More than fifty years on and the influence of Night of the Living Dead can still be felt in modern day filmmaking. Certainly, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel came first and was a source of inspiration for George Romero and other filmmakers to adapt the story. It’s pretty apparent, however, that NOTLD had a larger and more direct influence on genre-cinema following its release. There must be a countless amount of films that were either influenced by or shamelessly ripped off from NOTLD and the range of their quality is as wide as Romero’s influence on the horror genre. The People Who Own the Dark is an example of a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but does enough different to stand out from the rest of the imitators. Clearly, it takes as much from Omega Man, a more direct adaptation of I Am Legend, as it does from NOTLD, but the Spanish setting and distinct touches made by director León Klimovsky give this film its own identity.
The film is slow to get out of the gate. We’re introduced to each of the characters one by one as they go about their day-to-day lives. Each of the characters are preparing to attend a party later that evening, hosted by a pair of wealthy socialites. The location of the party takes place at a hillside castle in rural Spain. The castle setting adds to the gothic mood of the film and works perfectly once the siege starts to occur. I should mention that I watched the 82 minute US cut of the film. The Spanish release, apparently, runs 94 minutes with additional scenes of dialogue. Even at 82 minutes, the film does feel slow at times. Especially for the first act, when all of the characters are being established and the introduction to the party occurs. If you stick it out through the initial setup, I think most will get something out of the remainder of the film and be glad they stuck with it.
Director León Klimovsky’s subtext and social commentary within this genre-film begin to reveal themselves once we learn exactly what kind of party is taking place. It seems these members of the social elite have a taste for decadence and have arranged a masquerade party where they may indulge in their most animalistic desires with the female partygoers, who turn out to be paid prostitutes. Anything goes, as long as it’s out in the open in front of the rest of the guests. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut definitely came to mind as this scenario played out. Before any kind of orgy can breakout, the castle starts to shake and the partygoers believe they have just experienced an earthquake. The partygoers return from the cellar to discover all the housemaids who remained on the ground level are now blind. After a trip into the local village where it’s discovered that everyone on the earth’s surface is now blind, the partygoers realize they’re dealing with something much worse than an earthquake. It’s deduced that a nuclear explosion has occurred and the survivors must leave the area to avoid any fallout. They decide to return to the castle but not before one of them turns paranoid and stabs one of the blind villagers. This act of violence triggers the socialites’ gradual demise and sets up Klimovsky’s commentary on class division and unrest between the working class villagers and the wealthy elite.
This is the point in the story where it starts to feel like a real horror film. The blind villagers swarm the castle much like the zombies in NOTLD trying to enter the farmhouse. In some ways, the situation in The People Who Own the Dark feels more terrifying than NOTLD. Because the threat are actual people and not undead, shuffling zombies, the danger that the partygoers find themselves in feels more real. To add to this, the blind mob work together and are able to strategize as how to besiege the castle. They come through the ceiling, they’re able to drive cars, they start fires, and they’re capable of using firearms. This makes them feel more threatening than any braindead zombie. As is usually the case in these kinds of films, characters start turning on one another as the situation turns dire. Spanish cult film star, Paul Naschy, is amongst the cast playing a Harry Cooper type character.
I certainly don’t want to spoil the ending of this film, but let’s just say that it’s bleak as hell! There’s an excellent use of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony during a bus ride at the end of the film. As I’ve discovered more of these Spanish horror films from the 60’s and 70’s, my appreciation for their quaintness and leisurely paced storytelling has really grown on me. The first act of the film could certainly stand to move more briskly but the third act finishes so strongly that I was able to overlook that. The Spanish horror films from this era would be a nice bridge from some of the Hammer horror films that came out of England in the 50’s and 60’s to the more extreme horror films produced in Italy during the 70’s and 80’s. On the surface, The People Who Own the Dark may look like just another adaptation of I Am Legend. Personally, I think director León Klimovsky brings enough originality and subtext to the production that it makes for an interesting viewing experience.
MVT: León Klimovsky
Make or Break Scene: The bus trip with Beethoven’s 9th playing on the radio.