Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Night of the Seagulls (1975)

Original title: La noche de las gaviotas

Dr. Henry Stein (Victor Petit) and his wife Joan (María Kosty) are sent to an out of the way coastal village where Henry is to replace the last village doctor. Finding their new place of residence isn’t terribly easy, though, for every villager they ask about the way the doctor’s house answers with stony silence.

Once there, the couple encounters their predecessor, an old man so afraid of something he won’t stay another night. He does give some of the traditional vague, doom-laden hints, and mentions the villagers don’t want them there, but, as is traditional in these cases, he’s not the most helpful informant you could wish for.

Consequently, Joan and Henry will have to find out what’s going on with the villagers and what they might be up to on their own. For one, the locals hold nightly ceremonies at the beach in which they leave young women tied up against a rock for the undead Knights Templar - as known from the first three Blind Dead movies - so the Templars in turn can sacrifice the women to the golden idol of some sort of hideous water creature (shall we call the thing Dagon?). To the Steins, the villagers are mostly stone-faced, rude and vaguely threatening, but Joan’s tendency to take in strays in form of the mentally handicapped Tedd (José Antonio Calvo) – literal village punching bag – and slightly more sociable village girl Lucy (Sandra Mozarowsky) combined with Henry taking the whole “saving lives” part of being a doctor very seriously indeed rather quickly makes relations even more strained. In the end, the new doctor’s couple will spell catastrophe for the village, which really deserves one.

Now, given that the whole plot is about a supernaturally oppressed village that is so brutalized by its fate it becomes actively complicit in the actions of its oppressor and just loves to turn on anyone who is different, and that it was filmed at the tail end of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, I find it impossible not to read Night of the Seagulls as an acerbic comment of director Amando de Ossorio on the country around him, featuring Franco as a golden idol, the blind dead as his true believers and the villagers as the general Spanish population. It’s not a terribly subtle metaphor but then, “subtle” isn’t a word to describe military dictatorships either.

This very visible subtext doesn’t mean the fourth (and alas final) Blind Dead film isn’t a horror film first and foremost. It does however mean a change of pace for the series after the classically exploitational first two films and the total shit show of the third. This time around, de Ossorio puts heavy emphasis on an eerie mood of decay, attempting something different from most of his other horror films. There’s still a bit of blood, close-ups of cut-out hearts and such things, yet this version of the Blind Dead (whose myth changed a bit in every single one of the movies) isn’t as much into blood drinking and pointless slaughter as before but performs an unpleasant religious service to their strange sea god. Even the gratuitous nudity is nearly non-existent.

Instead, much of the film’s considerable power comes from lingering shots of the fantastically creepy village location, the crude yet effective portrayal of the casual brutality as well as quiet desperation of the villagers, the sounds of bells and seagulls, and the always creepy presence of our undead Templar villains. Building a film on elements like these does of course mean it won’t be full of exciting action sequences, so Night of the Seagulls is a bit of a slow mover that really takes its time to build up to its climactic scenes. Coming from me, this isn’t a complaint, of course, particularly not since there’s a point to the slowness in a film that seems much more interested in a slowly mounting dread than in its handful of shocks.

For once, a de Ossorio movie even features likeable leads, with Joan acting as often with kindness and compassion as she is near hysterics and Henry – despite a bit of rather mild 70s macho posturing – turning out to care about other people more than about himself too. Why,a viewer might even find themselves caring about what happens to these two.

Last but not least, it is pretty much impossible for me to dislike a film that uses Lovecraftian elements in such a fine, unobtrusive way as this one does, featuring as it does a decaying seaside village sacrificing to a fishy looking godhood, without ever needing to list mythos books or creatures. The film’s seagulls (eerily active at night) whose voices in shades of The Dunwich Horror are the souls of the murdered women and girls of many generations are rather on the Lovecraftian side too, but used in the best way, as building blocks for de Ossorio’s own mythology.

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