The version reviewed is La noche del terror ciego, the original Spanish version subtitled in English. As has been mentioned elsewhere on this site, dubbing is the Devil. The English version of Tombs of the Blind Dead is a prime example: not only is its dubbed acting terrible, but big chunks were cut from the movie to bring it down to a PG rating. Some minor plot points were among the fifteen minutes' worth of omissions. If you've seen this and thought that it didn't make sense, that's why. The original version is a different experience.
The credits roll over the kind of creepy, gothic music that can only be found in European horror films of the 1970s. Medieval choirs are roasted over organ chords that appear and disappear, and the whole thing is flogged by angry tympani. This combination of ancient, modern and violent elements is a clear signal of what kind of film will follow.
The abrupt cut to a beachfront Lisbon swimming pool shows what else to expect: a sensual element and some gorgeous scenery. Virginia and Roger, traveling together, encounter Virginia's longtime friend, Bette. Roger immediately turns Virginia into a third wheel by inviting Bette along on their train voyage to the countryside. He is clearly attracted to Bette, who even more clearly gives him a green light.
Bette bullies and demeans Virginia. She once expressed sexual dominance over Virginia by seducing her, and now she wants to do so by taking Virginia's man. This browbeating behavior appears to extend to Bette's employee Nina, who bears a general resemblance to Virginia.
An insulted Virginia has had enough and jumps off of the train in a deserted region. The others see her, but the conductor knows the area and refuses to stop. Virginia finds a deserted castle and decides that it will serve nicely as a hostel. We all know by now how it goes with these European hostels.
The castle is the ruin of a village, Berzano, of which none of the locals will speak. It is inhabited by a sect of undead 13th-century knights who rise at night to kill anyone who comes near. Their history is similar to that of the Knights Templar, though they are never named as such. They lack eyes but hunt by sense of hearing. The knights catch Virginia and leave her lifeless body in view of the train tracks.
Roger and Bette are unaware of this and search for her in Berzano, where their horses get spooked and bolt. Police inspectors take the travelers to identify Virginia's corpse, which has been drained of blood but otherwise displays only superficial wounds. When the two learn of the legendary knights, Roger visits the local library to fill up on knowledge is power. There, a historian describes a horrible, sadistic rite in which the knights drink the blood of a virgin. He casually explains that the legend is real and that the knights have returned. The police dispute this and allege that a smuggling ring, which operates near Berzano and is coincidentally led by the professor's son, promotes the legend to discourage intruders.
The knights' victims also become undead. Zombies on horseback? They're technically vampires, but still awesome. Bette's factory coincidentally is located next to the morgue. An ill-advised Scooby Doo mission to spend the night at the castle and prove that it's not really haunted becomes a disaster and sets the final sequence in motion.
The film opens at a brisk pace and moves quickly from scene to scene. Once Virginia jumps train, the pace slows down. We get long, lingering shots of the countryside. And of Virginia. This is good pacing: It allows the viewer to drink in the scenery and atmosphere but doesn't waste time on the setup. Mario Bava's influence is pervasive.
Everything here is about power. Bette surrounds herself with weaker women and then intimidates them. The police detective uses similar tactics against Professor Candal. The 13th century knights exerted their power over the region and were in turn excommunicated and executed by the powerful church. Despite this subtext, the film never becomes pretentious or loses its trash appeal.
A big reason for this is that it depicts sex as an instrument of that power. This is most apparent in the flashback to the 13th-century ritual in which the knights' swords pierce the flesh of a bound virgin. A flesh-piercing sword is a symbol that should need little explanation. In the present day, there's a black piece of satire as mortuary workers use the "she was asking for it" card to blame Virginia for her own demise: "It's as if they want to get bitten, and this one was really hot." Bette's habit of using her sexuality as a weapon is reversed horribly when the smuggler Pedro rapes her and his girlfriend piles on the verbal humiliation.
The most effective parts of this movie are its set pieces. There may be no image more awesome in all of horror than the sight of the robed, skeletal knights riding out on horseback in slow motion. That alone makes this movie worth watching. Other notable set pieces include a pursuit in a neon-lit mannequin factory and the nihilistic ending, much of which we hear but do not see.
Creepy, unsettling elements are sprinkled throughout the film. A weird mortuary employee spends his time playing with corpses and small animals. He displays the corpses as though revealing to the world a brilliant and deeply personal secret. Bette's mannequin factory makes for an odd and spooky setting. Nina is seen manipulating a mannequin's eyes, and it's not clear whether she's working or playing.
There is a perverse nihilism on display throughout. The film's most likable character, Virginia, is the knights' first victim. No other major characters are particularly sympathetic. Even children are not off-limits as victims. Two women in immediate danger could run for safety, but instead choose to engage in a jealous fight. The idea that women can't keep quiet to save their lives may be unspoken, but it's present. The film's ultimate disaster is set in motion by an act of compassion.
There's little not to like here, although the special effects leave something to be desired. As incredible as the knights look on horseback, they don't look very good on foot. Some will not like the film's pessimistic tone, but many will find this lesser-known film to be a gem of 1970s European horror.