Horror Rises from the Tomb / Mark of the Devil IV / El Espanto Surge de la Tumba (1973/1976) *½
Considering what a big fan I am of impoverished European horror movies, it’s rather odd that I’ve seen so few Jacinto Molina films. After Jesus Franco, Molina (who used his real name as a screenwriter and the pseudonym Paul Naschy in front of the camera) is probably the most important figure in Spanish horror cinema of the 1970’s. If you’ve ever seen a Spanish film about werewolves, mummies, or devil-worshipers that was made during that decade, odds are Paul Naschy was the guy in the monster suit, and there’s a decent chance he wrote the screenplay, too. Many people regard Horror Rises from the Tomb/El Espanto Surge de la Tumba, Molina’s distinctly 70’s update of The Thing that Couldn’t Die, to be his best work. If the edition I saw gives a fair indication of the movie’s quality (more on this later), then I hope for his sake that the conventional wisdom is way off-base.
Like most movies about witches and Satanists that were made between 1960 and 1980, Horror Rises from the Tomb begins in the late Middle Ages. A pair of French noblemen named Armand du Marnac (Naschy, from Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror and House of Psychotic Women) and Andre Roland (Victor Alcazar, from Vengeance of the Zombies and The Hunchback of the Rue Morgue) are leading a small procession of soldiers across the countryside, the purpose of which seems to be to convey the two black-clad people in the ox-cart bringing up the rear to an unpleasant fate. The two prisoners turn out to be Armand’s brother, Alaric (also Paul Naschy), and Alaric’s consort, Mabille de Lancre (Helga Liné, of Nightmare Castle and War Goddess) both of whom stand convicted of a veritable smorgasbord of Satanic misdeeds— cannibalism, blood-drinking, human sacrifice, you name it. Alaric is beheaded and Mabille is strung up by her ankles from a convenient tree and killed... well, somehow. But of course neither of these things happens before both malefactors pronounce a curse upon the executioners and their descendants.
Flash forward 500 years or so. Hugo du Marnac (Naschy yet again) drops in on his friend, Maurice Roland (yup, it’s Victor Alcazar), to inform him that his girlfriend, Paula (Saga of Dracula’s Cristina Suriani), has returned from Germany, where she works as a journalist. Paula is staying with Sylvia (Betsabe Sharon, of The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman), who conveniently enough is Hugo’s girlfriend, and all four characters end up getting together for an evening of whiskey-fueled fun. There’s one little detail that Sylvia hadn’t let her guests in on, though— she’s also invited her spiritualist nutjob friends, Gail (Montserrat Julio, from The Blood-Spattered Bride and It Happened at Nightmare Inn) and Sean (Julio Peña, of Horror Express and Voodoo Black Exorcist), over for the evening, with the result that all conversation ends up in orbit around the subject of a medium named Irina Kormorova (Elsa Zabala, from Hundra and 99 Women). Now we all know that any time a medium is mentioned in a movie like this, it means that a séance scene is on the way, and indeed, despite Hugo and Silvia’s professed disbelief in the spirit world, they and Paula are along for the ride the next time Gail and Sean pay a visit to Madame Irina. On a lark, Hugo suggests that Irina should try to contact the spirit of his ancestor, Alaric du Marnac, and ask him if it’s true that his head and body were buried in separate graves somewhere on the old Marnac estate. Irina does as she is told, and Alaric du Marnac proves to be exceptionally cooperative for a vengeful 15th-century warlock. He not only confirms the legend of his dual burial, but gives rather precise instructions as to where both body and head may be found. Meanwhile, back at Maurice’s place, he too is receiving a visitation from the spirit of Alaric du Marnac. Maurice is an artist, you see, and for the past couple of weeks, he’s been obsessively trying to paint an image from one of his dreams— a face with riveting dark eyes. You guessed it, the dream face belongs to Alaric, and while Madame Irina is channeling him at the séance, Alaric sends out some psychic feelers to guide Maurice in his painting. The resulting image is so disturbing that Maurice immediately destroys it.
All of this is really just an extremely roundabout way of providing an excuse for Hugo, Sylvia, Paula, and Maurice to pack their shit and head over to Hugo’s ancestral estate, where they will be able to do all manner of really stupid things, including but not limited to accidentally resurrecting Alaric du Marnac. But first, we have to get past the scene in which our heroes are nearly killed by a gang of bandits who themselves really are killed by a lynch-mob from the nearest village to Castle Marnac. The only reason I can think of why this scene is even in here is so that one of the bandits can wreck Hugo’s car, forcing him to buy a 40-year-old Citroen from the leader of the lynch mob. After all, it wouldn’t do to have the protagonists equipped with a reliable vehicle in which to escape from supernatural peril.
That supernatural peril begins the next afternoon, when Hugo, Maurice, and Gaston the butler (Juan Cazalilla, of A Bell from Hell and Island of the Damned) go digging for the head of du Marnac. In the movie’s first really brazen crib from The Thing that Couldn’t Die, Maurice is struck suddenly by an overwhelming sense of certainty that leads him to dig up a rusted-shut coffer just about the right size for a human head. Hugo tells the hired laborers to take the box back to the chateau, and says something about going into town for a blowtorch tomorrow. As it happens, the hired hands (who believe they’ve dug up some rare and valuable treasure) are quicker on the draw, and that very evening, Gaston catches them trying to melt the lock off of the coffer. This is unfortunate for Gaston, as the head inside the coffer has just extended its influence into the mind of one of the would-be thieves; the possessed man picks up a sickle from the floor of the toolshed where they’d been working, and kills both Gaston and the other laborer. Then he carries the coffer away to the crypt in which the rest of Alaric du Marnac lies interred.
This is the point at which all hell pretty much breaks loose. Gaston’s daughters, Elvira (Emma Cohen, from The Devil’s Cross and The Obscene Mirror) and Chantal (Maria Jose Cantudo, of Autopsy and The Vampires of Vogel), race over to the chateau the moment they find their father’s body. Thus they are perfectly placed to become victims when the possessed laborer shows up, sickle in hand, and goes to work. Chantal ends up with her heart cut out, while Paula is abducted and taken back to du Marnac’s crypt. When Maurice goes looking for her, he too ends up possessed, after which he kidnaps Sylvia, whose life-force du Marnac needs to resurrect Mabille de Lancre. Finally, the possessed men dig up du Marnac’s body and replace the head on its shoulders. The two revived witches waste no time in wreaking their vengeance, popping up all over town to cut out hearts (evidently the main source of sustenance for the undead), and sending a gang of zombies to attack Hugo and Elvira back at the chateau. The only thing that can stop du Marnac and his consort is an ancient talisman that has been in the du Marnac family for centuries, and which Gaston once told Elivra about on the off-chance that “anything ever came out of a tomb to destroy” her kin. And fortunately for our rapidly shrinking roster of heroes, Gaston remembered to tell her where he hid both the talisman and its instruction manual.
I don’t necessarily know that it’s horror, precisely, that rises from this particular tomb, but I can at least see the rationale behind the misleading title. After all, not even I would fork over good money for a movie called Boredom Rises from the Tomb. The pisser is that there’s no reason on Earth why this film should be boring. It has a two vengeful undead Satanists, a living head, a pack of zombies, possessions, murders by farm implement— virtually everything a guy like me could ask for in a 70’s European horror movie. Notice, however, that I said “virtually.” There are, at least in the version I saw, two very important ingredients missing from the formula— onscreen sex and violence— and their absence sucks just about every drop of potential entertainment value out of this flick. And this, at last, brings me around to the caveat I offered way back in the first paragraph. The fact of the matter is that I’m not at all sure the version of Horror Rises from the Tomb that I saw offers fair grounds for assessment of this movie. In conducting my pre-review research, I encountered descriptions of many incidents that simply aren’t in my copy of the film, and lo and behold, it turns out that the Alpha Video edition is missing anywhere from six to eight minutes of footage. In fact, I rather suspect that what I saw was really a 70’s-vintage US TV edit. The upshot of all this is that I’ll be more than willing to give Horror Rises from the Tomb another chance if I should happen to encounter an uncut version, but it’s going to be a good long while before I bother to watch the Alpha Video edition again.