Thursday, July 14, 2016

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973)

I first saw Horror Rises from the Tomb many years ago (around 2003) as part of a four movie bargain set of zombie movies, and my initial thoughts were, “too slow and not enough zombies.” I had no idea who Spanish filmmaker Paul Naschy was at the time, nor would I have probably cared. I was disappointed I didn’t get the zombie movie the misleading box cover promised. I then cast it aside as an irrelevant film that was best forgotten. (Boy is adult-me really annoyed at teenage-me right now.)

In the midst of my giallo collecting craze around 2008, I eventually came upon a Naschy thriller called Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974). Needless to say, I dug it and finally became interested in director/writer/actor Paul Naschy. My next Naschy film was Human Beasts (1980), which to me was an even greater experience. Then, after having fun with a couple of Naschy’s werewolf movies, I thought, despite my disconcerting memories of the film, I’d give Horror Rises from the Tomb another go with a new perspective as a Naschy fan and without my zombie film bias.

Horror Rises from the Tomb was written by and stars Paul Naschy, in three roles. It came about as a rush emergency product. Film producer José Antonio Pérez Giner urgently needed a horror screenplay in order to get a new production company, Profilmes, off the ground.* With only a day and a half to do it, Paul Naschy offered to quickly write up a screenplay.* In his memoirs, Naschy stated that he managed to write up the screen play for Horror Rises from the Tomb in record time with the help of amphetamine pills.* The movie was originally to have been directed by Leon Klimovsky, but he was not available, so the job went to Klimovsky’s assistant Carlos Aured.* Aured would direct Naschy in three other films, Curse of the Devil (1973), The Mummy’s Revenge (1973), and the aforementioned Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, before the two would have a falling out, as Aured seems to have shunned Naschy from what was supposed to be their next film.

It is safe to say that Horror Rises from the Tomb is one of the most well-known Naschy films and emblematic of Naschy’s particular brand of horror. It also features one of Naschy’s most iconic monsters, next to the wolf-man, Alaric de Marnac, an evil French sorcerer/knight who is kind of a mix between Gilles de Rais and Count Dracula. Naschy would reprise the role of de Marnac in Panic Beats (1983). 

Pacing issues aside, this movie is a beautiful gothic horror piece that’s a lot more dreadful than most of your atmospheric candles, nightgowns, and ghosts fests. There’s just something depressing, hopeless, and pessimistic about it. The characters seem doomed to die horrific deaths in an inescapable, claustrophobic nightmare world.

When I first saw it, I was anticipating a fun zombie film, one that followed conventional zombie-film rules, instead of a dark and disturbing tale of occult cruelty. I had also thought that it dragged its doom and gloom, stilted conversation scenes, contrived climax, and ritualistic resurrections to an uninspired conclusion.

I remember thinking that the short zombie segment was too little too late, but I was overlooking that the zombies were more of an addition to the meat and potatoes, like a condiment, a little George Romero to go with your gothic horror. Also, the scene with the zombies, seen from a distance, emerging from the swamp is highly effective at eerily foreboding the film’s brief transition into a zombie film. The landscape and sound effects that sound like some sort of unidentified sea creature make this one of the creepier parts.

My negative opinion has of course long since passed. I’ve come to hold Horror Rises in high esteem. The film really is a nightmarish experience akin to Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). It also helped that, when I revisited it for the first time, I chose to watch BCI’s marvelous HD restoration, which brought out the sheer beauty that makes up every interior set and exterior location, because beauty paired with gloom is an intrinsic element to this kind of film.

Aside from the visuals, my favorite quality would have to be the dark fantasy element, which includes sorcery, occult rituals, and resurrected evil from the middle ages. The antagonists are introduced at the beginning in a terrific medieval flashback. Alaric de Marnac and his faithful love and partner in evil, Mabille de Lancré (Helga Line) are being led to the gallows to be executed for a list of heinous crimes, which includes “drinking human blood”, “eating flesh”, and “bloody sacrifices of the newborn and of young girls.” Naschy and Line do seem born for these roles, with the evil sorceress/vampire Mabille being kind of like a red-headed mix of Circe and Evil-Lyn. Line was about forty years old at the time of filming, and I do believe that Mabille, along with the Loreley from Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1974), is probably Line’s most popular role. (By the way, today July 14 happens to be Helga Line’s birthday).

Happy birthday, vampire queen!
Before their violent executions, both Alaric and Mabille manage to spit out rather elaborate, vengeful curses to the descendants of those responsible for their sentence, namely Alaric’s brother Armand de Marnac (also Paul Naschy) and Andre Roland (Victor Alcázar). This setup does bring to mind Bava’s pivotal gothic horror Black Sunday (1960), and likely a number of other films that followed suit.

Flash forward to ‘70s Paris, where the descendants (and modern counterparts) of Andre and Armand, Maurice (Alcázar) and Hugo (Naschy), are living what appears to be comfortable lives, each with their respective girlfriends who could pass as supermodels.

So that’s three roles for Naschy, and although Armand is only briefly shown, the character range is, as usual with Naschy, exceptionally impressive. When I first watched this, i.e. when I was ignorant of Paul Naschy, I didn’t even notice.

A skeptical Hugo attends a marvelously shot séance, where they learn of the location of Alaric’s head buried somewhere on the land near Hugo’s isolated winter mansion. To see if it was all a hoax, and if not, to possibly find buried treasure, Hugo suggests to everyone that they travel down for a sort of getaway for the weekend to the chalet on his family grounds. (The gorgeous isolated country house located in Lozoya Valley in the film actually belonged to Naschy’s parents).

During the drive up to the estate, they are stopped and molested by bandits (a common scene in Naschy’s films), who wreck their car. Vigilantes come to their aid, and they turn out to be even more brutal than the bandits, as they violently murder the bandits with the authority of an execution squad. Every time I watch it, I’m disturbed by the summary executions, which feel like an appalling abuse of authority. The leader of the gang, who is a dead ringer for Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002), sells Hugo and his companions a clunker so they can reach their destination where all Hell will eventually break loose.

It’s funny that the curse would take over five-hundred years to be realized. You’d think Alaric and Mabille’s vengeful souls would’ve moved on and gotten over this execution incident from way back in the Middle-Ages by now and perhaps acquired some sort of enlightenment whilst in whatever purgatory they were confined to before resurrection, yet this is true evil itself, which would only intensify with centuries.

I do like the way the groundskeeper becomes possessed and transitions into something similar to a slasher movie villain to do Alaric’s bidding in order to procure the parts he needs to be resurrected, namely Alaric’s head, a heart, and a nubile body for Mabille’s resurrection.

While at the estate, Hugo develops a love connection with one of the house keeper’s daughters, Elvira (Emma Cohen). (The name Elvira is in tribute to Naschy’s real life wife, Elvira Primavera, one of many times Naschy would name his character’s love interest after his wife). Cohen’s performance is sincere; she puts a lot of terror and sadness (her character did recently lose her father and sister to the forces of evil) into her acting, making certain scenes like the zombie assault more believable, as she stands behind Naschy while he pushes the zombies back with a torch, and her facial expressions here give a genuine sense of fear. Elvira ends up being the heroine of the story, transitioning from the damsel in distress to the final girl, with the power to destroy Alaric and Mabille. This power is in the form of a “deus ex machina” plot device known as the Talisman of Thor. I find it rather peculiar that with the film’s villains being in league with Satan, instead of a Christian symbol of good such as the cross, it is a pagan symbol that overpowers the evil force. However, a cross probably could’ve been found anywhere, but a mythical talisman is quite unique. I do think it is unusual, but a good kind of unusual, addition, probably because it had me thinking of fantasy themed heavy metal. The villains who were pretty terrifying up to this point do become pushovers when pit against the Talisman of Thor, which was conveniently pulled out of a well. But the seemingly invincible evil has to be defeated somehow, and I’ll accept a fun trinket like the Talisman of Thor, which could easily adorn the cover of a power metal album.

So I made the point that I didn’t like it at first, but that was more of a shame-on-me sort of thing, because Horror Rises from the Tomb is awesome. It may slow to a grinding halt at times, but the mood, tone, and atmosphere always persist. The soundtrack is also creepy and quite effective; there’s a particular disturbing, scraping sound effect heard during some of the esoteric ritual scenes, and usually when Alaric’s presence is known, that sounds like some sort of reptilian mating call that adds to the unease. I can’t recommend it enough to Naschy fans that haven’t seen it yet, and with the right audience this would make for some great midnight movie madness. 

© At the Mansion of Madness
*Naschy, P., (2000). Memoirs of a Wolfman (translated by Mike Hodges). Midnight Marquee, Press, Inc.

During the time I was writing this review, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Emma Cohen on July 11, 2016. Thank you and rest in peace Emma Cohen. I haven’t yet experienced the full extent of your acting, but your talent was and will continue to be a special treat to us fans of Spanish cult/horror films.


  1. I had read a lot of bad things about this film before going in so I kept my expectations low only to be surprised by how much enjoyed it. It's a messy but wild smorgasbord of undead goodness. I liked the hokey effects and the genius use of pink lighting to signify unholy presences. That heart ripping scene was especially impressive. And that gloom throughout gives it a desperate feel (totally agree about that hanging scene).

    In regards to the Hammers of Thor, it's definitely a very nice touch in contrast to the usual Christian symbols. If I recall on the very informative commentary track, I think they used it as a substitute? Because if they had filmed the final shot using a crucifix, they might've been accused of blasphemy. Regardless, the heavenly nature of Thor and the Norse pantheon would probably still work in destroying the undead. I agree that it did make them a little too easy to defeat. I also wish they didn't find the silver needle until the climax when Elvira has to fight Mabille. It would've been a little more tense. However, I noticed that with the knight statue holder, there might've been a nod to Saint George defeating the dragon with a lance.

    Helga Liné was great! I love the bit where she is stopped from eating the blonde girl and she exclaims "I'm ravenous!". Emma Cohen (RIP) was lovely as usual and I enjoyed seeing her as a final girl. I particularly like when she is seduced by Alaric, we see her eyes light up in a very subtle way. <3 I haven't heard of Panic Beats but its connection to Horror Rises has definitely got me curious! Overall, Horror Rises is a very enjoyable Spanish take on Black Sunday.

    1. Even though I love this film, I feel like I wrote a lot of bad things about it when I was reflecting from the perspective of my younger self, but I thought it was a nice way to bring up the flaws and how they end up overruled in the long run. You’ve also made me realize that I forgot to mention that the movie has a good measure of gore for 1973. The model severed head of Alaric de Marnac I believe was also used in The Hanging Woman.

      I completely overlooked the commentary tracks, and it’s with Paul Naschy and Carlos Aured, so it would be interesting to hear both of their thoughts on the film and what kind of conversational chemistry they might have, especially considering their falling out in the ‘70s.

      I could see how using a crucifix could’ve been considered sacrilege considering the dramatic closing scene with Elvira casting the talisman off in to the lake. The DVD is supplemented with alternate footage, including clothed and unclothed scenes, with the concluding segment of Elvira, where she’s in a post melancholic/traumatic state lethargically walking around in the light snow, but the camera is third person instead of second person as it is in the film with the fire superimposition. It’s just an interesting different perspective that still works and I think Cohen’s acting knack for melancholy really makes it work either way.

      I have the Mondo Macabre DVD of Panic Beats. I can’t remember much about the film, hence the reason I didn’t say much about it, but I do remember it seeming rather different that Horror Rises.

  2. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I've had a similar journey with horror; now heavily appreciate of horror my younger self would have dismissed out of hand. Even without reference to The Beyond you've done a good enough job to persuade me to take a look. Great stuff, cheers.

    1. You're welcome and thank you for reading and for the compliments. If you end up liking Horror Rises from the Tomb, treat yourself to more Paul Naschy! You won't regret it. His other zombie films are Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) and The Hanging Woman (1973).

  3. Your original bad opinion may have been, at least in part, due to the version you saw. A lot of the versions available come from the edited versions for American theaters, and those have a tendency to cut the film to the pieces and remove everything worthwhile.

    1. Couldn't agree more. Sometimes there isn't much left after they've cut out the good stuff.

  4. I don't know, your old self was kind of right...this movie is slow, boring, and kind of terrible.

  5. A major plot element--the joining of Naschy's head to his body--is a direct lift from Universal's 1958 The Thing That Wouldn't Die with Robin Hughes.

  6. Sound effect like a “reptilian mating call” - nice bit of writing, that. Wonderful review of one of my favs.