Sunday, September 10, 2023

Último deseo (1976)

... aka: Last Desire
... aka: People Who Own the Dark, The
... aka: Planeta ciego (Blind Planet)

Directed by:
León Klimovsky

As I've no doubt already pointed out elsewhere on this blog, I don't think director Klimovsky has really been given his due in horror circles. The fact his film THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN (1971) helped to kick start the busy Spanish horror cycle of the 70s after it became a surprise international hit is only part of the reason why. He also cranked out over a dozen genre films in just one decade (an accomplishment back then; not so much now in the age of digital "filmmaking"), which makes him one of the most prolific genre directors of the entire decade, though again that's just a small part of his legacy. When one takes a look at Klimovsky's horrorography, they'll notice a lot of films that, on the surface, appear to be dredging up Universal Studios-style classic monsters for the umpteenth time. While it's true that his films are usually highly uneven, he never made what most would consider a true genre classic and he's not the visual stylist that many of his contemporaries were, what's usually not pointed out about his films is that he almost always puts a unique spin on tired tropes. 

Klimovsky's THE DRACULA SAGA (1972), for instance, mixes a Gothic vampire film with ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and delivers some genuine surprises along the way. THE VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY (1974), another of his low budget bloodsucking yarns, is basically a warped version of Brigadoon (1954). When it came time for him to make his Frankenstein film, he instead delivered I HATE MY BODY! (1974), an amusing pseudo-feminist Nazi mad scientist romp about sexual politics. So it comes as no surprise that when Klimovsky decided to tackle a nuclear holocaust the resultant film was going to be anything but ordinary.

Though he made around 75 films in all genres, Klimovsky is best known these days for his numerous collaborations with Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy. Naschy is present here as well, only he's billed pretty far down the cast list and was never promoted as the film's actual star. Top-lining the cast of Euro-horror heavy hitters is sultry German-born Nadiuska. Now I've already written a little biographical information about this actress in my review for DEATH HAUNTS MONICA (1976) and don't want to repeat myself here only to say that when she did this film her fame was such that not only was she billed above the title but even her personal make-up artist was given a shout out in the opening credits. Still, she and Naschy are just two of the familiar faces in a cast filled with horror film regulars in what is actually something of an ensemble piece.

The film opens with numerous vignettes introducing all of the principal cast and, quite surprisingly, it does an above average job introducing its many characters and does so with a good deal of humor. Nadiuska plays Clara, a high priced call girl who's something of a veteran in her field and currently has pretty novice sex worker Marion (Julia Saly, another frequent Naschy collaborator and his co-star in THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF) under her wing. Seemingly on the opposite end of the spectrum is Berta (Teresa Gimpera - NIGHT OF THE DEVILS), a busy homemaker with two young children whose insurance salesman husband is frequently out of town. Somewhere in the middle are a pair of in-demand models; Luna (Leona Devine) and Tania (Diana Polakov), but apparently even Vogue gigs aren't enough to pay all of one's bills. All five ladies are looking to pick up some extra cash "entertaining" wealthy men at a weekend party at the mansion home of Lily (Maria Perschy) and her lover Victor (Tomás Picó). Lily's home / brothel, called Vilmore, caters only to wealthy clientele and, being wealthy and all, they tend to be more perverted than the rest of us mere peasants.

Among the five men scheduled to attend the next party are esteemed academic Prof. William Fulton (Alberto de Mendoza - Horror Express), obese world-famous surgeon / chess aficionado Dr. Edward Robinson (Ricardo Palacios) and Robinson's colleague, Dr. Meisser (Emiliano Redondo). After receiving an urgent emergency phone call, a Russian ambassador (Barta Barri) has to cancel at the last minute and ends up sending his young attaché, Vasily Seriabrakov (Jess Franco film regular Antonio Mayans), in his place. Rounding out the quintet is Naschy's character, Mr. Borne, who's first seen sport shooting birds and making some kind of shady business deal. He's later described as being a former Foreign Legion soldier turned international drug trafficker turned adventurer / outdoorsman. While he may be a criminal, he's managed to never get caught, and he's rich, which means he's welcome there.

In a scene surpisingly similar to, yet predating, Kubrick's acclaimed Eyes Wide Shut by decades, the men are asked to go upstairs, put on robes and rubber monster masks and then meet their hostess down in the candle-lit cellar for a cult-like ceremony that involves food, booze, drugs and the five working girls, who have been hired to offer the men "pleasure without limits." Lily informs them that their "great master" is one Donatien Alphonse François aka the Marquis de Sade, which should give you some idea about the tastes of all of the socially-respectable male participants. However, the fun and games are interrupted by a sudden tremor in the home. A nuclear bomb has been dropped somewhere nearby. Venturing upstairs, they discover the two maids - Greta (Carmen Platero) and Anita (Estela Delgado) - have both been blinded by the blast and now have cloudy white eyes. While the underground cellar acted as a bomb shelter and spared the hedonists a similar fate, they'll soon have other, equally problematic issues to deal with...

Professor Fulton decides it would be best for them to stay put and only venture out whenever necessary, i.e. when their supplies are low. Due to radiation levels and nuclear fallout being carried there by the wind, he proposes mostly staying in the cellar for at least two months. However, they're short on food so the men venture out to find a local market. While in the village, they encounter a panhandler who's been blind from birth, who informs them that the villagers were having some kind of outdoor celebration when the bomb exploded and now everyone there has been blinded. They've since gathered at a local monastery. Victor loses his mind, starts murdering the blind villagers and has to be put down himself, but the damage is already done.

As the survivors await the radiation to reach them before they retreat to the cellar for awhile, tensions arise and everyone is at each other's throats. Berta turns out to be Lily's former lover, but left her for a "normal" life with husband and kids, and now the two have a chance to rekindle their relationship. Clara reveals that she survived a suicide attempt and now has a renewed desire to live, becoming romantically involved with Fulton. Having dealt the death blow to Victor himself, Dr. Robinson goes crazy, starts stripping off all of his clothes and crawls around on all fours snorting like a pig (!) and lapping up spilled milk from the floor.

Though now short on sight, the villagers are still able-bodied and none too happy about what Victor did. When Vasily and Marion go back into town to look around, they're surrounded by a mob and promptly murdered. The villagers eventually show up with rocks and sticks and lay siege on the home, determined to get inside and kill everyone, and this thing suddenly (though briefly) becomes something of a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD rip-off, with crazed blind folks instead of zombies! They break windows, try to bust through doors and this even copies the NOTLD tension between Ben and Harry Cooper, except with Fulton and Borne arguing about whether or not it would be wise to retreat to the cellar. Once the ambush survivors are out of the house and on the run, the film takes a few unexpected turns before delivering a grim and surprisingly haunting finale.

I'd previously only seen the 82 minute English-language dub of this one and, while I enjoyed it, I much preferred this re-watch of the longer, restored, Spanish-language print, and am bumping my score up by half a star as a result. Yes, this is still flawed and somewhat disjointed even in its uncut form, but the script (written by Vicente Aranda, Gabriel Moreno Burgos and Joaquim Jordà) is more ambitious than usual, with well-placed laughs (including some absurdist humor that would be more at home in a surrealist film), inventive ideas, fairly solid characterizations and (gasp!) even elements of social commentary. Though it takes awhile to get to its more horrific content and is a bit light on exploitative elements, there's an unpredictability to the whole thing that more than makes up for it. 

The performances here are all pretty solid, most especially from leading ladies Nadiuska, Gimpera and Perschy, though I'm also quite surprised this never seems to register very highly for fans of Naschy. His macho, tactless character is one of his better roles and he's given a lot of sarcastic ("What do you suggest? That we teach them braille?") or just plain distasteful one-liners that are quite amusing.

In addition to cutting out over ten minutes, the English-dubbed version (supposedly prepped by Sean S. Cunningham) also Anglicized the credits and substituted portions of the original music score. After an extremely limited run in American theaters in 1980, this was issued on both Beta and VHS in 1981 by Sun Video Corporation. In 1987, it was reissued by Star Classics (who had the best cover art) and then laid dormant until Code Red resurrected the title in 2012 on DVD and then released a much-improved Blu-ray three years later. Canada and Spain are the only two other countries this appears to have been officially released in.

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