Imagine a film so vivid, so terrifying, that it haunts you like a ghost and makes you doubt its very existence. This particular film would be all the more disorienting because much of the bold visual style and low-key, jazz-kissed soundtrack would remind you of public access television geared towards children. Like experiencing a glimpse of Jason’s face mask in a crowd of Muppets, you may begin to feel a thread of confusion and deep unease. What did you see, exactly? What the hell just happened?
Investigating the comments on IMDb.com about LA CABINA reveals an overwhelming trend: many people who watched the BBC as children in the 1980s and managed to catch a viewing of this film have been irrevocably haunted by it. Most stumbled across this short film by accident, then later, through the warp of memory and time, began to doubt its very existence until the fateful day they began looking for it online. Take a look for yourself and see what you think.
LA CABINA (THE TELEPHONE BOX), directed and co-written by Antonio Mercero, is a 35 minute short film originally created for Spanish Television. Made in 1972, this stunning oddity received an International Emmy for Fiction, among many other prestigious television honors. It is so well-known in Spain, that it has even been parodied in a 1990s Spanish advertisement for the telecom company, Retevision (which speaks to that company’s excellent sense of humor regarding themselves).
Yet because of international distribution difficulties, this film has rarely been screened outside of Spain. It was the BBC’s decision to air LA CABINA in the 1980s that largely opened up awareness of this short among English-speaking audiences. But due to the flimsy archival nature of the pre-internet world, and rarity of screenings, for many years after it remained largely forgotten.
The film is rich in symbolism and badly in need of a restoration for international audiences. Why does this gem bury itself underneath the skin so well? Part of its insidiousness lies within the narrative framing; this is a horror film, but it is also a comedy. Actor José Luis López Vázquez portrays a man in a suit who becomes caught in a brand-new phone booth. The comedic elements – largely tied in with the plight of the man trapped in the booth – both alleviate some of the early tension within the story while escalating it.
The short is at first funny. However, as it becomes increasingly difficult to get the man out of the phone booth, and more powerful methods are called on to help get him out, we are left to sweat with him. “When will he be let out of the box?” becomes a mental refrain that inspires nervous laughter until we are left with dread. Then we are left with the greater, uglier truth of the film- that nobody gets out of the box once they’re in.
We realize that this is a horror film at a crucial point – when it’s too late, when we’ve committed to watching a comedy that abruptly peels away its clown face to reveal raw meat. This is not a horror film that relies on gore for its effectiveness, but instead on suggestion and psychology.
Many people have interpreted this film as anti-fascist, and it does precede the end of Franco’s occupation of Spain by three years. The social critique (particularly of the crowds that gather around the telephone booth) is complex and cutting. Spain was also going through a period of brisk economic growth at the time. Men in suits were becoming expendable. But the symbols within this work are amply suggestive, and like a prism, every one held up to the light can reveal a myriad of distinct rays of thought.
Like a good weird tale or an episode from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, this short film leaves the viewer with thoughts that echo so loudly and for so long that they must be discussed. Why are only men in suits the victims of the telephone booths? What did this particular man do to deserve his awful journey through the tunnel – or was it merely his un-remarkableness, his lack of individuation that made him easier to cull from the human herd? You can interpret the text with as much complexity as you like. Or maybe just leave it alone and let the images haunt you until you return to watch it again just to make sure it wasn’t something your nightmares made up.