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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. 

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