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Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Spanish Horror Part One: An Introduction To Spanish Horror Cinema by Joe Zanetti.


If you were to ask horror fans about what European films come to mind from the 1960s and ‘70s, the responses would more than likely be what came out of Western Europe, particularly the U.K., and Italy. From Italy, you’d probably hear about the gothic horror films of Mario Bava, such as Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), or Blood and Black Lace (1965). It would be blasphemous to not mention Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), or some of his giallo films, mainly Deep Red (1975). Lucio Fulci would be mentioned, too, especially Zombie (1979). The U.K. has always been synonymous with Hammer Horror, along with numerous folk horror films that include The Wicker Man (1973), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and Witchfinder General (1968). During this period, however, another country in Western Europe was experiencing a phenomenon, rediscovering itself through the lens of horror: Spain! We don’t often hear much discussion about Spanish horror, despite its hefty catalog of films. With the success and popularity of horror films from other countries (this also includes the United States), Spanish horror was often overshadowed, with many films left forgotten. However, Spain is responsible for putting out some of the best (and original) horror films, and Spanish audiences couldn’t get enough of the haunting, bone-chilling visuals; the sex, death, gore, and carnage playing before their very eyes! Viewers were enthralled, thrilled, terrified, and shocked at seeing horrors they NEVER would’ve imagined appearing in Spanish theatres! 


        Why Spanish horror, though? Besides being something new for Spanish audiences, why discuss these films when you could see all the sex, violence, and death you want in horror films from Italy, the U.S., or even France? Spanish filmmakers not only drew from the films they were seeing put out elsewhere, but they took those concepts and made something wholly fresh and original. Some of the most iconic monsters in horror film history CAME from Spain. So, now, you have these creatures and madmen slashing, clawing, and biting their way through the silver screens of not just Spain, but other European countries as well, leaving a bloody trail of severed heads, mutilated bodies, and viscera! Appetites for sex, violence, the weird and macabre were MORE than satiated. Undead knights on horseback; mad scientists conducting horrifying experiments; resurrected noblemen; the werewolf who is forever cursed, never to experience love; naked vampire women, and more! Insane jazz sequences, gregorian chants, ambient sounds that creep under the skin and haunt you for days. Evocative and saturnine landscapes speckled with abandoned villages and dilapidated monasteries, captivating audiences. All-girl boarding schools run by authoritarian headmistresses. Not to mention all the flesh-ripping, gore, and nudity you could handle! Spanish horror films offered something unique and exotic, creating a legacy that would forever cement Spain in the annals of horror history. The Spanish horror boom didn’t truly begin until the late 1960s, but at the beginning of the decade, Spanish Cinema was ripe for change, and the groundwork for horror was laid. 


           The early 1960s brought major changes for Spanish Cinema. Originally, Spanish films were made for domestic consumption, and for Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. Spanish companies were the only financers, and only Spanish actors and actresses were used. Additionally, there was little-to-no distribution outside Spain, so countries across Europe were never exposed to these films. This meant that very particular films were made for the intended audience, which mainly were comedies and dramas. In 1962, the Francoist government wanted to make serious financial changes to Spanish Cinema and wanted to compete with European New Wave Cinema. This was also prompted by contemporary foreign films being featured more frequently at Spanish theatres. These films would expose Spanish filmmakers to different ways of filming cinema. Some Spanish films did receive acclaim outside Spain, making the government aware of the positives that can come from distributing more films beyond its borders. This also meant collaborating with other European countries and making co-productions. This promotion of what was called Nuevo Cine Español (New Spanish Cinema) (NCE for short) was not without its flaws, however, and unfortunately, numerous caveats came with it. By 1968, the new production system was quite costly, and led to delayed payments of government subsidies, causing the NCE to be an economic failure. One of the only film-types to survive this crash was the horror genre, and directors found ways to continue putting them out while working around heavy restrictions. 


          Rigid censorship rules were enforced, determining what was acceptable to be made as a film. Scripts had to be officially examined, and anything that went against the ideologies and values of the regime (political, social, sexual, and cultural) had to be removed. Directors were subjected to a plethora of re-edits (this would sometimes include reshoots) if they wanted their films to appear on the screen. This forced many directors to develop strategies to work around the limitations set upon them. The origins of Spanish horror were BORN from these constraints, as evidenced in what is widely regarded as the earliest Spanish horror film, Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orlof. Released in 1962, The Awful Dr. Orlof was vastly different from what Spanish audiences were accustomed to viewing; it deviated from the normal conventions and ideals of Spanish filmmaking, subverting gender roles and combining gothic horror with detective tropes. It featured darkly-lit streets and shadows at every possible corner, hiding the horrific and unknown! Franco took the mad scientist genre and made it his own, creating something truly bizarre and ghastly! It was a co-production between Spain and France, and while it was shot in Madrid, Franco set the story in France, because, according to the regime, evil could never exist in Spain. This is a tactic that other directors would utilize in their films, like Pedro L. Ramirez’s School of Death (1975), set in Victorian London, or Miguel Madrid’s The Killer of Dolls (1974), set in France. To pass the rules of the censorship board, Paul Naschy’s famous werewolf, Waldemar Daninsky, came from Poland, because the regime said there were no werewolves and lycanthropy in Spain, as they went against Catholic doctrine. Other Spanish directors decided to make some of their films outside of Spain. José Luis Madrid filmed The Horrible Sexy Vampire (1971) in Germany. Jess Franco shot multiple films in different countries. José Ramón Larraz shot some of his films in the U.K., such as Symptoms (1974) and Vampyres (1974). Directors would also use foreign actors like Jack Taylor, Wal Davis, or Howard Vern, or even using Spanish actors who hardly worked outside the genre, and their voices dubbed so the average viewer couldn’t identify them. Double versions of films also had to be made, one for domestic viewing, and one for international viewing. Spanish audiences would get the edited version that would have nudity edited out, while international audiences would get the fully unedited versions (The Awful Dr. Orlof is an example of this). The first half of the 1960s didn’t see too many horror releases, but the seeds were planted, and the second half would experience an enormous boom! 




        1966 saw the release of the television series Historias para no dormir (Tales to Keep You Awake), from Uruguayan-born Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. Similar to series like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Serrador’s episodic show adapted stories from writers like Ray Bradbury, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others! From ‘66 to ‘68, he sent shockwaves throughout Spain! The release of his first horror film, La Residencia (1969) is what catapulted the horror genre in Spain. It was the first commercial horror film to come out of Spain, intentionally made to break through the international market. It also was the first Spanish film produced with English dialogue. Even more, it’s one of the earliest examples of a proto-slasher! It featured both English and Spanish actors/actresses and was a box office hit. It was the highest-grossing film in Spain at the time. The film would pave the way for a multitude of horror films over the following years. Directors like Amando de Ossorio, Pedro Olea, Jorge Grau, Eloy de la Iglesia, Raúl Artigot, and others would leave their mark on Spanish horror. Some of these filmmakers put out multiple films, while others only one or two. Over the following months, we will take a deeper look into these directors and their films, exploring their impact on the genre, and discussing the themes and symbolism, along with the socio-cultural and political commentary found in those films. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 5, 2024

The Somnambulist

Do you know who Caligari is? You hear the name in the ether. Images of a pale face blankly staring into the night come to you in your deep slumber. You find yourself in a cityscape of crooked angles and wrong shadows. An obsession you have had since childhood. You find these cinematic visions are the only things that represent your life. You can only find meaning, find comfort, in these nighttime visions. You are up late. After a long day at work, you are trying to zone out and watch something. You watch Jason Voorhees slaughtering teenagers at the whim of his murderous mother. A dead mother who still speaks to him. A blank stare coming from his mask he does as his mother wills. You watch Max Renn, programmed and reprogrammed, a subconscious agent for other powers' insidious agenda. Max’s abdominal vagina opening for whoever wants to control him. He fights against it, but he does keep finding himself open and receptive does he not? 

The puppets seethe. The moonlight reflects in their blank eyes. We are all driven by unknown motivations. Hardwired by forces unseen and unknowable. We come into this story halfway through and don’t understand the part we play. But play it we still do. We see the shadow of Caligari in our sexual attractions and our self-destructive behaviors. Like Ceaser, we walk through this life disoriented and confused. Driven by a master who whispers we can not fully understand. We find ourselves mute, unable to express our panic and our fear at the life we are forced to live, the strange passions and desires that consume us. We want to be taken over. Is this the secret voice of art? Art isn't so innocent, it is an invasive thing, insidious. To fill us up, take us over, as empty vessels with someone else's dreams. We don't want to have to live. We want the burden of living in our flesh cages to be lifted, for our lives to be taken over by our most secret and obsessive dreams. 

Kafka wrote about sons turned into bugs, so alienated from themselves they don't even know what species they are. But they do know that they are late for work and they don't want to let their family down. Bellmer made puppets that were unliving victims of his sexual appetites, made to be shaped and molded into whatever form he desired. Ligotti wrote of puppets becoming self-aware, the ultimate horror. All three celebrated the nightmares that infected and corrupted them. The horror genre whispers its secrets to us and few can understand what it is saying. The giving up of control and being submerged in someone else's nightmares, forever. Maybe our deepest secret desire is to be acted upon, to be manipulated and used, a puppet who comes to love their strings. To be lulled, to be drugged, to be mindwashed and controlled. To give in to forces more powerful than us. 

We, some of us, probably more than would be willing to admit, are Ceaser looking for their Caligari, Master of Nightmare. We hand over our puppet strings, our backs bent and our feet heavy. We want to fall into, to drown, in delicious nightmare. We watch Jason Vorhees stalk in the dark woods, an insane unalive thing. We watch Max Renn be penetrated over and over, flesh malleable and giving. We lose ourselves in these visions. The flickering screen whispering to our secret selves. You want this. You want this. You want this. And do we keep going back for ever fresh ever new nightmares, don’t we?

Monday, December 25, 2023

Review: Beau is Afraid.

    Ari Aster made a huge splash in cinema with two of the greatest horror films made in the last fifteen years. Hereditary and Midsommar. Both are brilliant films that mix classic horror tropes with art-house style. Now we come to his third film, a film that seems to be his more experimental, maybe more daring project to date. Beau is Afraid. The film starts off interesting, its atmospheres of paranoia and creeping violence laced through the narrative. But the film does not seem to be interested in restraint, and Beau is Afraid becomes too abstract and occasionally the worst sin of all…  just boring. The film tries to come off as daringly transgressive with its meta-narrative asides and random explosions of cruelty. But neither really hit the viewer, the film just has no punch. The viewer starts the film with goodwill, wanting to see where the director goes, but the journey just isn't worth the voyage. One of the strengths of his previous films is that they were anchored by using the basic framework of classic horror genre tropes which allowed him to play and expand on the themes of the horror film, in Beau is Afraid the film has no real depth and kind of gets lost in its own pretensions. The unease of the film is diluted by the winks and nods the film makes to the audience.

    Beau is Afraid is Ari Aster saying, look how awful life can be, what if all your paranoid thoughts were real? But it is all played as farce and an elbow to the ribs. There is no anger, no resentment, no actual emotions ever enter into it. The film would have been much better served by a more realistic tone. Compare this film to the completely unpredictable end of Enemy or the mindfuckery of The Tenant. Both films have a realistic tone where surrealism and horror lurk around the edges of the film. The acting in phenomenal. But anytime the film seems about to go somewhere challenging and interesting, it just falls back on its own wankery. It’s like the film does not know if it wants to be a horror film in the style of Polanski or Lynch, or some parody slash social commentary like Brazil or Mother!. While I do feel that the film was a brave direction for the director to go, the film itself doesn't have the courage of its own convictions. The oh-so-shocking monster in the attic, because of course there is a monster, at the end is shown to an audience tired of the abstraction of this three-hour film and the monster just lands to no effect. Beau is Afraid i will give credit for its experimental style and for its attempt at broadening of what genre films can do, but it just doesn't work. Not a horrible film just a film that is not effective. With this out of his system let's see what Ari Aster has in store for us next.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Review: Messiah of Evil

A new Blu-Ray of the wonderfully obscure and strange 1970s horror film Messiah of Evil recently dropped and I will never stop being a huge champion of this gem. This new transfer is a cult horror fan's dream. After having first experienced this film, having never heard of it or had any idea what it was, on one of those dvds with 20 badly transferred films on it, where all the films seem like they were recovered from a decade spent at the bottom of a swamp, seeing this film restored and in high definition is actually mind-blowing. The Bava/Argento influence is even more apparent, the hyperreal colors deep and clear. The hypnotic synth soundtrack hovers over everything, the restoration of the audio tracks is nothing short of amazing. 

Messiah of Evil, for my money, is an absolute top-five 70’s horror film. It’s a truly liminal film. Strange areas of modern life not often explored in the horror film provide the background of Messiah of Evil.. Isolated gas stations lit by fluorescent lights lost in huge oceans of darkness. The unnerving quiet of empty grocery stores. Streets empty and full of closed stores. I think the only film from that era that can compete with the strange midnight atmospherics of Messiah of Evil may be Phantasm. Both films are completely devoted to their surrealist logic and lack of explanation. 

Messiah of Evil is like a nightmare of horror films. Messiah of Evil is every half-remembered horror film you caught late at night and passed out halfway through. The next day when you think of the film, you can not figure out what was the actual film and what was your dream of the film That is Messiah of Evil. It is like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, it assimilates the best parts of other horror films and stories and makes something new and strange out of them. It is a precursor to Dawn of the Dead and its tying of capitalism to undead flesh eaters. It pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his cured seaside towns and protagonists who start to lose their grip on reality. The fog and gothic atmosphere of Dark Shadows is also here. The demonic possession as a virus or infection from Evil Dead runs through this film. A subplot recalls the southern gothic of Night of the Hunter. The hysteric female survivor of some nightmare recalls Shock Waves and Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. Somehow it references the horror genre yet feels so fresh and innovative. Messiah of Evil is an absolute classic of the horror genre and the new Blu-Ray from Radience Films is a must-buy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

A Pleasing Terror: Unease and the Ghost Tale

What is it that creeps in the night? The shadow, the strange sound in the distance? The feeling of unease, of terror tingling up your spine? What is it that provokes these feelings in us? And why do some of us find this sensation so appealing? The slow creeping shadow, you look away, but you know in the back of your mind if you look back, it will still be there. The thing that should not be there, the uncanny, the abject. Ghosts and phantoms exist in candlelight and in our modern technology. In our mythologies, in our books, and in our films they lurk. Thanks to writers like M.R. James, Fritz Leiber, Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, and Ramsey Campbell, the literary ghost story has grown and evolved, but it is also a form as old as literature. In films like The Haunting, The Innocents, Kairo, and The Others, the art form of the ghost story has chilled audiences, either in dark movie theaters or late at night on the television, for over a century. But what is this art of unease?

We all have experienced a fear of the unknown, a fear of what may lurk in the shadows. And maybe the ghost story says, what if what you fear… actually is real? What if a monster actually is hiding in the corner, or that sound was some inhuman thing? What if the worst-case scenario was not only real but worse than you thought? We go through our lives assuming things are safe and sane, but in the shadowy parts of the world, something nightmarish uncoils in the dark. Why does it hide? Why does it stay unseen, rarely making its presence felt? Maybe it's the tease, the slow revealing of itself that it cherishes? I think, deep down, we are aware of our tenuous place in existence. We live in a fathomless void. Surrounded by eons of death. Yet we try to live our lives to the best of our ability. Go to work. Enjoy a delicious dinner. Find love. But in the background, the darkness still lurks. I think the creepy and the eerie in horror serve as a reminder of something we repress. That nightmare is where we come from and from where we are damned to return. Is the darkness sentient? Were we created from its abyssal womb? We shamble in the eternal night, our rotting flesh carrying us under a sky of limitless nothingness. A universe of ghosts and absences. We are the dead. We are the ghosts of the universe. We haunt ourselves. Doppelgangers, specters, strange sounds in the night. Maybe these are all reflections. We see ourselves in the nothingness of the night sky. Under the skin hides a corpse. And sometimes, we can enjoy the deliciousness of our damnation. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A list: My thirteen favorite works of fiction.

Here is a list of what I would name as my top thirteen favorite books of fiction. Novels and short story collections, in no particular order. I have tried to stay away from large best-of collections, I like a more minimalist form of book editing. Shorter books with all meat and no filler. With every list like this must come the disclaimer… this is my list for today, tomorrow the list may be completely different. The immeasurable pleasure these books, among others, have given me and my existence on this earth is something I will always cherish. I hope like-minded people will find similar pleasure in these selections and also maybe encouragement to form their own lists. So for both new readers and readers already in love, I dedicate this to you. 

Cold Print/Ramsey Campbell. I just love the whole package of this book. The amazing cover. The gorgeous interior illustrations from J.K. Potter. The first half with a young Campbell playing in the Lovecraft mythos is fun, but certainly not his best work. But then we get to the second half of this collection and Campbell just goes off. I can’t think of a four-story stretch in any collection that can compete with these: Cold Print, Before the Storm, The Faces at Pine Dunes, and The Tugging. Apocalyptic, perverse, and beautifully written. Campbell may be one the greatest writers the horror genre has ever produced. A master of both the whispered, creeping tale and the mind-bendingly horrific. His works can produce a real vertigo in the reader, an actual unease after finishing one of his tales. There are a couple other Campbell collections that could have taken this spot: Demons by Daylight, The Height of the Scream, and Scared Stiff being my other favorites. 

Teatro Grottesco/Thomas Ligotti. For my money, this just may be the most brilliant collection of horror fiction ever printed. There is a certain air of sinister delirium that hangs over this book sitting on the bookshelf. A collection of stories that can only be characterized as malignant and bleak. From the abstract horrors of The Red Tower, the strange almost diseased folk horror of In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land, the meta nightmare of The Bungalow House, to the body horror of Severini, if ever a book earned the right to be called a collection of nightmares, this is the one. I would also include that Ligotti’s collection Grimscribe was close to taking this spot. 

Dark Entries/Robert Aickman. In terms of whispering horror, has anyone ever come close to Aickman? Most of the time, you finish a tale of his feeling completely unnerved, and you have literally no idea why. There are these dark undercurrents to his work hidden in the text, a background of strangeness only hinted at. Sometimes it's hard to even remember what you just read, like trying to find direction in a fog bank.

Scarlet Nights/Juan Muntaner. A collection of the most exquisite erotica. Sometimes dark and disturbing, sometimes willingly transgressing taboos, sometimes playful and teasing. Each and every story is surprising and never what you think it's going to be. Lustful, decadent, and titillating. This collection really is the final word on erotica as a legitimate branch of literature. 

The Torture Garden/Octave Mirbeau. Mirbeau mixes the beautiful and the deadly in this intoxication in book form. The dark, the horrible, the worst parts of humanity he makes beautiful and desirable. The main seductress of the tale, Clara, is something out of myth, maybe a reincarnation of Lilith, or Kali? There is an aura around her of the other, like she just stepped out of a dream. The seductress that will lead you, willingly, to your demise. 

Tender is the Flesh/Agustina Bazterrica. A dystopian novel that holds nothing back. This book holds a mirror to our society and shows it for what it is, a dying, starving, desperate beast. Underneath the fake veneer that holds our society together, there is a serious rot, a corrupting force that is destroying us. The writing here is wonderfully crisp and poetic. Both a bleak nightmare of society and a poem to degradation. 

Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart/Caitlin Kiernan. There has never been a writer that has combined the melancholy of desire, and the desire for the dark, like Kiernan has. Heartbreak, longing, and despair combine with a desire for the mysterious and the nebulous. Tales of soul-crushing otherness combine with the secret longing to be other than what one is. Kiernan at their best is writing the most beautiful prose being written today. I would add that Kiernan’s collection The Ammonite Violin also was a contender for this spot.

Crash/J.G. Ballard. Science as pornography. Or pornography as science fiction. I don’t feel that any writer has come as close to anticipating the strange reality we live in as Ballard did in the 1970’s. The unreal is taking over the media landscape that has replaced ‘the real’. Our newfound freedom to explore our own obsessions ruthlessly. Crash is a bomb thrown into our discourse, shattering all pretenses. Car crashes and bodily injury as sources of sexual pleasure. The drive to death is secretly entangled in our notions of technological progress. This book is still way beyond acceptance. This book is both a seduction and a warning. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition also could have been in this spot.

Earwig/Brian Catling. The book that forces me to like fantasy. A strange labyrinth of scenes and journeys. A delirium of secrets, doppelgangers, sinister presences, and innocence corrupted. Reading Earwig is like taking a long train journey into lands you never knew existed. Full of foreign sights and smells. All the while having no idea where the train is heading or what the final results of this journey will be. This is a book to get lost in. 

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories/Arthur Machen. Maybe the grand poet of the horror genre? While protesting sin and darkness and the monstrous, was there any writer who did more to celebrate the darkness than Machen did with his stories? From the nightmare of sex that is The Great God Pan, the reality-smashing mystery of The Novel of the Black Seal, to the seductive enchantments of The White People, these works laid the groundwork for what was to soon become the horror genre. Horror as enchanting nightmare, dark prose that flirts with the sexual, horror as secrets and whispers in the night, all come fully formed in the work of Machen. 

Fur/Liliane Giraudon. A tome of perverse fairy tales. Short and bizarre tales of strange encounters, with lovers who are unknowable and flesh that changes form. This is a book to be shared with lovers and one-night stands. This book feels like the author is telling you secrets, but they are weird and rooted in the author's lusts and dreams. A feverish book of desire and fantasy.

Wyrd and Other Derelictions/Adam Nevill. A book devoid of any characters. Or at least any recognizable human characters. A book of ruined landscapes. A literary tour of atrocity and collapse. These are tales of what happens when the worst possible scenario happens, when the monster at the end of the book wins, and what the world looks like afterward. 

Throat Sprockets/Tim Lucas. Finally, a book that understands the fetishism and obsession of genre. A love letter to strange films and midnight viewings. This is a book that understands how a film, a book, or art in general, can change your entire life. The way you view reality and the way you live your life can be altered by a chance viewing of a film in a rundown movie theater or on television late at night. Anyone who has obsessed over a cult film or an underread book will find a kindred spirit here. Erotic and obsessive, this book just absolutely unrepentantly throbs with passion and lust for cult films and secret vices. 

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Review: The Boogeyman

Ulli Lommel’s 1980 cult horror film The Boogeyman is the kind of film you see mentioned here and there, but never really see any reason to check it out. It just kind of lives on the periphery of cult horror fandom. Not really famous in slasher film circles and not really well regarded as a supernatural horror film, it has yet to really make a name for itself. Sitting around the house I saw that it was available on streaming services and decided to give it a go. And let me tell you, after about five minutes into the film I was hooked. I am not sure if The Boogeyman is the best worst movie or the worst best movie, but I loved it. An insane brew of haunted house scares, possession, slasher killings, and very very very strange humor. The Boogeyman is ripe for rediscovery for anyone who loves that sort of 1970’s early 1980’s low-budget horror vibe. This film precedes in this kind of narcotic haze, everything is just a little off-kilter. The acting is subtlety strange, kind of like the cast is working through the film in a state of hypnosis. I would say Kubrick's The Shining drew influence from this film, and its underlying uncanniness if they hadn”t been released in the same year. And there is this strain of meta-comedy in The Boogeyman that parodies and comments on slasher film tropes that show yet again how non-revolutionary Craven’s film Scream really was. 

This film deserves to be mentioned in the same category as Messiah of Evil, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Lemora: A Childs Tale of the Supernatural, The Child, and Phantasm. The non-sequitur hilarious non-comedy and the icy chill of the somniloquist actors going through the scenes make this such an unpredictable viewing experience. How this film slipped under my radar for so long is beyond me. Combining the last of the 70’s weird esthetics with the bizarre meta-camp of the 80’s, this film is both a wonderful accumulation of those films and a singular experience in its own right. Any self-respecting fan of cult horror needs to add this one to their collection.