As anxiety, terror and repulsion are universal, every territory and country around the globe has some history with fictional horror, from legend to literature to film. A rich and consistent legacy of the latter however, has proven harder to maintain. Though nations have come alive (and continue to) in their own genre golden ages, few can truly sustain. Of course, cultural, political, audience and financial support for such films are major factors (see: the rapid decline of the 2000s French horror boom)often outweighing filmmakers desiresbut that only makes the ability to produce exhilarating fright fare regularly more impressive
One of the richest legacies of filmic terror lies in Spain, where midst the decline of and post-Franco (a regime which suppressed depictions of sex, sacrilege, violence and politics) the country has exploded with the unsettling, the bloodcurdling, the salacious and the perverse, internationally introducing tremendous, artful filmmakers in the process.
In a Time Out London* review of 1993s
La Madre Muerta (a film youll find below), directed by Juanma Bajo Ulloa, the author writes, Without such formal discipline, this psychological thriller might have spilled over into dubious exploitation, but like his haunted protagonist, the director/co-writer always pulls back from the brink. Its possible this canny summation can be applied to much of Spanish horror. The most prominent filmmakers in the countrys genre history work similar wonders, exploring and depicting truly warped, graphic content with spellbinding technical formalism. Spanish horror is awash in powerful images and whirling cameras which barely contain themes and allusion to damaged psyche, captivity (in apartments, manors, iron lungs, our pasts, our minds), political turmoil and dangerous obsession. Often times, the films would be repugnant if they werent so beautiful. Often times, thats what makes them great.
[REC]: Apocalypse, the latest solo outing from one of Spains current genre principals, Jaume Balaguero, hits DVD and Blu in the UK (this article brought to you by its distributor eONe, click here to purchase), Shock presents a brief glance at essential works in the canon of Spanish Horror.
Spanish Horror #1
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971, dir. Amando de Ossorio)
There’s an inherent silliness to skeletons atop horses that is blown far the fuck away in Amando de Ossorio’s atmospheric, Eurohorror classic. The film instead produces powerful, slow, iconic images of now classic creatures, both pulpy in design and historical in lore. The Blind Dead are this undead death cult, revived remnants of savage Crusades history wreaking havoc on seeming modern times.
Spanish Horror #2
Hunchback of the Morgue (1972, dir. Javier Aguirre)
Selections here, on more than one occasion, are not only honoring a single film, but filmmakers and performers whose single works can’t be divorced from their filmography and influence. Paul Naschy is such a towering figure. The actor-writer-director and devotee of monster movies brought the creature feature to Spain, most iconic in his El Hombre Lobo movies as the Wolf Man, Waldemar Daninsky. Beginning with 1968’s
La Marca del Hombre Lobo and continuing through twelve Lobo pictures (and another tree, non-Daninsky werewolf movies) alone, Naschy crafted Universal-esque character and channeled such cinema history in his other monster roles as well. In 1972’s Hunchback of the Morgue, Naschy is maybe at his most tragic and Universal-reminiscent. The story of a dim, tender Hunchback, caught at the whim of both his devotion to a dying love and a sinister doctor is filled with great sadness and great gore. Its second half is especially atmospheric, dripping with fog and climaxing with a monster mash at once thrilling and ultimately melancholy.
Spanish Horror #3
Symptoms (1974, dir. José Ramón Larraz)
An essential entry in the
psychotic women catalogue from the director of Vampyres, Symptoms is a stunning example of such artful exploitation. Starring Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald), Larraz’s film chronicles the secluded vacation of two women, one of which harbors dark secrets and dangerous obsession. Pleasence plays Helen, a woman driven to the edge by both her family’s countryside home and the past misdeeds that haunt it. Helen brings her friend Anne there to relax, but the house and the lingering presence of one absent Cara proceed to make it impossible. Thanks to a terrific, devoted performance from Pleasence as the teetering, susceptible Helen and Larraz’s stunning aesthetic work—from a dolly across the lakeside manor’s interior to the oppressive victim POV shots of violence— Symptoms is both stunning and anxious, rising above its retrograde and icky nature, one maybe equating lesbian desire with psychosis.
Spanish Horror #4
Female Vampire, aka The Bare Breasted Countess (1973, dir. Jess Franco)
As the ultimate, prolific purveyor of eroticized cult cinema, any number of Jess Franco’s films could find themselves right here. The tale of Irina von Karlstein however, starring his partner and muse Lina Romay, reads as quintessential, from Franco’s opening, erotic portrait of Romay stalking through the mist to the sexual nature of vampirism made even more overt by her methods (draining blood, essence via oral sex). The film spanned Franco’s sensibilities and oeuvre, shot as a horror film and a porn, and of course distributed under a multitude of monikers. It is paracinematic as a horror film, sex film and art film, and dreamy and disparate in tone. I can’t help but feel it’s the Franco film to recommend.
Spanish Horror #5
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, aka The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974, dir. Jorge Grau)
One of the great zombie films, made at a time when the rules of said zombies weren’t as scrutinized or wrung. Though fairly traditional,
Sleeping Corpses’ undead are also less decomposed and more physically murderous. Jorge Grau’s film is an eco and nature-themed one, with radiation to kill insects giving way to rising cadavers. Ray Lovelock’s motorcycle tourist is a classic asshole, but not so much as the humans he’s up against. An overzealous policeman of course refuses to believe in the unnatural and the film ends in a bleak, and darkly comedic fashion because of it. That’s not to mention one of the all-time zombies, whose gauze wrapped head and lanky, nearly naked frame proves imposing and unsettling.
Spanish Horror #6
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976, Narcisco Ibañez Serrador)
the great killer kid movie, Who Can Kill a Child? is sweaty, paranoid in atmosphere and provocative in title. Neither the film, nor its couple on vacation can escape news of global terror. The opening credits serve as a slideshow of historical international atrocity, of which children are always the innocent victims of; a point reiterated by a shopkeeper just before Tom and Evelyn make their way to secluded island Almanzora. There, the island’s children are no victims. They have turned startlingly violent. They are vicious and antisocial, treating murder as game. Serrador seems to worry these widespread war crimes are to blame, encroaching closer and younger than ever before (as far as Evelyn’s unborn baby). What’s influencing adolescent aggression? Nevermind the movies, Serrador seems to think. Beware of the news.
Spanish Horror #7
In A Glass Cage (1986, dir. Agusti Villaronga)
Said gorgeous formalism meets the tremendously unsetting in Villaronga’s infamous post-WWII-set cult classic. Again, a Spanish horror film engages with wartime horrors and its influence over the young, as a man inserts himself as a nurse into the life of a sickly Nazi trapped in an iron lung. Angelo is there to enact revenge on Klaus for the sexual perversions he suffered as a child, but he is perhaps equally deranged, murdering throughout the ex-soldier’s picturesque home and slowly transforming it into a death camp while reading aloud the old man's grossly detailed diary. Their sick bond is presented graphically and in incredible composition—a camera constantly moving so as to highlight Klaus’ immobility and captivity; Klaus’ mirror by which to see Angelo’s frightening behavior and his own sick face; the increasing draining of color. Even peripheral characters are perennially trapped, confined and obscured by the house and its inhabitants, alone in grand rooms. The final image makes for the ultimate glass cage, a vicious cycle as snow globe.
Spanish Horror #8
Anguish (1987, dir. Bigas Luna)
The only horror film from arthouse and dramatic filmmaker Bigas Luna,
Anguish is simply incredible. It is a meta masterwork that’s playful as it revels in exploiting the fear of violent cinematic influence. Luna recalls De Palma in his stunning images of graphic enucleation, audiences within a film watching an audience within a film, cinematic hypnosis and more. It all begins as the terrifically pulpy tale of a hospital orderly with an overly dependent and telepathic relationship with his murderous mother (played by Zelda Rubinstein). From there, the film spirals into a feast for and about the eyes, engaging the spellbinding, enchanting and dark nature of watching in the dark.
Spanish Horror #9
La Madre Muerta (1993, dir. Juanma Bajo Ulloa)
Glass Cage, Ulloa’s thriller becomes a perverse portrait of captor-captive bond, desire and guilt, punctuated by multiple, roving sequences of Hitchcockian suspense. Hateful criminal Ismael botches a robbery by shooting the homeowner, and then her daughter. The latter survives, but is irreparably damaged by the event. Years later, her presence at a nearby clinic forces Ismael to confront this Tell-Tale Heart of a person and the violent, swirling, sexual emotion she inspires. Like with Glass Cage and Anguish, the act of looking and witnessing plays a role, as Ismael’s own girlfriend Maite is thrown into anguish by the hostage’s presence and disrepair ensues. An utterly captivating, warped art-horror journey.
Spanish Horror #10
Day of the Beast (1996, dir. Alex de la Iglesia)
Holy shit unhinged,
Day of the Beast is one of Alex de la Iglesia’s multiple great works (the Spain-centered monster melodrama The Last Circus being another). Beast is a brutal black comedy, one rife with sacrilege and metal as a priest heads down the left hand path so as to destroy the antichrist in an increasingly violent and madcap Madrid. Hallucinatory, highjinks-fueled and incredibly bloody, Beast is a middle finger.
Spanish Horror #11
Thesis (1996, dir. Alejandro Amenábar)
And again, the act of looking and its frightening influence. Alejandro Amenábar’s (
Open Your Eyes, The Others) breakthrough is a thriller engaged with media influence, as a student aims to explore the subject of cinematic violence, comes across a snuff film and fears its creator will come for her. Of course, the creator doubles as a new boyfriend, and Amenábar’s taut, tense work riffs on the fear of a filmic villain crossing over, as well as conflicting desire and attraction to filmed violence.
Spanish Horror #12
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
An acclaimed, international genre presence, the Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro has crafted two period films concerning the Spanish Civil War era: terrific ghost story
The Devil’s Backbone and this, his celebrated fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. The latter, taking place five years after the war midst the Franco regime is another picture concerned with the harsh realities of such a political climate and its effect on children, as well as the escape of fantasy. Young Ofelia is caught between a dying mother, a fascist stepfather and a rebellion. She chooses her own side, one of myth and beauty. Gorgeously realized, Pan’s Labyrinth is elegant, even when anguished, an imaginative masterwork deserving of its reputation.
Spanish Horror #13
[REC] (2007, dir. Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza)
The Blair Witch Project is the godfather of the current found footage phenomenon, it feels as if [REC] truly kickstarted it. Rejecting the traditionally composed aesthetics of much of this list, directors Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza engaged POV horror and crafted one of its best examples. [REC] remains a funhouse— a visceral, urgent and breathless piece of night vision scare cinema designed for an adrenalized audience that lost no energy in its second go, [REC] 2. Excitingly, both filmmakers have proved their dexterity within the series and without, rejecting its core aesthetic for B-movie influenced sequels Genesis and Apocalypse, and in Balaguero’s Hitchcockian gem, Sleep Tight.
Spanish Horror #14
Kidnapped, aka Secuestrados (2010, dir. Miguel Angel Vivas)
Here again is where incredible craft meets true brutality. Miguel Angel Vivas’ harrowing home invasion nightmare exists on a line between immediate, realist and brutal violence and the ever-present knowledge of cinema, thanks to its twelve, immaculately choreographed long takes and incredible use of split screen. The thriller is a nihilistic gut punch and an exercise in dread and expecting the worst. The obvious craft gives hope for a cinematic savior or retribution that never comes. Instead, Vivas ends the film in such antagonistic manner, the viewer is totally spent.
Spanish Horror #15
The Skin I Live In (2011, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
For much of his career, Pedro Almodóvar explored and upended Spain’s history and cultural mores in subversive melodramas and comedies, marked by incredible female ensembles and vibrant color (see:
Dark Habits, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). He’s spun over into dark territory in the likes of Bad Education and Live Flesh and went full genre in the insane The Skin I Live In. Based on French novel Tarantula, The Skin I Live In is warped, gender bending psychological horror about identity, abuse and revenge as told through the lens of classical thrillers (the influence of Eyes Without a Face, Fritz Lang and Hitchcock is palpable) and artful, lush design. This balance—the lurid, the graphic and beautiful—has endured throughout Spanish horror history and continues to. It is a most, singular, special aspect to the nation’s genre cinema and one that's rarely lost its luster.