While Spanish filmmakers grew quite the penchant for shocking cinemagoers in the mid-’90s, serving up solid genre productions such as Alejandro Amenábar’s THESIS, Alex De La Iglesia’s THE DAY OF THE BEAST or Agustin Diaz Yanes’ NADIE HABLARÁ DE NOSOTROS CUANDO HAYAMOS MUERTO, it wasn’t until a decade later that Spanish horror really grew wings and crossed the pond with the release of Amenábar’s THE OTHERS.
With said flick raking in over $200 million worldwide, it didn’t take long before a whole new generation of Spanish genre directors sprang onto the scene: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, Carles Torrens and Miguel Ángel Vivas, to name but a few.
The recent international success of Spanish genre films, in my opinion, is heavily rooted in their unique way of cutting against the Hollywood grain. By that I mean most Spanish horrors prefer to eschew paranormal yarns in favor of more engaging candid and credible premises, so as to tap into audiences’ primal fears — those things we always know are feasible but which we prefer to keep at bay. Even when it comes to supernatural shockers hailing from Spain such as [REC], what made that film particularly memorable was the fact all the tenants of the apartment block and the location itself were so eerily relatable.
In the light of audiences’ undying appetite for horror films made in Spain, let’s take a look at a number of Spanish shockers that may have passed you by, but definitely deserve attention…
EL REY DE LA MONTAÑA (KING OF THE HILL, 2007)
The farthest of cries from the animated series of the same name, Gonzalo López-Gallego’s (APOLLO 18, OPEN GRAVE) KING OF THE HILL conjures up a relentlessly tense game of cat and mouse.
The film finds Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) going out of his mind trying to navigate rural backroads before bullets suddenly start whistling past him, as he finds himself caught in the cross-hairs of an unseen sniper’s sights, for reasons unknown. To add suspicion to the mix, Quim comes across an attractive young woman, and the two join forces, scrambling into the forest for cover.
Having an enemy lurking out of sight forges a constant edge-of-your-seat tension, as bullets can come zooming into the frame at any given moment, and Javier Gullon’s (ENEMY) screenplay cleverly teases the audience by slowly peeling back layers of the protagonist’s past to reveal possible reasons as to why he is under attack. Then, to top it all off, the film springs a shattering final curve ball that turns everything you’ve been lead to believe on its head.
I was lucky enough to catch López-Gallegos’ THE HOLLOW POINT at this year’s FANT Bilbao Festival and, while not quite on a par with KING OF THE HILL, it’s certainly worth checking out when it’s released sometime later this year.
LA CUEVA (IN DARKNESS WE FALL, 2014)
When this hit festivals last year many dismissed it, expecting another poor man’s THE DESCENT… but while Neil Marshall relied on cave-dwelling creatures to scare the bejeezus out of us in that film, Alfredo Montero’s offering addresses a much scarier, and very real beast: survival instincts — that monster we all harbor within, ready to pounce should circumstances demand.
At its core, the film is based on one of the best-known customs of the sea, where shipwrecked survivors would draw lots to decide who would be killed and eaten to save the lives of the rest of the group. Switching shipwreck survivors for five happy-go-lucky holidaymakers, IN DARKNESS WE FALL follows the ill-fated tourists as they fly off to the idyllic island of Formentera before losing their way in a labyrinthine cave, where hours turn to days… and days lead to disturbingly drastic measures.
The real drawing point here is how Montero cleverly creates a bond between the audience and the holidaymakers in the first half of the film, which serves as the perfect tool to intensify the tension and claustrophobia tenfold when things go south. Once our intrepid spelunkers start having to resort to the most drastic of measures, you’ll find yourself wondering what you’d do in a similar predicament — always a telltale sign a director has reached his audience.
MUSARAÑAS (SHREW’S NEST, 2014)
Another example of the distinctive fabric found in modern Spanish horror comes in the form of the stirring psychological period thriller SHREW’S NEST, the debut feature from Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel, under the production wing of Alex de la Iglesias’ Pokeepsie Films banner.
Set almost exclusively in a claustrophobic apartment in 1950s Spain, the film tackles the terrors of depression and illness, focusing on Montse (Macarena Gómez), a fragile woman forced to bring up her younger sister after the death of their mother and disappearance of their father. Having developed an acute case of agoraphobia as a result of her life-shattering experiences, Montse’s temperament becomes increasingly more volatile and disquieting, especially when an unexpected injured stranger knocks on their door begging for help.
Although they never originally intended it as a period piece, the writing duo realized that technology was advancing faster than their script… so they opted for a ’50s setting, which brought with it an interesting social context underlining the strength of religious beliefs in that era while at the same time enriching everything with a particularly appealing gothic aesthetic. Coupled with Gomez’ unflinching portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness, SHREW’S NEST is one of the most intimidating psychological thrillers of recent years.
LOS OJOS DE JULIA (JULIA’S EYES, 2010)
This feminist giallo whodunit is the first of two films on this list from director Guillem Morales, and it’s guaranteed to perturb you just as much as it does the protagonist — in the best possible sense of the word.
Forging a tense and delusional atmosphere — by and large thanks to the deft visuals rendered by the cinematographer Oscar Faura — the film relates the tale of Julia (Belen Rueda), a woman who’s not only just lost her twin sister to an apparent suicide, but who’s also slowly losing her sight, due to a degenerative eye condition.
Being the only person convinced her sister was incapable of killing herself, Julia becomes fixated on discovering the truth — which, in turn, gradually isolates her from those around her, leaving her to deal with her health problems and a possible obsessive stalker all on her lonesome.
Morales’ deft decision to emulate what the world looks like through Julia’s eyes allows the audience to experience her predicament, fears and self-doubt first-hand, making it nigh impossible to know who or what is real, or just a figment of the imagination.
No pun intended, but this is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.
SECUESTRADOS (KIDNAPPED, 2010)
With such an overabundance of home invasion movies crowding the market, Miguel Ángel Vivas’ KIDNAPPED restored a lot of faith in said subgenre by bucking the trend and sidestepping every cliché in the book.
The film tells the tale of a middle-class family who has just moved in to their new abode in Madrid. Before they have even had time to unpack, three Eastern-European criminals break in and hold the family hostage there while the father is taken to a local ATM to empty his bank accounts. Nothing plays out as the thieves had planned, of course, and the tension continues to escalate thanks to the clever use of “24” style split-screen, allowing the audience to see everything happen in real time at both of the key locations.
As I said, KIDNAPPED refuses to play by the rules and features one of the most brutal denouements imaginable; it’s sure to leave you shocked to the core.
MIENTRAS DUERMES (SLEEP TIGHT, 2011)
Penned by SUMMER CAMP’s Alberto Marini and directed by [REC]’s Jaume Balagueró, SLEEP TIGHT makes us question just how safe we really are in the “safety” of our own homes, even when surrounded by people we take for granted we can confide in.
Meet apartment concierge César (Luis Tosar), quite the miserable so-and-so who abhors the thought of anyone being the slightest bit happy. Given his lot in life, he takes it upon himself to turn his tenants’ lives into living nightmares and, as a skeleton key is just one of many tools of his trade, causing havoc is child’s play for him. That is, until he comes up against carefree Clara.
Given Clara’s forbearance, César grows increasingly frustrated as his attempts to oppress her happiness come to no avail, and his resourcefulness takes a turn for the macabre — especially when Clara’s boyfriend shows up out of the blue.
Anything but your typical obsessed-stalker thriller, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the antagonist spurning the person he sets in his sights rather than trying to gain her affections.
Statistically speaking, home is the most dangerous place to be, and SLEEP TIGHT is a painful reminder of that… and will have the exact opposite effect than its title propounds.
EL HABITANTE INCIERTO (THE UNINVITED GUEST, 2004)
Remaining in the home-invasion realm is Guillem Morales’ second film in this list, THE UNINVITED GUEST.
Félix, a misanthropic architect, is doing his best to maintain his sanity after having been dumped by his girlfriend and left to live on his lonesome in an immense mansion. Things are borderline tolerable until Félix lets a complete stranger into his house to use the phone, but when this uninvited guest suddenly disappears into thin air, he starts losing one marble after another, convinced the shady character never actually left and is surreptitiously slumming it somewhere in his spacious abode.
THE UNINVITED GUEST boasts a small but brilliant cast and an absolutely unnerving location; the latter of which is rendered to perfection by DoP Sergi Bartrolí, who takes us quite the immersive tour of the house to ensure the vastness and countless nooks and crannies are just as haunting for the audience as they are for the protagonist.
And if that wasn’t enough to get your head around, the whole thing takes an about turn as it hits the midway mark, paving the way to an ingratiating, tragicomic final reel.
EL CADÁVER DE ANNA FRITZ (THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ, 2015)
Having cut his teeth writing for a Muppets-esque kid’s show in Spain, writer/director Hèctor Hernández Vicens’ jump to the big screen marked an epic change in tack, as he took on one of the world’s eternal anathemas: necrophilia.
Loosely based on the real life case of a mortuary worker who violated a supposed cadaver that suddenly awoke from a catatonic state mid-coitus, THE CORPSE OF ANNA FRITZ tells the pitch-black tale of a group of three youths who sneak into a morgue and violate the corpse of recently-deceased rising starlet Anna Fritz.
As sordid as this all sounds, the necrophilia scenes are handled so deftly that the end result is surprisingly absorbing — and, although just the mere thought of this premise will put many people off, the early twisted scenes are more than worth stomaching, as the aftermath is to die for.
If this is a harbinger of things to come from Hernández Vicens, then I can’t wait to see what he has in store with the recently announced DAY OF THE DEAD revamp he’s signed on to helm.
LOBOS DE ARGA (GAME OF WEREWOLVES, 2011)
Anyone familiar with director/scribe Juan Martínez Moreno’s ABCS OF DEATH 2 segment “S is for Split” will be surprised as to just how different his previous work is. An unabashed homage to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON at heart, GAME OF WEREWOLVES adopts much more of a satirical slant, along the lines of TREMORS, HOT FUZZ or DOG SOLDIERS.
Cue unsuccessful author Tomas, who has been summoned back to his family’s village of Arga to receive some kind of honorary award. It doesn’t take long, though, before he realizes it was all a cock-and-bull story to entice him back, as he is the only person capable of ending a century-old curse that’s been plaguing the village.
While I have a sneaky feeling the odd joke might get lost in translation, most of GAME OF WEREWOLVES’ humor should travel well, and despite everyone involved clearly more game for a laugh than out to scare us, the film packs some surprisingly credible practical wolf effects a la DOG SOLDIERS.]
CÓLERA (CHOLERA, 2013)
Finally, in the hopes of leaving you with a bad case of the Spanish horror munchies, I thought it best to end with one of the better short films to come out of Spain in recent years. Directed by Aritz Moreno and based on an original story by American comic book writer, novelist, illustrator, and screenwriter Bruce Jones, CÓLERA has screened at more than 200 festivals around the world… and for good reason.
Cleverly edited to create a single-shot effect, the film stars Luis Tosar, who heads up an angry mob marching to the outskirts of their village to “take care” of a loner who’s been hiding out in a makeshift shed ever since having fallen prey to some kind of chronic disfiguring disease.