Spanish Horror

by | Apr 8, 2020 | 0 comments

A View at How Spanish Horror Helped Form Some of Spain’s Best Directors

The horror genre is one that has allowed many young filmmakers to find their footing, before becoming the heads of classics and behemoth hits. Horror films have always been easier to make since a low-lighting and restraint from showing too much helps in adding tension. Many famed filmmakers have started in the horror genre: Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead (1981)), Peter Jackson (Bad Taste (1987)), Ridley Scott (Alien (1979)), and Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13 (1963)). For foreign countries, horror can be a genre with which to build up their film industry as well as attracting foreign appeal. To follow the evolution of Spain’s horror genre is fascinating, as we see the Spanish industry and filmmakers regarding the genre as a perfect springboard onto the international stage as well as a mechanism to evolve the Spanish cinematic industry.

Spain has been making horror films since 1917 with El Protegido de Satan (1917), but the subsequent films of that era never broke out into a serious “horror wave.” Despite dictator Francisco Franco having a tight censorship over all media distributed from the 1930s until his death in the late 1970s it was surprising to note that many American horror films were imported dealing with supernatural subjects (Rosemary’s Baby (1968)), murder and violence (Psycho (1960)), and even both with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Franco’s censors were much more concerned about heavy nudity and gore, and American censors were already abiding by similar rules themselves. Thus this allowed The Exorcist (1973) to be released, but not Last Tango in Paris (1972). There was clearly heavy exposure to the horror genre for Spanish audiences, but the domestic filmmakers did not begin to break out in the genre until the early 1960s with Jesus Franco.

Jesus Franco began making horror films on a small budget in Madrid with one of his first films The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) being not only a domestic success, but getting a release in the US as well in 1964. Franco’s ability to work with small budgets and sometimes shoot various films simultaneously allowed him to churn out an incredible amount of projects during this period, averaging two pictures a year. However, Franco felt constrained by the censorship in Spain and thus moved around Europe to make his films. With more money and freedom, the volume of Franco’s film expanded so that just in 1969 he released seven feature-length films. The freedom he garnered, and his work ethic, attracted international talent like Christopher Lee, with whom he made two films: Count Dracula (1970) in Germany, and The Bloody Judge (1970) in Italy. However, with this untethered freedom, Franco began to move into territory of heavy nudity and exploitation of women on screen; this led to his prestige to wane in the 70s as many financiers would shun him in fear of being related to too many X-movies. Regardless, Franco continued to produce many films every year so that by the end of his life in 2013 at age 82 he had directed over 160 films. Franco also would start the trend of Spanish directors going abroad to search for money and fame after brief success in Spain.

 The filmmakers and horror films that were being produced in Spain, however, began to evolve into extremely subtle pieces of social commentary. One monumental film was the short La Cabina (1972), which Antonio Mercero and Jose Luis Garci conceived, and which starred one of the Spanish stars of the moment: Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez. The short consists of a man (Lopez Vazquez) who gets stuck in a newly installed phone-booth just outside his apartment. The short ensues with a crowd gathering to stare and laugh at him. Only a small minority attempt to help him, but none can open the booth. Finally, two men from the phone booth company come and unscrew the phone booth and load it on their truck, driving away with our main character still stuck inside. Along the road he sees another identical truck with another man stuck like him; the two stare at each other at a loss for words but soon lose each other as the trucks diverge. The film ends as the truck arrives at a factory in the heart of a mountain. Our main character is ignored by the workers and a machine picks up the booth and carries it to a seemingly endless warehouse, where our protagonist looks in horror as he sees it full of phone booths, all with dead or dying people stuck inside.

La Cabina is a perfect example of how a genre film helped comment on society, while not insulting or provoking the censors. The film has clear themes of the horror of selfishness, everyone is only interested in the entertainment that the poor man stuck in the phone-booth provides. There is a clear message of consumerism and of the supposed Darwinist capitalism that seeks to root out the faulty humans in our species, i.e. the ones clueless enough to get stuck in a phone-booth. The socialist themes are apparent throughout. Given that Franco had defeated socialist coalitions in the Spanish Civil War of the 30s, it was a clear indication and warning to the Spanish populace of where the country was heading. However, the film does have small rays of hope, showing that a few men do attempt to help our protagonist, and thus that there is still good in Spain that had not yet been stamped out.

 It was also during this time of censorship that the figure of Narciso “Chicho” Ibañez Serrador came to be. Serrador was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1935 to a Spanish father and Argentine mother, but moved to Spain when he was seven-years old. He was highly educated and spoke perfect English, and would no doubt have watched the immensely popular American TV series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Serrador took The Twilight Zone’s form of anthology and changed the theme from science-fiction/horror to purely horror. The result was one of the first breakout TV series in Spain: Historias para No Dormir (1966-1969). Serrador’s series reached the domestic Spanish audience with more ease than a film, allowing him to influence the next generation of filmmakers, both in the horror genre and beyond. Such confessed fans of the TV show are directors Paco Plaza, J.A. Bayona, and Alejandro Amenabar, all three of whom will be analyzed later in this paper. Serrador did make a jump to the film side of the industry making two films, The House that Screamed (1969) and Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), the latter set in Spain but following an English-speaking couple, thus allowing the film to achieve international distribution in the UK and US. This pattern of horror directors adapting to the English-speaking audience, is something we will see become apparent in the late 90s and early 2000s. Serrador, unfortunately, was plagued by illness. The film set intensity was too much for him so he decided to stick to TV.

When the Franco dictatorship ended in 1977 there was an abrupt halt to the production of Spanish horror films. The film industry pivoted towards comedies and escapist works that would allow for a general “sigh of relief” from the Spanish population. There were still testimonial releases from the likes of Paul Naschy (The Beasts’ Carnival (1980), Panic Beats (1983)) and Jose Ramon Larraz, who would begin to plant the seed for supernatural terror with films such as Stigma (1980) and Black Candles (1982). Serrador and Mercero chose to focus on more twisted aspects of humanity, rather than bringing any attention to the other-worldly. Ramon Larraz also began to introduce the idea of domestic slashers to Spain with films such as Rest in Pieces (1987) and Edge of the Axe (1988). These small entries would help prepare Spanish audiences for the explosion of horror films that would engulf them in the 90s and 2000s.

 The early 90s saw the emergence of Alex de la Iglesia as a force of nature. In 1995 he came out with his second feature Day of the Beast (1995) which was a cult hit that signaled the beginning of a Horror Wave in Spain. The film follows a priest who arrives in Madrid and is looking to contact the Devil, for he has been able to decipher passages in the Bible that indicate that the apocalypse will begin somewhere in Madrid on New Year’s Eve. He teams up with a Heavy Metal aficionado (played by Santiago Segura who would later become a frequent collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s) and a TV psychic presenter to find the exact place where the Devil will rise with the anti-Christ. The film is at points a near-comedy, with Segura’s character used to poke fun at the horror genre and its tropes. The film was a milestone because it reintroduced a signature tone to the horror genre that didn’t feel copied from American films, but felt as original and relatable as Serrador’s TV series had been. De la Iglesia built on Ramon Larraz’s introduction of the supernatural with his religious themes, and would continue the social commentaries by looking at the clash of rural and urban. Overall, the film was a brilliant and fun ploy to look into this “loss of innocence” that had been felt around Spain at the time–the musical and sexual revolution was also taking place. De la Iglesia’s success would prompt him to continue visiting this genre with Dance with the Devil (1997) and The Oxford Murders (2008), which were filmed in the US and the UK respectively and in English, and with the more diluted The Last Circus (2010), Witching and Bitching (2013), and The Bar (2017) which would be horror-paired with sci-fi or comedy, still retaining the tongue-in-cheek tone that de la Iglesia had introduced in Day of the Beast.

Alejandro Amenabar is probably the most well-known Spanish horror director internationally; he has two monumental films that would shape horror in Spain. One was his first feature, which he made while at college: Thesis (1996). Thesis is the story of a young woman named Angela (Ana Torrent) who is writing about the use of violence in commercial films for her psychological thesis project. Angela, asks her professor to take out a restricted film, but she never sees him alive again. She finds the professor in a viewing room, dead of a heart attack after having watched the tape. Angela then discovers that the film is a snuff-tape where a girl is tortured to death. Only when she views it with acquaintance Chema (Fele Martinez) does she figure out the girl was a student at her university. The film follows Angela as she falls down a rabbit-hole in the snuff-film world that had become prominent in current affairs for Spain and the Western world at the time. Amenabar’s subtle hand at balancing the horror/mystery elements while also crafting intriguing characters and relationships was a skill no Spanish horror director had achieved before. The film didn’t feel like a genre piece and was able to get wide-appeal in Spain, with movie lines such as: “You fell in love with the bad guy!” becoming viral with the young generation.

 Amenabar’s skills in horror would stretch to his second feature: Open Your Eyes (1997), although this film would utilize romance and sci-fi more. It was with The Others (2001) that Amenabar fully broke into the horror pantheon of not just Spain, but the world as well. The film was a Spanish production, but like Serrador and Franco before him, Amenabar used English-speaking actors. Nicole Kidman and Christopher Eccleston helped with the marketability of the film as it became the highest grossing Spanish film domestically in history with $27 million, and it would also become (and still is as of the writing of this paper) the highest grossing Spanish film globally as well, with a box-office recoup of $218 million. The film follows a mother and her two children as they move into their old family mansion. However, they soon begin to see strange things happening that might indicate that supernatural beings are cohabiting with them. Amenabar had refined his skills in his previous movies and here we see him utilize the audience’s expectation and perceptions of the genre to his own advantage. The result is that we are constantly expecting a jump-scare, and the more Amenabar restrains this urge, the more likely the viewer thinks the jump-scare will occur in the next tease. The brilliant twist at the finale indicated that Amenabar and his control of the audience were promising, mirroring another rising director of the time: M. Night Shyamalan.

 However, unlike the American, Amenabar decided to scale back the volume of his films; shifting to art pieces such as The Sea Inside (2004), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Agora (2009) a period-piece set in the Roman Empire starring Rachel Weisz and Oscar Isaac. It was only in 2015 that Amenabar returned to the horror genre with Regression (2015) starring Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke. Here we see a pattern that Serrador and de la Iglesia had utilized to their advantage; after proving themselves on local productions, they utilize English in their films as a marketing strategy to get their voices and stories heard. To some Spaniards this feels like a betrayal, as the directors are “scooped” away by the big money elsewhere, but others see it as a timely recognition of Spanish filmmakers; all thanks to their dabbling in the horror genre.

Curiously, as the export of Spanish filmmakers abroad was happening, the import of directors from Latin American countries was occurring in Spain, specifically from Mexico. Guillermo del Toro had proven himself with low-budget horror fare in Mexico and came to Spain to ride the horror wave that the 90s brought. In 2001, del Toro came out with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) a horror tale set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The film starred Eduardo Noriega (a frequent collaborator of Amenabar in his early career) and set the stage for del Toro’s next Spanish film: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Before the 2006 Oscar-nominated film, del Toro would be able to make the jump to US studio films thanks to his success with The Devil’s Backbone. Like de la Iglesia, del Toro had found a unique tone to his horror films, which would be introduced in the US with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004).

However, del Toro chose to return to Spain to make Pan’s Labyrinth, which would help cement his tone and style. Pan’s Labyrinth would become a cult-hit internationally and would help turn international heads away from the English-speaking Spanish films, to the Spanish-speaking ones too. The appeal of showing history and fantasy entwined, that showcased Spain as a medieval fantasy land that had suffered under a dictatorship, played to the expectations and clichés of how Spain was regarded in non-intellectual circles.

This exposure by del Toro would help usher in the next stage of this horror wave with films Rec (2007) and The Orphanage (2007), which capitalized on the cracked door to US audiences that del Toro had left open.

 Rec was a found-footage film by filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza that would piggy-back on the success of the US film The Blair Witch Project (1999). Rec is filmed from the perspective of a small local news station that follows their local fire department for a night. However, when called into an apartment building, they find an old lady acting violently and out of control. They are soon trapped inside the building, as outside policemen and military units quarantine them due to a mysterious mutation happening with the tenants. The film was able to transcend the Spanish culture, as it paired down its plot to its bare and human essentials, letting its simplicity and tension carry its narrative. Unlike Day of the Beast, Thesis, or Pan’s Labyrinth, one could walk into this film and not miss out on important details for not having read up on Spanish culture and history. The film broke the domestic box office record that The Others had set as it took in $32 million, and it would spawn one of the first franchises in modern Spanish cinematic history with four films, the latest of which came out in 2014. Rec became a cult classic outside Spain as well, to the point that its’ simplicity and effective emotional stakes inspired American studios to remake the film as Quarantine (2008), which itself spawned its own sequel in 2011. Rec was able to show how Spanish horror films are able to not only take a concept of filmmaking, like found-footage, and recycle it to great effect, but that such restyling can then be sold back and re-inspire American filmmakers. Rec’s low budget was able to help financially-paired down Spanish production companies make a huge profit, helping franchises and Spanish studios not only stay afloat, but fund other projects as well.

           The Orphanage, the other 2007 film, was not as big a financial success as Rec, but it was an equally important artistic milestone. J.A. Bayona’s first feature was put together with help of Guillermo del Toro as a producer. Bayona began to bring about an assimilation of the styles of many directors before him, from the subtle restraint of Amenabar, to the childlike creepiness of del Toro, and the old-school camera-movements and styles of Serrador. The Orphanage is a story of a woman who brings her husband and son into the old orphanage where she grew up, but which is now being sold as a home. As the family settles into their new place, the son starts to communicate with an invisible friend. There is a clear inspiration from many other horror films, whether Spanish or American, but Bayona’s genius was in making it seem extremely fresh and unpredictable. It relaunched the career of Belen Rueda who had been a star in the 90s, but after her first pregnancies had fallen into the forgotten bucket of middle-aged actresses. Bayona’s success allowed him to break big into the international stage. His next three films dove deeper into the American and Hollywood machine with The Impossible (2012) that featured the likes of Naomi Watts (nominated for an Oscar for this film), Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland, A Monster Calls (2016), which featured Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Liam Neeson, and finally his first fully American film: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), which grossed $1.3 billion making Bayona the highest grossing Spanish director of all-time.

Finally, there is Veronica (2017) directed by Paco Plaza of Rec fame. The film is based on a true story of an investigation into a supposed demonic possession of a school-girl in the 1990s. The film and its premise will sound familiar to any fan of The Conjuring (2013), and it showcases the final correlation between Spanish and American cinema. After the globalization of the cinematic industry it can be easy for domestic cinematic industries to mirror simply everything they see from the Americans. However, Spain, like a handful of other markets and industries, has managed to find a hybridity that keeps the flavor and history of its own horror culture while also following the smart trends that monetize horror films, showcased by the American behemoth studios. Veronica is the perfect amalgamation of this. The film has Ana Torrent, the protagonist of Thesis, playing a small supporting role in a clear nod to Amenabar, and it takes on the inspiration of clashing classes, urban vs. rural, and religiosity aspects that de la Iglesia had played around with.

Veronica is a milestone in showing the progress Spanish films have made, learning and building on what they saw from more successful markets, and achieving level footing in their domestic market. Veronica was able to become the second highest-grossing horror film of 2017 in Spain only behind IT (2017), which became the highest grossing horror film of all time globally. It is not unusual to see Spaniards now favor domestic horror films over imported ones, valuing their industry thanks to the skill of their filmmakers. Veronica is also noteworthy in how it streams on Netflix (it is not a Netflix production, however), and has allowed international audiences everywhere to access Spanish horror, which, thanks to Plaza’s ability to keep his films up to trend, has allowed a vast number of “converts” to discover a subterranean world of horror in Spain, that has existed and had been brewing for decades.

           In the end, the subject of Spanish horror is a fascinating one to watch as it has evolved with Spanish history, and spring-boarded some of the most important and successful cinematic voices in Spain. The forced work of restraint during censorship in the Franco era might have been to filmmakers’ benefit as they left more to viewers’ imagination, therefore saving themselves on bad prosthetics and achieving greater frights with the audience’s help. This restraint carried on to later generations of filmmakers, heavily influenced by the likes of Serrador who would spawn an army of admirers the likes of which would launch the Spanish horror genre in the 90s and 2000s. The success and fame the genre brought to the Iberian country attracted foreigners to come and make their own break-out work in Spain, so that the country has achieved cinematic fame for being a lead-producer of storytellers with a penchant for scaring you mercilessly.

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