There is a secret heaven genre geeks know about, an antique theme park of candlelit castle corridors, webby crypt cellars, velvet-curtained dining halls, old-growth estate hills dripping with fake fog, leafy country roads traveled by horse-drawn carriages, and moldy graveyards of alarming architecture, to be found only in the European gothic horror B-movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Look to the Italians, the British, and the Spanish — this was the era in which low-budget cinema discovered the mossy ruins and remnants of Europe’s medieval centuries of profligacy, war, and holy fanaticism, and turned them into the bad-dreamiest of movie sets.
Spanish cinema, cross-sectioned by its lowliest genre in this Anthology series, had the toughest time of it, trying to keep up with the surge in independent drive-in fun under the Franco regime, which never installed any set censorship rules and so therefore could condemn any piece of culture on a bureaucratic whim. Nevertheless, during the dictatorship’s waning final decade, Spain began emitting barking-mad horror cheapies in torrents, indulging in forbidden gore and nudity as if the disreputable filmmakers on hand — including Jess Franco, Paul Naschy, and León Klimovsky — somehow knew Franco’s days were numbered. The films themselves are most often outrageously, deliciously woeful, and seemed to know it, if you take the titles of Naschy vehicles like The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1970) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1972) at face value.
Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969), which has nothing to do with Sacher-Masoch, was merely one of eight films this kitsch-tornado auteur made that year, editing as if in a sangria swoon around star James Darren, whose tight-pants trumpet player falls in love with a jet-setting blonde, only to find her dead on the beach (whipped to death by blood-drinking aristo Klaus Kinski) and then alive again in a Rio nightclub. Or something — you can find a critique of decadence in there if you look, but Franco bops mostly between woozy dreams and lounging gratuitous-sez-you nude scenes, and you come for hip sloppiness or you’re not there.
More traditionally gothic, Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1974) posits a German girls’ boarding school besieged by a rubber reptile mask-and-cloak monster, who turns out to be the eponymous legendary Rhine vampire-siren (occasionally embodied by humanoid Helga Liné in a green bikini) guarding the underground treasure of the Nibelung. De Ossorio’s Night of the Seagulls (1975) varies the theme as frog-god-worshipping zombie Knights Templar haunt a seaside village (the names are Irish, but the hillsides are clearly Iberian), and rip the hearts out of young semi-nude maidens offered as sacrifice. This one, actually the fourth in the “Blind Dead” series, manages to muster Old World creepiness simply by way of real castle crumblings, underlit night forests, bogus “mist,” and skeletons-on-horseback imagery, coming intermittently close to the stuff of barely remembered childhood nightmares.
José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) doubles down on softcore salaciousness and frenzied bloodletting, hanging in another country castle with a pair of smokin’ sapphic predators as they feed on waylaid hitchhikers of both genders. Better, and certainly well-known stateside from a healthy TV-and-video afterlife, Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1973) introduces a welcome change of venue: A prehistoric monster awakens from a fossil block on the Trans-Siberian Express, leaving Brit eggheads Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with Cossack Telly Savalas to puzzle out the crisis as brains get wiped clean and bodies get snatched. A lovely post-dubbed river of silly sci-fi exposition runs through the proceedings, but however ripe the cheese may smell from where you’re sitting, it’s probably true that not a single viewer in 40 years has regretted spending time on this fake train with these old farts.
Easily the most polished film in the lineup is Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s widescreen The House that Screamed (1969), originally titled simply La Residencia, in which another girls’ school — this one a prim affair run like a whip-happy prison by headmistress Lilli Palmer — is tortured from within by violently suppressed sexual mojos, not unlike fascist Spain itself. Libidos are stoked, power games run amok, girls start vanishing, and throughout, prowling around one of the genre’s most spectacular baroque mansion sets, Ibáñez Serrador proves that framing, camera movement (instead of those panicky zooms), and editing (a shocking murder scene is stopped dead for a disarming freeze-frame) can deliver payloads of atmosphere. But it’s a political parable, too, with the still-gorgeous Palmer not quite in control of her institution, where top-down conservatism only results in cut throats, severed limbs, and a human jigsaw in the attic.