Franco and faithful cohort Candy / Lina are interviewed and the director attempts to explain the theological underpinning of his work. Luis Bunuel he ain’t… I’d usually give a film like this the dreaded “for completists only” but the aforementioned Internet Movie Data Base suggests that even completists give it a miss! A nod’s as good as a wink to…