13 Shivery Spanish Shockers
Article By: Tony Timpone
While such countries as the United States and Germany began producing horror movies during the earliest days of cinema, Spain did not join the club to a significant extent until the late ’60s/early ’70s. By then, one man fright factory Paul Naschy (née Jacinto Molina) jumpstarted the nascent industry, with 10 films alone released in 1973 bearing his name. Since then, the ’90s and oughties witnessed an explosion of high quality and highly influential Spanish scare flicks. Reflecting on this trend, today the Friday 13 presents 13 Shivery Spanish Shockers! (This list only includes movies produced in Spain; we will tackle 13 more Latin American horror picks at a future date. Titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Amando de Ossorio, one of the early masters of Spanish terror, helmed this unique post-Night of the Living Dead entry. The story would surely please history buffs: The Knights Templar, executed for misdeeds in the 13th century and sightless from the crows that feasted on their eyes, return to life in modern day to troll the countryside for fresh victims. You gotta love Tombs’ atmospheric, slow-motion scenes of the dusty, horseback-riding zombies as they hunt prey by sound alone. De Ossorio later churned out three quickie sequels!
2. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
A pair of English tourists (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) finds the wrong island to soak up the sun in this shocking film directed by one-hit-wonder Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. Inexplicably, the children and teenagers of the seaside town have massacred all the adults, and the unlucky vacationers are soon running for their lives. To stay alive, the besieged couple must answer in the affirmative the question posed by the title, so the movie includes many brutal scenes of adolescent slaughter. Serrador sees the kids as the real victims in his scenario, the product of humankind’s nonstop warring and aggression. American International Pictures released the movie in the U.S. in truncated form as Island of the Damned, while an abysmal 2012 remake dubbed Come Out and Play failed to muster any of the original’s power.
3. In a Glass Cage (1986)
What few taboos Who Can Kill a Child? neglected to break, writer/director Agustí Villaronga shatters in this devastatingly dark (and sick!) thriller. When an escaped Nazi war criminal’s suicide attempt proves unsuccessful, the crippled man (Günter Meisner, who also played Hitler a number of times) winds up in the care of an equally mental young man named Angelo (David Sust). Reading the pedophile Nazi’s diaries and harboring troubling secrets of his own, the male nurse begins a twisted codependent relationship with his iron-long-encased patient, with the perverse goal of following in the Nazi’s evil footsteps. Movies don’t get more depraved than In a Glass Cage, and like Italy’s Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, you may hate yourself for watching it, but you won’t easily forget it.
4. Day of the Beast (1995)
Currently recognized as one of the Iberian Peninsula’s most acclaimed filmmakers, genre maven Alex de la Iglesia first made his (devil’s) mark with this diabolically droll horror comedy. The story throws political correctness to the wind, as a Madrid priest (the deadpan Alex Angulo) learns that the Antichrist will be born on Christmas day. To put off the Apocalypse, the priest turns into a major league sinner (accompanied by a hilarious heavy-metal henchman played by Santiago Segura of the Torrente films) in order to summon Satan and crush his evil designs. With Day of the Beast, de la Iglesia does not sacrifice scares for easy laughs and conjures up several nightmarish sequences, including the arrival of the infernal horned heavy.
5. Thesis (1995)
In this provocative horror thriller written and directed by The Others’ Alejandro Amenábar, Ana Torrent stars as the inquisitive Angela, a university student whose class paper seeks to explain our fascination with violence. During her research, a fellow student (Fele Martínez) shows Angela an alleged snuff film where a college girl is tortured and murdered. To their alarm, the duo realizes that the victim is actually a former student who disappeared, and the mystery deepens with the arrival of the deceased’s boyfriend (handsome Eduardo Noriega). With Thesis, Amenábar crafts a suspenseful and thrilling film that asks us, the audience, that most difficult of questions: Why do we enjoy watching horrific images of death and cruelty? Amenábar also directed the superb 1998 psychological thriller Open Your Eyes (later turned into the misguided Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky).
6. The Nameless (1999)
The literary canon of author Ramsey Campbell, considered the “Stephen King of England,” remains largely underserved by the movie world. This well-acted and creepy Spanish winner aimed to change that. An excellent Emma Vilarasau plays a mother traumatized by the murder of her 6-year-old daughter. The child’s horrifying mutilation makes identification less than certain, so when, five years later, the now drug-addled woman receives a phone call from a girl claiming to be her still-living daughter (and now in danger from a nefarious cult), she investigates with a former detective from the case. First-time writer/director Jaume Balagueró generates a palpable sense of dread here, making The Nameless a tough movie to shake.
7. The Devil's Backbone (2001)
For those who felt that wunderkind Mexican director Guillermo del Toro lost his mojo with the pricey box-office dud Crimson Peak, check out this superlative supernatural drama, which he shot in Madrid. The movie takes place during the bloody Spanish Civil War circa 1939. Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at a spooky orphanage, where the ghost of a murdered former child resident appears to him with dire warnings. Del Toro weaves a tale of haunting beauty, horror and political subtext; the real monsters, made of flesh and blood, wear uniforms. This sublime ghost story has plenty of backbone.
8. Rojo Sangre (2004)
Spanish horror star Paul Naschy capped his long career with this semi-autobiographical feature. He plays frustrated horror actor Pablo Thevenet, who not only can’t get a job in the current scream scene, but his wife has left him and his daughter has been slain. After accepting an embarrassing job at a brothel, Thevenet snaps and goes on a killing spree, masquerading as past historical baddies Ivan the Terrible, Jack the Ripper and Rasputin to do harm to those who wronged him. Naschy himself penned the Rojo Sangre script, and you truly feel the actor’s bitter frustration with the generation who has forgotten him. Director Christian Molina’s sharp visuals and gory set pieces further paint Rojo Sangre with a deeper shade of red.
9. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Del Toro achieved his greatest critical success with this visually rich, dark fairy tale, a thematic cousin to The Devil’s Backbone. In 1944 Spain, 11-year-old Orphelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with pregnant Mom at the home of her sadistic stepfather, a general in the fascist army. Escaping into a fantasy world to avoid her dire home life, Orphelia meets a beautiful but grotesque faun (performed by creature regular Doug Jones, who limns multiple roles here), who orders her to complete several dangerous tasks to claim her royal throne. Del Toro’s masterpiece won three Academy Awards (for makeup, cinematography and art direction) and cemented his reputation as a genius of the imagination, but the emotional heart inside Pan’s Labyrinth may be its greatest accomplishment.
10. The Orphanage (2007)
The guidance of Guillermo del Toro can also be felt throughout this excellent ghost story, which he produced for talented newbie director J.A. Bayona. Laura (a terrific Belén Rueda) and her family move into an old orphanage, where the woman herself once lived as an orphan. Before long, young adopted son Simon (Roger Príncep) starts chatting up “invisible friends,” and when the little boy mysteriously disappears, Laura too begins experiencing otherworldly shudders. She enlists a team of parapsychologists to expose the haunting and learn what happened to her child, but can the anguished mother handle the ultimate truth? Bayona and company rise above potential clichés with this very scary, atmospheric and moving spirit saga.
11. Timecrimes (2007)
This festival fave is unlike any time travel thriller you’ve ever see, bar none. An average Joe (Karra Elejalde of The Nameless) moves into his new home in the woods with his wife. One day, while peeking through his binoculars, he spies a naked woman sprawled across a rock. Investigating the unusual sight, he’s attacked by a bandaged, disfigured man. Eventually we learn that the poor schlub has been experimenting with some beta version of a time machine and gets trapped in a bizarre time conundrum that grows increasingly precarious. Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo keeps us guessing and engaged until the pieces of his mind puzzle ingeniously come together. Fortunately a threatened U.S. remake never materialized.
12. [REC] (2007)
This frightening Spanish hit (co-directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza) traveled well. Not only did the movie inspire three sequels, but two English-language remakes (retitled Quarantine here) emerged in its wake. Told in the “found footage” style, [REC] tracks a reality show reporter (lovely Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman as they shadow an emergency response unit called into a dilapidated Barcelona apartment building. The place becomes ground zero for a frenetic zombie-like outbreak, and as all hell breaks loose, gun-toting government goons lock down the infected complex, trapping all within. Fans and critics recorded [REC] as one of the scariest movies of the new millennium. You’ll be screaming for Mommy during the nerve-frying attic-set finale.
13. The Skin I Live In (2007)
A brand name in Spanish cinema thanks to his series of sexually-charged dramas and dark comedies (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Volver) that circled the globe, director Pedro Almodóvar tried his hand at a horror movie, one which mashes together Jess Franco-style surgical atrocities and Hitchcockian obsession. Former Zorro Antonio Banderas portrays a brilliant surgeon who invents a synthetic flesh that he tests out on an imprisoned human guinea pig (Elena Anaya, exquisitely stunning even underneath a swath of bandages). But there’s more to this cracked tale (based on the Thierry Jonquet novel Tarantula) than what’s skin deep… When the layers of this clever cinematic onion get peeled away, you will gasp in disbelief and shock. In The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar winningly brings grindhouse to the arthouse.
Looking for more pain from Spain? Sample more of the Paul Naschy collection, especially his werewolfilms; the erotic gore flicks of prolific hack Jess Franco (1962’s The Awful Dr. Orlof, 1970’s Eugenie, etc.); 1972’s Carmilla-inspiration The Blood Spattered Bride and Filmax’s English-language B-movie Fantastic Factory output. Offer some Spanish suggestions of your own at our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13.
As a Fangoria DVD distribution chief, Tony Timpone helped deliver the Spanish-language fear films Sangre Eterna, Rojo Sangre, Plaga Zombie, The Haunting, Fragile and Omnivores to U.S. audiences.