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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Spanish Horror Part 4: Jorge Grau by Joe Zanetti.

            From its inception in 1968, to its end in 1975, Spain’s horror boom dropped a terror bomb on Spanish audiences. During that seven year period, around 150 horror films were produced, accounting for more than a third of the industry’s nationwide output. Numerous directors flocked to the genre, releasing their brand of horror on audiences ripe for being scared beyond measure. We’ve explored the works of Amando de Ossorio and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, two titans of the horrific and macabre. Another name that belongs in the same league of fear is a man who released three horror films in quick succession, from 1973-1974: Jorge Grau. 

The Barcelona-borne director was known for knowing exactly what he wanted in his films, and how he wanted it done. He was a multi-faceted person who was mostly self-taught. He worked in theatre as both an actor and director. He worked in radio as a scriptwriter. He was a painter and sculptor. He loved reading poetry, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He enjoyed reading the stories of Guy de Maupassant. He was an artist in every sense of the word, and it more than shows in his films. In an interview with his son, Carlos Grau, he described Jorge as being an “anarchist” in terms of his approach to filmmaking. He didn’t like being given direction; he liked being in control, but not in a negative way. He was involved in so many aspects of his film. He knew what music he wanted for his films. He knew how much he wanted/needed for a scene, like how much nighttime he needed for a shot. He would tell his cameramen where to place their cameras and what he wanted. His work in theatre meshed well with the actors and actresses in his films. If someone was unsure they could perform a scene, Grau would encourage and coach them, treating them with respect and the utmost professionalism. And because of the care he took with them, he got the performances he wanted, making his films stand out among the many other horror films released during that period. Like many other Spanish directors during the horror boom, Grau didn’t begin his career in the horror genre. He directed various drama and arthouse films, and would continue to make films well after Spain’s horror boom, many of which are rather difficult to find. And like other Spanish directors, Grau found he could explore social issues through the lens of horror, and he was quite good at it.  

Grau also described himself as being “anti-pressure”; he loved the idea of being free and not having any ideas imposed on him, which meant he really didn’t align himself with any political affiliations, garnering criticism of him from both the left and right. What is clear, though, is that he was against fascism, and was vehemently against the death penalty, a subject explored in his film Violent Blood Bath (1974), which is the American title. The original title is Death Penalty (Pena de muerte), which is much more in line with the film and its subject matter. What he is highly known for is Blood Ceremony (Ceremonia sangrienta) (1973), his spin on the Countess Bathory tale, and his benchmark film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974). It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest zombie films to plague the big screen, even rivaling George Romero in his zombie prime. Let’s explore these films, their significance, and their impact on the genre.

The first of Grau’s horror films was Blood Ceremony (aka The Legend of Blood Castle). Released in 1973, the film is set in Eastern Europe (remember, evil could NEVER exist in Spain) during the 19th century, centering on a wealthy aristocratic couple living an excessive, lavish lifestyle behind castle walls while the peasants living in the countryside are gripped by fear and superstition; they believe vampires are plaguing the lands and are performing macabre rituals to seek out and dispose of them. High up in her castle, Countess Erzebeth Bathory (played by the enchanting Lucia Bosé) passage of time, grieving what she sees as her fading beauty. She does not care for the villagers on her lands, barely taking notice of what is happening outside. She also wishes for the attention and affection of her husband, Count Karl Ziemmer (played by Espartaco Santoni), who spends his time being fascinated by the villagers and their superstitions, constantly watching and observing them. When he’s not playing the role of perverse voyeur, he passes the time with his predatory birds, watching them hunt, catch, and rip apart their prey, piece by piece. He’s a sadistic man who enjoys watching pain and terror inflicted upon others. The Countess’s personal nurse, an old woman who has the characteristics of a Crone, reminds her of the legendary Erzebeth Bathory, her ancestor, and how she bathed in the blood of virgins to remain beautiful and keep her youth. At first, the Countess is dubious of the tale told by her nurse, but when the blood of a servant girl accidentally drips onto her hand, she believes it made that patch of skin whiter, and her obsession with remaining youthful takes a violent and sinister turn. She uses the Count’s lust for sadism to her advantage, unleashing him on the countryside. With his charming looks and arrogant personality, he seduces young women, bringing them back to the castle where the eager, blood-thirsty Countess waits.The film begins with a large group of villagers leading a virgin boy on a horse to a graveyard. Using this “horse test,” they find the grave of a suspected vampire. They exhume it and put a stake through its heart, causing blood to pour out of the wound. This ritual sets the somber, gray tone of the film, telling the viewer this is a land riddled with fear. Grau was fascinated by the story of Bathory, the Hungarian noblewoman turned serial killer. He saw a great story to be told; however, at the time he wanted to make it, horror was still being frowned upon, and was advised against making it. When Spain’s horror boom began, Grau was approached about the film, but was asked to make it like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), but Grau told the producer that it’s nothing at all like Romero’s zombie classic. After reading the script, Grau was given the greenlight to make Blood Ceremony

What’s evident about the film from the start is the production value. From the costumes, set pieces, and locations, the film comes alive with a great sense of authenticity. The Countess and Count have nothing but the finest furnishings in their gigantic castle as it looks ominously over the countryside. They even use gold plates and silverware when dining. Watching Count Ziemmer cut into his rare steak with a gold knife, the red juices spilling out onto the plate paints you a nice picture of a class-based, predatory society. The couple, along with their wealthy friends and politicians, eat only the finest foods, dining in only the nicest places while the rest of the population are fighting to survive. Count Ziemmer’s carnal obsessions are further buttressed by the love he has for his birds of prey; he takes great pleasure in watching them rip apart and devour their prey, a pleasure that will lead him to preying on villagers for the Countess. Grau deftly assembles this juxtaposition of rich and poor, and how the rich do everything they can to exploit those they deem beneath them. They use superstition and fear against them, turning them against one another, playthings for mere amusement and personal gain. The Countess uses her wealth and power to achieve her feverish desire to remain young and beautiful, even if it means the lives of others.

The film’s biggest strengths are the lush visuals and brooding, funereal atmosphere, reminiscent of early Hammer Horror films. The chilling score is an amalgam of bells, booming and piercing sounds weaved with gloomy visuals of rolling hills, fog-filled forests, the imposing castle where horrifying deeds take place. Grau takes great care in creating an experience for the viewer to be fully invested in. It’s obvious Grau did his research, evident by the scene where a supposed “vampire” is on trial in a courtroom. A corpse in a coffin is in the courtroom, on trial for vampirism. The wife and daughter are there to verify its identity as the husband and father, Peter Plajogowitz, accused of biting his daughter and sucking her blood. She shows the marks on her neck, which do not resemble those of a bite, but the hysteria is so rampant, she is taken seriously and believed. The corpse is found guilty and taken away, the head cut off and burned with the body. Peter Plajogowitz is based on a real person. Peter Blagojevic was a Serbian peasant who died in 1725. Shortly after his death, a total of nine people became very ill and died. Before dying, each of the victims claimed they were visited and throttled by Plajogowitz, causing mass panic. His corpse was exhumed and examined for vampirism. Not understanding the decomposition process of a corpse, they saw the telltale signs of vampirism: long hair, blood in the mouth, and what they believed to be new skin and fingernails. The body was staked through the heart, causing blood to pool out, and was then burned. Vampire disposal methods varied region-to-region, village-to-village. A corpse may be buried upside down so that when it awakens, it’ll dig down instead of up. Some would be buried at a crossroads so they couldn’t find their way back. It’s these beliefs and superstitions that Countess Bathory and Count Ziemmer use to their advantage.

The villagers believe vampirism is plaguing the countryside, but it’s the abominable couple performing these heinous acts. They devise a plan to fake Count Ziemmer’s death, giving him a funeral and everything. The countess heads down to the crypt at night to let the Count out of his coffin, beginning their blood-soaked reign of terror. The madness reaches its peak when you see the countess standing as she’s showered with blood from a young woman one floor up; she’s on her back, blood pouring from her neck and down a hole, drenching the Countess as she moves with ecstasy, the eroticism amplified tenfold. Panic and fear around the countryside increase even more as sightings of the “dead” count begin to spread. The death toll rises as Count Ziemmer becomes increasingly more uncontrollable. At the same time, Countess Bathory is tormented by visions of the women slain by the Count, while the villagers have formed a mob and rush to the coffin of the count, only to find two dead women in it, confirming what they suspected: he must be a vampire! The countess takes it upon herself to stop Ziemmer before more women are killed. She finds him in the attic, hunched over a young woman, blood oozing from her. The countess stabs Ziemmer twice, killing him. How fitting that his corpse is put on trial and found guilty, just like that of Peter Plajogowitz, where they got the idea of vampirism in the first place. Countess Bathory confesses her transgressions to the courts, implicating her personal nurse as well; both confined to a room to live out the rest of their days. 

Outside Spain, Blood Ceremony received high praise for its performances, production, soundtrack, everything. A stellar combination of horror, gothic, and drama. Spanish audiences got the fully clothed version, while the international version had everything, including the nudity. During its initial release, it didn’t see much screen time in Spain, but when Narciso Ibáñez Serrador aired it on his show Mis terrores favoritos (1981-1982/1994-1995), Spanish audiences were downright shocked by it. It was even introduced by both Serrador and Grau; they bathed their hands in “blood” before starting the film. Grau created a film that savagely and chillingly depicted a world where the wealthy and powerful use their status, connections, and money to prey on the weak and less fortunate. It’s about a woman who is so obsessed with retaining her beauty, that she’ll stop at nothing to do it. The expectations one puts on their shoulders can drive them to do sinister things, even more so when those expectations are placed on you by your peers, your partner, your family, etc. A story about the real vampires being the kind that suck you dry of your ability to live comfortably. Grau took an old story and made it into his own tale about the social and class divide in Spain. He does this in his other horror films, each one vastly different from the other.  

Grau’s next film in his horror cycle is Violent Blood Bath (1974), which nowhere near accurately reflects what the film is about. There is little violence, and no blood baths. The original Spanish title is Pena de muerte (Death Penalty), which is much more in line with the film’s subject matter: the death penalty. Grau traded castles,  the countryside, superstitions and legends for seaside resorts, fancy cars, parties and sunny skies. It’s also loosely adapted from a short by Guy de Maupassant, titled Diary of a Madman, published in 1885. The film lacks the chilling atmosphere and ghostly visuals of Blood Ceremony, focusing more heavily on social issues through intense dialog while throwing in some dead bodies here and there. 

Oscar Bataille (Fernando Rey) is a district attorney from France on vacation with his much younger wife Patricia (Marisa Mell) at a luxury resort in coastal Spain. Oscar is a feared attorney who is notorious for seeking the death penalty in his cases. While on their holiday, a strange series of events begin unfolding. People staying at the resort, and living in the area, are turning up dead. What makes it so bizarre, though, is that the murders are exactly like those committed by people Oscar prosecuted back in France and were subsequently executed. In France, the mother of one of the executed receives mail in the form of a large payment that the departed sent to himself. The mother says it’s not possible because her son is dead. It makes the headlines in newspapers throughout Europe, which Oscar reads while on his vacation. Later that day, Oscar gives a young woman a ride home, and she points out a house she was recently staying at, saying the husband-and-wife owners seemingly moved out with their daughter. Oscar can tell something isn’t right and seems to know exactly what happened. He contacts the police and informs them of what they’ll find, making him a suspect. Other people find themselves in the crosshairs of the police and the killer, resulting in a game of cat and mouse, where everyone is a suspect, and anyone could be the killer. Did the killers come back from the dead, looking to exact phantasmal vengeance on Oscar? Or, is it Oscar himself committing the murders? 

Grau’s denouncement of the death penalty afforded him a golden opportunity to explore the subject. The film begins with exterior shots of a giant courthouse, the camera zooming in on statues of divine figures, carvings of lions, eagles, and scales of justice while booming, doom-laden music plays. Predatory animals are a reflection of the predatory system of “justice” we have in place. The in-your-face intro captures and sets the tone for the rest of the film. The courthouse is a place where men play divine roles, doling out the harshest of judgements without batting an eye. They believe divine providence is on their side, further fueling their perversion of justice. Oscar is ruthless in seeking out the death penalty for those he persecutes. He speaks loudly and is very animated, manipulating the jury with his speeches. There never seems to be ample evidence to fully paint the defendant as guilty, but Oscar is great at spinning things in favor of his desired outcome: death. He makes it crystal clear that he’ll do everything in his power to have them “sentenced to death.” There’s a generational conflict at play as well. Oscar notes that he hates the passage of time and resents growing old. He hates what the world is becoming and wants to live on, dispensing his cruel brand of justice, which appears to be geared towards the younger generation. It’s fitting that the movie was released in 1974, one year before the death of General Franco and the transition to Democracy. The outdated and narrow-minded ideals of the regime have no place in a growing, changing Spain.

        Touted as a Spanish “giallo,” the film certainly has the elements, but calling it a full-blown giallo is a bit of a stretch. It seems more akin to a psychological thriller, or even a police procedural. The film is not without the twists and turns that are staples in the genre. There are numerous players involved, including Oscar’s antithesis: a true crime writer named Wilson Vargas, played by Espartaco Santoni, also known for his role as the malicious Count Karl Ziemmer from the previously discussed Blood Ceremony. It just so happens that Vargas is staying at the same resort as Oscar and Patricia. His current book project is about Oscar and his love for the death penalty; he’s familiar with all the cases but wants the chance to interview Oscar about his stance on the subject. Vargas is against the death penalty, seeing it as inhumane and something not for us to decide. This leads to intense, heated discussions between the two, each not backing down from their respective stances. It’s also revealed that Vargas and Patricia know each other, partaking in past trysts behind Oscar’s back. They continue their affair at the resort, Patricia seemingly conflicted. She loves Oscar but is tired of the life she has with him. She doesn’t share his crazed lust for the death penalty and wants more out of life than just watching him bury himself in his work. With his knowledge of Oscar’s cases and intimacy with Patricia, Vargas is another suspect in the killings taking place, as is Patricia. 

Other characters are introduced, with each one being a potential suspect because they know Oscar or have some sort of interest in him. Each suspect is subsequently killed, leaving only Oscar, Paricia, and Vargas left. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Oscar is becoming more and more unstable with his illness. He’s waking up in his clothes, talking as if he’s one of the people he had sentenced to death, saying the exact same things they said during their trials. When Patricia sees Oscar’s personality change and loss of memory, she begins suspecting him. She finds a man dead in an elevator, choked to death with one of her scarves. It all culminates with Grau taking a somewhat extreme approach with Oscar. It’s revealed that Oscar is suffering from split personalities. He takes on the identities of his victims and performs the murders they supposedly committed. Patricia alerts Vargas to what’s really going on, and it’s up to him to stop Oscar from murdering Patricia. It seems fitting that a man so obsessed with his advocacy for the death penalty turns out to be the killer all along. It’s almost poetic. And rather than turn himself over to the authorities, he kills himself with a pair of scissors. He judged himself the same way he judged his victims, and his penalty was death. Grau does well in keeping you invested in the story, despite its slow-burn pace. Even if you have an idea who the killer is, you’re still left wondering if, maybe, you’re wrong. You want to see the film’s conclusion.

        Violent Blood Bath was not met with the same success as Blood Ceremony. It was poorly received in theatres and received negative reviews from critics. It doesn’t have the lush, perverse visuals, or the lavish set designs. The film is much colder and somber in tone, though, and the ending is rather downbeat. It also feels much more personal. There’s very little violence, and gore is practically nonexistent, but not without some sinister, horrifying moments. The film relies more on suspense and build-up, though, dialing it up little by little. It’s not a stellar film, but it does showcase the versatility of Grau, a director more than capable of exploring different branches of the genre. This is even more evident when the next film in his horror cycle is released. 

Grau had one more film to release during the Spanish horror boom, and it delivered on every possible level. We are talking about The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), widely considered to be one of the greatest zombie films of all time, giving George Romero’s original zombie trilogy a run for its money. Romero is an important figure here. Night of the Living Dead (1968) had a huge impact in Europe, resulting in numerous directors and producers wanting to emulate it. Grau was a fan of Romero’s film but didn’t want to direct a carbon copy of it. What viewers got was a well-paced, multi-layered, flesh-tearing, entrail-ripping, shocking mix of science-fiction and the supernatural.

The film’s main protagonists are George (Ray Lovelock) and Edna (Cristina Galbó, who played Teresa in Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House that Screamed), both finding themselves in a situation that has an angry, fascist police detective (Arthur Kennedy) just aching to lock them up for murders taking place in the English countryside. Except the murderers are corpses reanimated by an experimental agricultural device designed to emit radioactive waves that force insects to kill each other, resulting in greater crop yields for farmers. What ensues is George and Edna’s desperate fight for survival, caught between ravenous zombies and trigger-happy cops. 

Like Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, Grau’s film is part of the zombie cycle of films that made up part of Spain’s horror boom. It’s a liminal period in the sense that zombie cinema lore hadn’t quite yet been established. Spanish directors capitalized on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead before even HE did. This made for bizarre and bonker films that were equal parts head-scratching and gut-wrenching. Grau’s zombies had numerous peculiarities. Head shots do not kill them, only fire. They do not appear in photographs, lending them an air of the supernatural. One zombie even stands straight up, like a vampire rising from its coffin. Their eyes are irradiated from the farming machine’s ultrasonic waves, which gives them an origin, something Grau liked establishing. They have great strength, able to lift a headstone out of the ground and use it for a battering ram. Only a few zombies are in the film, but that gives them more personal attention. Grau gave each zombie a backstory and told them to the actors and actresses playing them, resulting in creepy, terrifying, memorable performances. In the film, it’s theorized that the machine’s waves are affecting only the recently dead, the radiation tampering with the nervous system. The theory is further strengthened by the fact that newborn babies are suddenly behaving aggressively, almost murderously. The special makeup effects were done by Italian artist Gianetto De Rossi, who would become synonymous with Lucio Fulci’s unforgettable Zombie (1979). De Rossi did a phenomenal job at making the zombies look fresh, like they had died only a couple days prior, adding an extra element of terror. And the gore? Yeah, the film has no shortage of it. De Rossi didn’t hold back. A police officer’s entrails ripped from him as he writhes in agony, a blood-curdling scream right before he stops moving. A nurse ripped apart at a hospital desk. One zombie takes an ax to a doctor’s head and proceeds to feast on him. One bizarre aspect is a zombie putting human blood on the eyelids of a corpse, immediately reanimating it, their eyes irradiated like the others. The score by Giuliano Sorgini is more like a combination of sounds. You can hear the pulsing of the farm machine in conjunction with the deep, sad moans of the zombies. It’s like something you’d hear in a 1950s sci-fi film like Forbidden Planet.  The combination of sci-fi and horror/supernatural makes it an entirely different beast altogether.

The ecological theme of the film is readily apparent. When the film begins in Manchester, George is introduced as an antique dealer closing his shop for a road trip to the country. Shots of industrial sectors and smokestacks are shown. A man walks out of a pharmacy and immediately takes his medicine. People wearing masks, trash piled up. George sees a dead bird on the side of the street. As he takes off on his motorcycle, he covers his face, so he doesn’t have to smell the city air, and then removes it once he’s in the country. There’s a drone-like element in the city as well. A woman disrobes and runs naked across the street, but no one takes notice; they are too busy staring at traffic lights, looking down at their newspapers, as if they cannot be bothered with anything happening outside their own lives. It sets up this juxtaposition between the city and the country. George is happy to be out of the smog-filled city and breathing clean country air. When he and Edna are driving together, the news on the radio mentions food shortages and other ecological crises that are said to be exaggerated and shouldn’t be worried about. George turns the radio off in disgust, knowing these issues are serious and not to be ignored. When they reach a dead-end road, unsure of where they are, George gets out and crosses a river on foot, looking for anyone who can give them directions. This is when the agricultural machine is first seen, and George is clearly discontented with its mere presence. When he’s told how it affects insects, he becomes even more exasperated by the machine and the people operating it. Later in the film, when it’s established the machine is affecting babies and bringing the dead back to life, George goes back to the farm and begins hitting it with a large wrench and damaging it. This coincides with environmental activists forming movements that would sabotage farm equipment or anything that they viewed as detrimental to the environment. The countryside is viewed as the last bastion of all that is beautiful and clean, untouched by “progress.”

Complementing the ecological theme is the generational conflict between the duo of George and Edna, and the head police detective. George and Edna are both from the city and are representative of a new generation of ideals and beliefs. The city is where troublemakers, hippies, liberals, etc. are found. The country is where the “good” people live and have no desire to see city folk come around and taint their way of life, pollute their pure atmosphere, and corrupt their beliefs. The police inspector is convinced the killings are the work of George and Edna, but mainly George. The inspector tells George that he can’t stand to look at him. He hates George’s long, shaggy hair, his leather jacket (“your long hair and f**got clothes). George is anathema to everything the inspector values. He’s not above getting physical with George, grabbing him by the jacket, shoving him around. “And you hate the cops” he says to George, and his response is “Well, you make it easy.” Even though the film was shot in the U.K., it’s clear Grau is denouncing the fascist government of Spain, led by General Franco. The old guard is threatened by the youth movement. Ideals, values and beliefs are changing. The people are tired of living under an oppressive regime that dictates what they should believe, and how they should conduct themselves. Edna is treated poorly by the majority of the men, including George. While she’s waiting outside the car for George, who is at the machine, she sees a figure in her periphery, and it’s the first zombie of the film, a man named Guthrie who lived on the riverbank. Running away and scared out of her mind, she finds George and tells him what happened. In typical fashion, she’s not even taken remotely seriously; she becomes the hysterical woman trope, and the inspector is even worse to her, and her sister, too. Edna was driving to the country to visit her sister who is basically a prisoner in her own home. Katie and her husband are staying out in the country because of Katie’s heroin addiction, which is of no help, because she has heroin in their country home. It sort of demolishes this idea that everything in the country is perfect, nothing bad could ever happen in such a gorgeous place. 

When Grau viewed the film at a later date, he said he realized that he had made a love story. When George and Edna first meet, it’s purely by accident. George stops at a gas station to fill up, only to have his motorcycle knocked over by Edna going in reverse in her mini cooper. The damage requires the cycle to stay at the station since the parts needed won’t arrive until after the weekend. Edna is very apologetic and assures George she’ll help with expenses. Think of it as their meet cute. George isn’t exactly the nicest person to her, irritated that his weekend has been pretty much ruined. They bicker back and forth, and as stated previously, he doesn’t believe her when things start to go south. But as the film progresses, you do see mutual feelings slowly develop, making the ending even more tragic. Towards the film’s end, Edna and her sister Katie are at the hospital, but the zombies are there as well, coming back to life due to engineers fixing the machine and increasing its radius, after George damaged it with a wrench. George becomes aware of this and rushes to the hospital while the police inspector is hot on his heels. Katie becomes a zombie and swarms around Edna with other zombies, then George arrives just in time and throws Molotov cocktails at the zombies, grabbing Edna before it’s too late; however, it already is. Edna looks at George with her irradiated eyes, lunging at him. He throws her into the fire as she holds out her arms as if she’s pleading for him to be with her, but he knows he can’t. At that moment, the inspector shows up with other officers and guns down George in the hospital hallway. The feelings they had for each other snuffed out like a flame. The inspector looks at George’s body and says, “I wish the dead really could come back to life, you bastard, so I could kill you again.” Viewers get some satisfaction, though. When the inspector returns to his hotel room for the night, a reanimated George is waiting in the shadows. The inspector shoots him, but it has no effect, and is strangled to death. It cuts to the farming machine still working, ominously portending doom.

Like Blood Ceremony, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was met with high praise and criticism. Being an international hit, the film was given numerous different titles depending on who was handling distribution, and where it was being played. Some of the titles are Don’t Open the Window; Let Sleeping Corpses Lie; or the more literal Spanish title of No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead). It wouldn’t be viewed on television in Spain until November 16, 1981, introduced by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador on his short-lived show Mis terrores favoritos. Once again, Spanish viewers were shocked and horrified by the graphic violence and special effects. Grau didn’t use a single jump scare, nor did he want any in the film. It works purely on atmosphere, the performances, and the special effects. It was so widely viewed and praised outside Spain, it was a favorite of George Romero, and Grau had been told Romero had a poster of the film framed and hanging on a wall. The film is so many different things, and that’s because of the diversity that permeates it. You have a Spanish director, an Italian script, and Italian producers. Plus, the film is set in the U.K. Visually, it looks very British, but has the gore so prominently featured in Italian horror, and you have Grau who is critiquing the government of Spain. The actors bring diversity as well. Ray Lovelock was Anglo-Italian. Fernando Hilbeck, who played the zombie Guthrie, was Anglo-Spanish. Cristina Galbó from Spain, and Arthur Kennedy from the U.S. All these diverse elements help make The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue such a standout among not just Spanish horror, but horror in general. Grau achieved what very few Spanish directors of the time did: break a horror movie into the international market.

After The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Grau directed films more along the lines of drama, but still exploring the social issues he felt were important. In 1983, his exploitation film Hunting Ground (aka Code of Hunting), which is a harrowing, violent look at the criminal justice system and how crime is viewed. It also has elements of the quinqui subgenre that emerged in Spain during the early-to-mid ‘80s, which are juvenile gang dramas (quinqui being short for “quincallero,” which means delinquent). Grau truly went all the way with this one, and the ending is as powerful as it is unforgettable. Each of the films discussed are available on physical media. Blood Ceremony is available on blu-ray from Mondo Macabro, as is Hunting Ground. Violent Blood Bath is available on blu-ray as a triple feature from Vinegar Syndrome. It comes with two other Spanish films: The Fish with the Eyes of Gold, directed by Pedro L. Ramirez, and Night of the Skull, directed by Jess Franco (how could you not want that lineup?). The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is available on blu-ray from Synapse Films, and it’s worth it for the special features alone. Grau died on December 26, 2018, and like many of his Spanish horror contemporaries, he’s remembered for his work in horror during a time that was unprecedented in Spain. He left behind a legacy of horror that still captivates and revolts viewers today. 



Thursday, April 25, 2024

Review: Last Days by Brian Evenson.


On its surface Brian Evenson’s novel Last Days is about a man who was the victim of a horrible assault leaving him an amputee. Then he is forced into a strange subterranean world of bizarre cults and graphic body horror. But like the best horror literature, the entire work can also be read in different ways. The story has an oblique quality, hazy with its meanings and intentions. Phantom limbs, bodies both dead and alive. The protagonist lives in a state of paranoia. Liminal states. Beings both one thing and another. 

Last Days can also be taken as the nightmares of an amputee, the reworking of inner trauma and anxiety. Or it can be read as a dream of self-destruction and pessimism. It's like the book has different narratives depending on how you wish to read it. Last Days is an apocalypse of personal anxiety. Reliving trauma over and over, The story keeps subtly implying that every time the protagonist hurts or cuts the limbs off someone else,  he is actually doing it to himself. The story whispers perverse images and thoughts to the reader. This delirium of cults, self-destruction, and bodily desecration reads as dream logic. Nightmare descending into nightmare over and over again. The main character is a bit of a cipher, he is what others make of him. He is intentionally drawn in a very spare manner. Who he is does not matter. Only his wounds and his ability to be controlled are what anyone in the world of the story cares about him. At the end after seemingly overcoming two bizarre cults, he is left wondering what comes next. The puppet is left looking for a new puppet master. But the novel offers no escape. No resolution.

Brian Evenson is a master of the weird horror tale. His short story collections are vital reading. And this novel, Last Days, is as compelling and subversive as his short work. An unmissable classic for anyone interested in literate horror fiction. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review: Toplin by Michael McDowell.

Toplin is a short novel by Michael McDowell. First published in 1985, it has seen print by Scream/Press, Dell Abyss, and Valancourt. Quite the all-stars of horror presses! A sort of obscure classic of underground horror literature, Toplin is the kind of book more discussed than read. 

Toplin is the story of a damaged man, mentally unstable and living in a hallucinatory state. On the way to get some groceries, he stops at a diner and encounters what he claims to be the most hideous woman he has ever seen. And he makes it his mission to kill her as a mercy to what must be her miserable existence. From the start, the main character is clearly living in a state of unreality. Sliding in and out of delusions and paranoia, the tale is a surreal and bizarre journey with a completely unreliable protagonist. 

There is a real sense of disgust in this book. A seething disgust at society and other bodies. But the story does get sidetracked at points by boring asides into the obsessive traits of the protagonist. There is a section where he talks about how when buying furniture you have to be careful because the furniture may be malevolent and take action against you. There is also a section where he talks about his cleaning routine and in what order he cleans the sections of his apartment. Meant to show the unstable mental state of the protagonist, these sections read as cliche and uninspired. But the surreal body horror and the miserablist sections are really top-notch. So what the book becomes is a kind of mildly flawed masterpiece. Is the protagonist insane or is the world scheming against him? The palpable hatred that underlies the narrative is quite wonderful, but the author lacked the conviction to carry on with it, adding comic relief and some rather goofy passages ruining the overall atmosphere at times. 

At its best, the writing is crisp and poetic. Some of the passages in this are gorgeous. The main narrative resembles the urban gothic of Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane along with a touch of Herman Unger’s The Maimed. I think this short novel is quite wonderful, I was just disappointed by the breaks in the lush prose and misanthropic atmosphere for the cliche “oh look how insane he is” asides and the unnecessary humor. If you cut the book in half and got rid of the fat this would have been a masterpiece of miserablist horror of the first tank. But flaws and all I do feel this is essential reading for those who enjoy tales of the grotesque and the obsessive. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Spanish Horror Part 3:Narciso Ibáñez Serrador by Joe Zanetti



        The Spanish horror boom saw a plethora of directors carve their blood-soaked names into the genre. Names like Amando de Ossorio (who was discussed in part two), Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina), Carlos Aured, Jorge Grau, Jess Franco, Pedro Olea, and a slew of others. They all contributed their nightmarish visions to a genre that was taking Spain by storm, leaving audiences aghast and feverishly lusting for more. One director, though, not only left an indelible mark on horror but is the one responsible for truly ushering in the Spanish horror boom in the late ‘60s: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. He first made huge waves in Spain with his television horror/mystery show, Tales to Keep You Awake (Historias para no dormir), from 1966-1968. From there, he would helm the horror boom with his first film, The House that Screamed (North American title), released in 1969. It proved to be a box office hit in Spain, and it garnered much praise from national audiences as well, making it a financial success. Ibáñez Serrador’s second film (and his last) didn’t come out until 1976: Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?). Completely different from his first film, it was Ibáñez Serrador’s take on the killer kids subgenre, nicely balanced with a playful, creepy atmosphere filled with shocking and graphic imagery that made it a source of controversy. Despite his short résumé of a two-season television show and two horror films, Ibáñez Serrador grabbed viewers by their throats and injected them with awe, wonder, fear, and panic. In short, he was born to make horror. Let’s delve deeper into this master of horror and his works. 

To understand the love and passion that Ibáñez Serrador had for the horror genre, we must look to his childhood, where the seeds were planted. He was born in Uruguay, and both his parents were part of Spanish theatre groups that toured Spain and Latin America. His father, Narciso Ibáñez Menta, was a lover of horror, and in the 1940s and 1950s he was adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, and others for the theatre. When he was four, his parents divorced, and he stayed with his mother, Pepita Serrador, where she still toured; they would eventually move to Spain, and he would learn more and more about theatre. In the late 1950s, he moved to Argentina to be with his father and convinced him to make for television the stories that he adapted for the theatre. In 1959, they brought Obras maestras del terror (Masterworks of Horror) to Argentinean audiences, lasting for two seasons. Tales from Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gaston Leroux, Guy de Maupassant, and many more. In 1963, Ibáñez Serrador moved back to Spain, and television was taking off there. The TV and film climate was just right for his return. His family name, along with their success and connections to various professionals on both acting and production sides, provided him with everything he needed to open up the country and viewers to new horizons. His love for film, theatre, radio, and production, along with his growing portfolio, afforded him the opportunity to spawn Tales to Keep You Awake, the chilling and suspenseful anthology television show that would change the course of Spanish television and film. 

With Tales to Keep You Awake, Ibáñez Serrador gave Spanish viewers something different in the form of an anthology television show. The episodes were adapted from several Gothic and supernatural stories by Poe, Henry James, and Robert Bloch, and science fiction stories from Ray Bradbury. It’s clear who Ibáñez Serrador’s influences were, and in the vein of American shows like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, or most notably, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The influence of Hitchcock is especially evident in the show, and in The House that Screamed. Under the pen name Luis Peñafiel, he wrote and directed every episode. He also acted as the show’s host, introducing each episode and discussing the author’s work it was adapted from. He would come alive as he engaged viewers and spoke about what to expect from the episode. He would display humor, passion, wit, intelligence, and energy as he left you laughing, contemplating, or paranoid. With amazing set pieces ranging from haunting to goofy to the actors and actresses who gave noteworthy performances, Spanish audiences were captivated and glued to their television sets, exploring an alien world filled with charm, suspense, tragedy, madness, humor, and even a little bit of hope. For two full seasons, Ibáñez Serrador broke down cultural and social barriers, becoming an icon of horror and television who transcended Spain and its nationalist, hardline structure. Even though the series only lasted from 1966-1968, a TV special would air in 1974, and a mini-series would be released in 1984; however, they don’t capture the magic and atmosphere that the first series did all those years ago, and the overall climate of the country was different. When Tales to Keep You Awake made its debut, all the conditions were right for it, and its success and viewership further stoked the flames of the rising horror genre. With all the decrepit, cobwebbed pieces in place, Ibáñez Serrador would unleash The House that Screamed on an audience that was dying for thrills, chills, and change. 

With the success of Tales to Keep You Awake, the next logical step for Ibáñez Serrador was to make his first feature film. With such an established name and credentials, producers and distributors wanted to do something big with him. The idea was for the film to break out into the international market, and Ibáñez Serrador was given a massive budget of 50 million pesetas (6 million euros, by today’s currency). During this time, such a budget was unheard of, especially for a horror film. Another way for the film to appeal to international audiences was to cast known, non-Spanish actors, and it would be the first Spanish film produced with English dialog. In 1969, The House that Screamed was released and would be the catalyst for Spain’s rise as a horror powerhouse. With its outstanding production design, stellar performances, and gorgeous, haunting cinematography, The House that Screamed thrilled audiences the world over, and opened the old, corroded gates for other Spanish directors to throw their names in the iron maiden. 

In its native Spain, the film was released as La Residencia, and The Finishing School. It’s about a young woman named Teresa Garan (Christina Galbó), who arrives with a family friend at a French boarding school isolated in the country. The school is run by Madame Forneau (Llli Palmer), the strict and cold headmistress. She makes it known the school is a place for girls aged 15-21 who have not lived up to their societal expectations and must be put on the right path. All we know about Teresa is that she is at the school for an education since she cannot receive one back at home. Like every authoritarian headmistress at a boarding school, Madam Forneau has a spy in the form of Irene Tupan (Mary Maude), another student at the school. Irene also has her own subordinates to do her bidding. The other main character is Luis, the 15-year-old son of Madame Forneau. With physical ailments, Madame Forneau keeps him locked up in the school, forbidding him to even set foot outside. She’s ridiculously overbearing with Luis, coddling him and refusing to let him speak to any of the girls, telling him they are no good. She constantly tells him that he needs a girl like she was when she was young; a girl who will love him the way his mother loves him; who will care and protect him the way his mother does. It’s also made known that some of the girls have gone missing, but their disappearances have been chalked up to escaping the school and running away. Once Teresa is settled in, it becomes abundantly clear that nothing is what it seems at the school. Death and mystery lurk around every corner. 

At its core, The House that Screamed is not a groundbreaking, complex story; however, its structure and incorporated themes distinguish it from what has come before. Ibáñez Serrador deftly weaves the old and the new together, mixing a traditional gothic setting with more contemporary horror tropes of the time. It’s one of the earliest examples of a proto-slasher, featuring an unknown killer picking off the girls one by one, and even has a hint of the Giallo in it. It fits into different subgenres, mainly the story of a young girl staying at a school with other students, but also ventures into women in prison territory. In an effort to prevent the girls from escaping the school, Madame Forneau makes sure that every door is locked, every window shut and nailed, making it seem more like a prison. Even the isolated, rural location of the school makes it look and feel more like a prison. Girls who are insubordinate spend time in what is basically solitary confinement, and Madame Forneau is not above dealing out physical punishment. She has one girl whipped by Irene while others watch. Madame Forneau is the corrupt warden, subjecting the girls to her tyrannical ways. The school, large and beautiful with all its lavish furnishings, long hallways, and cavernous rooms, feels lonely and empty, filled with sad, tragic, and traumatic memories that permeate every dark corner of the school. 

Madame Forneau’s iron-fisted rule over the school serves as a microcosm of the Franco regime and its grip on the country. This is also viewed through a lens tinted with sexual tension that lingers heavily on the eye, almost palpable. The body language, from Madam Forneau gazing upon one of the students as she undresses in the shower; the way the girls eye each other, and the discussion of being locked up with not a single man in sight. It’s this repression that also leads to rebellious acts like a student sneaking out so they can meet with a delivery man and engage in sexual activities that are forbidden on school grounds. Sexual freedom and identity are stifled, and deviating from what is considered normal is not only frowned upon but a punishable offense. The significance of this is heightened because societal expectations always fell on the women; they were to act and conduct themselves in accordance with what the religious, patriarchal hierarchy deemed acceptable. Viewers are given a closer, more unsettling look at Madame Forneau’s relationship with her son, Luis, when the two share a moment that is just a little too intimate. After giving Luis another speech about how he needs a woman like her to care for him, she gives him a kiss that is suggestive and uncomfortable, and then you get this devious smile from Luis that tells you something is seriously wrong. 

Despite its financial success and viewership at home and abroad, the film was panned by critics. No one could understand why Ibáñez Serrador was given such a huge budget for a horror film of all things, and it was immediately denounced simply for being a horror film; the budget made it scrutinized even more. It was also heavily criticized for not resembling a Spanish film, but that’s partly why the film was so successful. The film was intentionally made to look European so it would appeal to more than just Spanish audiences, which left a bad taste in some mouths. The film was also ridiculed for not being original or breaking new ground, which did not phase Ibáñez Serrador. He wanted to tell a story in a classical manner, but with a Hitchcockian structure. The film did suffer some censorship. The girls in the shower could not be naked, so they had to wear thin white gowns that you could still see through when wet. The more intimate and sexually intense scenes had to be cut for the Spanish version. This resulted in two different cuts of the film, both of which are available on the Arrow Video edition. Even with scathing reviews, the film’s success is what brought Spain to the forefront of the horror genre, and no one can deny that. If Ibáñez Serrador hadn’t approached the film the way he did, we may have never seen the Spanish horror boom, or, perhaps, it wouldn’t have been as big as it was. What he did with The House that Screamed is launch Spain and horror into a new era. We wouldn’t see his next and final film until 1976. 

Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) is wildly different from The House that Screamed, but no less influential, and even controversial. Instead of a large, gloomy, isolated school in rural France, the setting is a sunny, hot, open island off the coast of Spain that offers a different kind of isolation. An English couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), have just arrived in the coastal town of Benavis, Spain, where a big festival is taking place. They plan on taking a boat to the island of Almanzora, a place Tom visited 12 years ago. While walking around and making preparations for their departure to the island the next day, they stop at a store that has a TV displaying news about the military coup in Thailand and the deaths caused by it. It leads to the store clerk remarking about how it’s the children who always suffer. While on the beach, they witness a dead body washing up on shore, and more subequently wash up. Something is not right, but they continue to Almanzora. All looks tranquil and normal when they arrive, but they soon learn that something is seriously wrong when they can’t find a single adult. Soon, they will experience a hellish, scorching, brutal nightmare as they are hunted by every child on the island. Will they be able to escape? Will they do whatever it takes? Are they capable of hurting a child if it means they can live another day? 

Ibáñez Serrador’s film drew considerable controversy over its subject matter. The killer kids subgenre was nothing new, but shocking scenes of kids being gunned down or run over by Tom driving a jeep turned a lot of heads and stomachs. The creepy factor is upped by the kids' blank, yet playful stares; their giggles as they use an old man for a piñata, slicing him with a scythe while dancing around with murderous glee. It’s never actually stated what has turned the kids on the island into ravenous demons hellbent on killing all the adults, even their own parents. It’s this lack of an explanation that makes the movie more sinister. A kid just has to stare at another kid for a few seconds to pass it on, quickly resulting in the entire island becoming a slaughterhouse. The daytime setting adds an extra level of terror, coupled with the limitations of the island; you can only run so far and for so long, there’s nowhere to go. The oppressive heat wears you down and makes you delirious, heightening the fear and panic Tom and Evelyn desperately try to make it off the island alive.



     Unlike the pan-European style and identity of The House that Screamed, the look and feel of Who Can Kill a Child? is clearly Spanish, even with the non-Spanish protagonists. House was shot in Spain, but set in 19th century France, because the evil that happens in the school could never happen in Spain, according to the regime. It was necessary to set the locations outside Spain to avoid censorship. In the case of Who Can Kill a Child?, it’s made known the setting is Spain and its coastal territories. With the death of Franco in 1975, things in Spain began to change, and Ibáñez Serrador had no qualms with the message he was conveying in the film. It still had some censorship issues because of the shocking violence and was heavily cut in some countries. The one glaring problem that the film suffers from, however, is the introduction to the film. Before it officially begins, you are shown footage and statistics of the children who have died during times of war, famine, and anything in between. It’s like you are watching the beginning of a Mondo film, but it’s heavy-handed and whacks you in the face with what it’s about; it takes away from the film, and it reduces and simplifies these world events. There is an alternate version of the film titled Island of Death, and it doesn’t feature that opening. Ibáñez Serrador said in an interview he wished he hadn’t included that footage at the beginning and should’ve saved it for the end, which could’ve had more of an impact on the viewer after watching daylit terror of murderous kids. It must also be mentioned that the film has some commonalities with zombie films, especially George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and you can’t help but think about it when you see the ending of Ibáñez Serrador’s multi-themed film. 

After the release of Who Can Kill a Child? in 1976, the horror boom would die down considerably. With the transition to democracy underway, the new government had zero interest in horror. What they wanted were films of political and historical importance, something more along the lines of dramas, war films, and the like. It became increasingly more difficult to make a horror film in the ‘80s, but Ibáñez Serrador kept going with television shows and game shows. Throughout his career, though, he would receive numerous awards acknowledging his achievements and contributions to Spanish film and television. In 2002, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Spanish Television Academy. In June of 2019, he passed away, but he left behind a legacy of horror films and shows that catapulted Spain to horror stardom. He proved that horror could rise above the strictures put on it by critics and narrow-minded film elites. He showed that horror could have a socio-political sheen on it; that it has this amazing ability to hide and display meanings and critiques of ourselves and society, in Spain and the rest of the world. His name is forever ingrained in the stars and will be remembered as the man who ushered in Spain’s horror boom.