02 May 2009

SHIP OF FOOLS

I am grown angry with Amando de Ossorio. Return of the Evil Dead, the second film in the director's Blind Dead series, isn't all that good, according to most workable definitions of "good cinema". But it has atmosphere to spare, and it's also not all that bad, so I found myself able to overlook some of its less obvious flaws and touch on the major problems in only a glancing way, and convince myself that yes, I did like it. Not love. Like.

And how am I repaid? With 1974's The Ghost Galleon, the third Blind Dead movie, and pretty fucking hard it is to find anything even glancingly nice to say about it. Of course it's natural for the quality of a series to decline over subsequent entries, but the tumble that Ossorio took in just three years from Tombs of the Blind Dead to The Ghost Galleon is practically unprecedented in my knowledge. It's sort of like imagining that Plan 9 from Outer Space was pitched as the sequel to The War of the Worlds.

Ossorio wastes no time in establishing how very little value this picture is going to have for anybody with half a brain and affection for the Blind Dead: the opening scene is already worse than anything in either of the first two pictures and it gets worse still. But let me not get ahead of myself, the first scene: in which we see a fashion shoot, and afterwards one of the models, Noemí (Bárbara Ray) stays back to speak with the woman in charge of things, a modelling agent named - dear Lord help me if I am making this up - Lillian Barbie (Maria Perschy). And the company is indeed named "Barbie Models".

Noemí and Lillian have a bit of a conversation about Noemí's roommate, Kathy (who, when we see her, is played by Blanca Estrada). Apparently Kathy has been missing for a month now, and Noemí is feeling the first flickers of worry - this about a woman whom she not only lives with, but as we'll kind of learn if we pay attention to a few vague lines and an elliptical flashback, is also her lover - and she thinks that Lillian knows what's going on. Lillian denies this in a vaudevillian "wha, why, I NEVER!!!!" performance that does not fool Noemí one whit, and eventually the model gets her boss to admit that yes, something is going on; no, I can't tell you here; meet me on the docks at 7:00.

A précis can't really explain what it is about all this back-and-forth that I find so obnoxious; it's the leaden expository dialogue, and the frankly inhuman behavior by both parties. Nobody talks or acts like these two ladies do, and if this were just a clumsy first scene, I'd be annoyed but inclined to just ignore it. Unfortunately, people acting and talking like nobody acts or talks in the real world is about to become one of the dominant elements of The Ghost Galleon, so rather than being comfortably forgettable, the first scene is more like a palate-cleanser.

So eventually Noemí gets to the docks, where Lillian explains what's going on. I am going to take this slowly, for I don't know that I quite understand it myself: apparently, this sporting goods franchise tycoon named Howard Tucker (Jack Taylor) has hired Barbie Models for this really exciting and groundbreaking new advertising idea. He's starting to roll out a new type of high-tech speedboat, and to show off how amazingly awesome it is, he wanted to stage a stranded pair of beautiful women out in the middle of the ocean. To that end, Kathy and a mid-level starlet named Lorena (Margarita Merino) have spent the last month boating about near shipping lanes, hoping to be picked up so that they can tell their story of how it was all things to this absolutely fantastic speedboat that they're still alive. If all goes to Howard's plan, it should be this very afternoon that they're found and the story breaks, making him a very wealthy man.

I ask you - and I do not ask rhetorically, I ask with the deepest sincerity - has there ever been such a massively contrived way to start a movie as this? There must be dozens and dozens of ways to strand a speedboat in the path of a shipful of ghouls, and at least several if we absolutely must crew the speedboat with two hot women. But as some kind of half-assed viral ad campaign? What the fuck was Ossorio thinking?

Anyway, so when Kathy and Lorena radio in, it's to announce that they're caught in a fogbank, the air as hot as the tropics, even though it's in the North Sea. Just about the same time, they catch a glimpse of what must be a 400-year old galleon, with tattered sails, mouldering lumber, and no apparent crew. If it's you or I in this situation, we rev up the motor and get the shit out of there, but then there'd be no movie. So Kathy and Lorena wait patiently as the ship rams into them, leaving their smaller boat with a tiny leak. Lorena gets antsy and heads up to the deck to look around.

Having lost contact with the girls, Howard and Lillian lock Noemí up under the watchful eye of Howard's man Sergio (Manuel de Blas), who is an impossible idiot. After falling for that old "will you fetch me a glass of water and leave the cell door open while doing it?" trick, he grabs Noemí - whose escape is just as feeble as his guarding - and rapes her, though Ossorio has the taste to cut away almost the instant it starts. For those keeping count, that's two "raping a lesbian" scenes in three movies. While this is going on, Howard and Lillian are meeting with the absurdly credible scientist, Grüber (Carlos Lemos), who just can't wait to share with them all of his theories about the ghost ship that appears in a bank of mysterious hot fog, but only to small boats. Though this convinces neither of the kidnappers/advertising geniuses, they allow him to tag along as they boat out to the last known location of Kathy and Lorena's boat.

That's the first half hour, 40 minutes maybe, and the rest of the 90-minute feature is thankfully not nearly as dense as what preceded it. Which isn't to say it's good, not even "zombie movie good", thanks to one of the most hateful collections of assholes ever set against an undead army. After Kathy and Lorena are killed, the only vaguely sympathetic person left is Noemí, and she's the first one of the expedition to die. And while I'm not usually interested in the whole "good movies have sympathetic characters" argument, I think that good horror movies probably do need characters who are, if not sympathetic, at least not so wretched that we're actively cheering for their deaths.

It's easy to talk about what's awful in The Ghost Galleon, but there are a few things that work, and without exception they involve the Blind Dead. As it was in Tombs, the only appear at a few key points in the film, and then they are more of a creeping, hunting menace than an army of zombie with swords. The make-up is also improved since Return, though that might be a function of the foggy lighting used almost exclusively in their scenes in this film.

The moment of Lorena's death is as good as anything in the preceding movies: she wanders into the hold and the film cuts to a wide shot of the ship's deck, slowly tracking backwards, as her screams fill the air. Simple, tasteful, menacing. Noemí's lengthy death scene is nearly as good: she quickly figures out how to escape from the knights, but only after one of them has managed to crush her throat enough that when she tries to scream, it's nothing but a hoarse whisper. And, when she just about escapes, she hurts her leg in a completely believable way, not a slasher-style "girls can't run" way, and then we actually get to see as the knights sloooowly take her back to their Satanic altar, giving the scene an added edge of terror that a more typical scenario, in which they grab her and cut to a new scene, couldn't achieve. And the final shot of the movie is a real corker. The whole final scene is top-notch, but the final shot is a corker.

And then there's what doesn't work, and that's goddamn near everything else: the obviously fake boat model - and when I say "obviously," I don't think I can possibly indicate in writing how very obvious "obviously" means - Grüber's brain-rotting explanation for what's going on (it involves alternate dimensions, and no actual reason for the Templars to be on a Spanish treasure galleon in the North Sea, 200 years after their extermination - the movie even calls our attention to the last point); Ossorio's amateur-hour direction of the horror scenes that he did to such exquisite effect in the two preceding films. About the characters and the "drama" I would rather say nothing beyond what I have already said. They are terrible even by the generous standards of the zombie film.

In my heart of hearts, I do not understand how a filmmaker with demonstrable talents can make something this abominable. Tombs is a great horror film, full stop, end of argument, and Return is better than so many films just like it. The Ghost Galleon is trash. It's bad enough trash to flirt with comparisons to Bruno Mattei, the Italian filmmaker whose Hell of the Living Dead is a touchstone for indescribably bad zombie movies.

Okay, it's not even remotely close to Mattei territory: Ossorio (or maybe just his cinematographer) still has some idea where to set the camera down to engender some kind of dread; and a solid 15 minutes of the movie absolutely work on the level they're supposed to. But in the main, this is a waste of time, energy and talent, and a bigger waste still of one and a half hours of the life of anyone who saw and loved the other tales of the Blind Dead.

Reviews in this series
Tombs of the Blind Dead
Return of the Evil Dead
The Ghost Galleon
Night of the Seagulls

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