You could be forgiven for mistaking this 1976 Spanish horror entry as being the work of Amando De Ossorio, featuring as it does a horde of unseeing, zombie-like monsters much like his Blind Dead along with a small group of people holed up by said monsters a la Return of the Evil Dead.
In fact, however, the film was directed by Argentinean ex-pat Leon Klimovsky from a scenario co-authored by Blood Spattered Bride director Vicente Aranda.
We begin with the introduction of a dozen characters as they assemble at a mansion house for a masked, de Sade-inspired orgy. The six men including Alberto De Mendoza as scientist Professor Fulton and Paul Naschy as military man Bourne. One of the six women functions as mistress of ceremonies. The others, including Teresa Gimpera and Maria Perschy, are there to service the men's requirements.
But before the orgy moves into Jesus Franco territory the dungeon is shaken, as if by an earthquake.
Being a pre-destape film, this is about as far as it goes nudity wise
Venturing into the upper levels of the mansion to see what is going on, the participants find the servants blinded, their eyes burned white. Fulton realises that these symptoms are indicative of a nuclear explosion nearby. (Yes, this makes no sense, except in a Protect and Survive or Duck and Cover don't tell the public too much of the truth about nuclear armageddon way.)
The Beyond meets Horror Express?
Come morning the six men drive into the nearest town to find out what has happened and stock up on supplies. Victor cracks under pressure and kills some of the blind people before himself being killed by Edward; back at the mansion, Edward in turn suffers a breakdown, stripping naked and crawling around on all fours as if he were a pig.
Naschy blasts some of the local wildlife
The situation becomes more desperate as night falls and the blind march on the mansion intent on killing all those within...
A Birds meets Night of the Living Dead shot
One of the greatest strengths of the horror film is often its capacity for allegorical use, the way it allows the filmmaker to obliquely comment on social and political issues to cutting effect.
This can be seen in Night of the Living Dead, as an obvious inspiration for both The People Who Own the Dark and De Ossorio's Blind Dead films, and the Blind Dead themselves: Romero's film allowed him to comment upon the likes of the Vietnam War and the continuing necessity of the Civil Rights movement, while the Blind Dead enabled Ossorio to sneak criticism of the Franco regime past the Spanish censors.
Random Naschy images
The problem in this regard for The People Who Own the Dark is a relative lack of clarity about what the film's message is. With the Blind Dead it was easy to see, in that here were these ancient undead figures who killed those amongst the younger generations who failed to keep silent, or had the temerity to raise an oppositional voice.
Here by contrast we have a mixed bag of reference points also including Pasolini's Salo, Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, Saura's La Caza, Petri's Todo Modo – coincidentally released in the same year – and, amongst less exalted / more generic texts, Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and Romero's The Crazies.
The thing that these works have in common with the Blind Dead films and Night of the Living Dead is an internal consistency. Once you have accepted that the bourgeois in The Exterminating Angel cannot leave the house; that the dead are returning to life to eat the living; that there are ambulatory killer plants on the loose amongst an almost entirely blind population; or that a group of bourgeois sadists are intent on exploring every facet of power and perversity that they can, everything else follows logically. You know how to engage with the film, where your sympathies are supposed to lie or, indeed, if you are to take a more detached, observational position.
Here by contrast we don't get any particular cues. This is most apparent when it comes to the most attractive of the female characters, Perschy's tart with a heart. Before the catastrophe, she has an encounter with a blind beggar and gives him alms. Later, post-apocalypse, she attempts to leave the mansion with one of the men to go in search of help.
It's the kind of selfless, heroic gesture that would conventionally be rewarded.
But the couple are then captured and killed by the blind, much like young lovers Judy and Tom in Night of the Living Dead were by the ghouls. The thing is that whereas the ghouls operated on a pure instinctual need to feed, the blind mob is being led by the aforementioned beggar, and dumps the mutilated bodies before the sighted for added impact.
Assembling this, my dominant impression was perhaps of a universe informed by Machiavelli – in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king or, as we might formulate it here, the lifelong blind man is king amongst the recently blind – De Sade and Nietzsche in which the greatest error is not to take advantage of others' weakness when you have the chance for, resenting you, they will seek your destruction as soon as they get the chance.
These ideas aren't a problem, if you are a Pasolini or a Bunuel and attracted their kinds of audience, or if you're single-mindedly intent on making as unrelenting a film as possible, but Klimovsky doesn't appear to be.
At least the cynical and nihilistic ending, with with some decidedly ironic use of Beethoven's Ode to Joy via A Clockwork Orange and / or Murder in a Blue World, is well realised and consistent with what has gone immediately before it, to indicate who really owns the dark, the light and the (brave new) world and to take you out of the film satisfactorily.
Alas, it's a slog getting there, with too little in the way of sex, violence and spectacle for the kind of hardened Euro-trash fan who is likely to be the primary audience for the film today.
In sum, very much an oddity as a rip-off of a rip-off that nevertheless subverts imitation with its own curious innovations.