In conversation with an icon of Spanish horror
Legendary Spanish horror actress Lone Fleming on her role in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and its sequel ATTACK OF THE BLIND DEAD.
There was a period, a golden age for European horror, one that coincided with a demand in the US for grittier, sexier material, a wave launched post BONNIE AND CLYDE and one that evolved right in the middle of the visceral media coverage of the Vietnam war. With the MPAA loosening their belt, a wave of new guard young filmmakers emerging and the movies at the drive-in mirroring the real sex and shenanigans that went on in teenagers back-seats, European distributors saw an opportunity to make some money by injecting their fantasy films with grand dollops of suddenly commercial and permitted sex and violence, while never sacrificing that patented atmosphere, eccentric narrative arcs and textural sensuality.
In the middle of that wild wave came Spanish director Amando de Ossorios terrifying and surreal 1971 chiller LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO or as it was known in the US and other English language territories, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (or in the truncated AIP version, simply THE BLIND DEAD). Often dismissed as a Latin redux of Romero’s groundbreaking zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, TOMBS is something richer, darker and ripe with mythology. In it, three friends – macho Roger, his girlfriend Virginia and her college friend Betty – go for a pleasant train ride into the Portuguese countryside. However, as the ride progresses, we learn in flashback that Virginia and Betty had a lesbian relationship in school and now, as Roger and Betty appear to be getting a little chummier that she’d like, Virginia has a momentary breakdown, jumps from the moving train and wanders to the ruined nearby church nestled at the foot of the hill.
And that’s when the terror begins.
Virginia’s comely presence rouses a mummified sect of blood-drinking, centuries dead Templar Knights, their skeletal, eyeless and hooded visages shambling out of their graves in a mass of fog, wielding swords, riding equally desiccated horses and looking for victims. Shot in gauzy slow-motion, the Templar attack sequences are the stuff nightmares are made of and the horror film that supports their appearance is equally eerie.
Ossorio’s signature magnum macabre opus would spawn three more Templar companion films 1973’s ATTACK OF THE BLIND DEAD (aka RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD), 1974’s THE GHOST GALLEON (aka HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES) and 1975’s NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS, but none would reach the heights of fright that TOMBS offers in its finest hour.
At the center of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEADs humanity is a compelling turn by actress Lone Fleming as Betty, a strong woman whose love for her murdered friend spurs her on to solve the mystery of the blind monsters. And Fleming is no stranger to horror. Along with TOMBS, she would star in Ossorio’s ATTACK OF THE BLIND DEAD and his 1975 EXORCIST clone, DEMON WITCH CHILD as well as others like Mario Sicilano’s BLACK CANDLES and 1973’s IT HAPPENED AT NIGHTMARE INN directed by her husband of many years, HORROR EXPRESS legend Eugenio Martin.
With her blue eyes, strong features and earthy sensuality, Fleming’s presence always added a kind of intelligent beauty to whatever picture she graced and it’s that intellect that makes her one of the most interesting survivors of the Spanish horror boom.
Now in her 60’s, Fleming looks fantastic, embraces her cult movie past and now has a successful career as a fine artist, working in paint and sculpture.
ALEXANDER: Let’s go back to your early days in cinema. What was the climate in Spain like at the time, creatively speaking? Was it hard to find roles? Did you have to audition a lot?
FLEMING: You know there were a lot of films going on when I came to Spain. Really, it was almost an industry because we had a lot of comedies, a lot of terror or horror films. Everybody was really working and we didn’t get a lot of money. You know I started from the bottom but I’m very professional and that is one of the most important things for you to get the role. If you’re good, if they like you and you’re professional then it’s much easier.
ALEXANDER: At what point did you meet your husband? Was it during a film?
FLEMING: We met on the film, as you call it in United States, DEATH AT THE DEEP END OF THE SWIMMING POOL (aka THE FOURTH VICTIM) with Carroll Baker and Michael Craig.
ALEXANDER: Ah, so you met on set. That’s fantastic. What was that initial connection? Was it love at first sight?
FLEMING: Yeah it was. And then we went out and it went on and off and I went to Denmark and I came back and it went on and off again for many years and of course it was a secret.
ALEXANDER: Do you ever go back and watch any of your older films?
FLEMING: Sometimes if I have to go to a festival and I know they want to ask me about something then I go in and have a look at it. I never like myself in films.
ALEXANDER: Why is that?
FLEMING: I don’t know (laughs). When you do a role you sink yourself so much into it that you don’t know how you’re going to come off on the screen. I never think about if the light is correct on my face, if I look better this way, I just jump into the role and I couldn’t care less if I’m not pretty from that side or the other.
ALEXANDER: The late Jess Franco spoke often about how hard it was to make these kinds of films in Spain initially because of General Franco’s pious rule. Did you feel any effect of that? Did it adversely affect the arts in your opinion?
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