The Rise And Rise Of Spanish Horror

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Some ten or so years ago, Spain suddenly emerged as one of the leading horror exporters on the planet. If it was the US in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Japan in the ‘90s, 2000 onwards has seen Spain emerge as the scariest country on Earth. While the US dabbled in gorno, Spain has cornered the market in psychological thrillers – and as the latest of these, Julia’s Eyes, hits screens, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo unleashes Intruders and Pedro Almodóvar goes all terrifying in Cannes with The Skin I Inhabit, we took a look at the essential Spanish-made horror so far...

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christoper Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley

“Spanish?!” we hear you cry. Well, sort of actually. Amenábar was born in Chile but grew up in Madrid, and wrote this film in Spanish before translating it into English for his cast. What’s more, while the story of a mother and her two light-sensitive children, shut in a darkened and isolated house, is set in Jersey just after World War II, it was shot in Spain.

The film is a masterpiece of tension and atmosphere, with Nicole Kidman’s Grace beset by fear. There’s the continuing absence of her husband (Christopher Eccleston), despite the fact that the war has finished. There’s the strange new house staff who appeared as if from nowhere to assist with her two children. There’s the isolation enforced by her duty to care for those kids, and the strange, ghostly presence in the house. And there’s sunlight itself, which could kill or maim her children. While she tries to keep it all buttoned down, her slow spiral towards the devastating, perfect ending is masterly.

Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Starring: Max von Sydow, Eusebio Poncela, Leonardo Sbaraglia

We could include 28 Weeks Later here – after all, it’s an impressively gory sequel and a pretty decent showcase of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s talents - but somehow Canary Wharf lacks that Iberian flavour. Instead, we’ve gone for Intact, the film that got Fresnadillo the gig in the first place. Danny Boyle was suitably impressed by the Spaniard’s noodle-twisting thriller that, like Aronofsky’s either sneaks into the cerebral end of the horror spectrum or the scary end of the sci-fi spectrum.

‘The circuit’ – a kind of Fight Club for the perennial fluky – is a shadowy group of men and women who are blessed with supernatural luck. Beyond that the plot is inexplicable without recourse to several pages and a couple of bottles of absinthe but the presence of Max von Sydow as a kind of grandee of fate, dispensing luck to the wealthy gamblers while bolt-holed in a scary casino, tells you everything thing you need to know about the spooky, thought-provoking tenor of the piece. The director is soon back to scare the pants of Clive Owen in Intruders.

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi

Del Toro is a proud Mexican, but he has made Spain part of his film canon with Pan’s Labyrinth and this earlier chiller. This first Spanish effort, shot in Madrid and set in the countryside of Spain during the final months of the Spanish Civil War, is a rare ghost story where the live characters are more dangerous than the dead. Well, we say rare: it’s relatively common in these Spanish efforts, which might be why they succeed in surprising us.

The plot sees a young boy investigating strange goings-on at the orphanage where he has been left – apparently to await his father’s return from the war, but in fact because his father has died. There are ghostly figures to be seen, nefarious staff members to be trailed, and an unexploded bomb standing to attention in the courtyard (are you allowed to have those around boisterous children? Where’s Health and Safety when you need them, eh?). Just as Franco’s Nationalists prepare for the final defeat of the Republicans in the wider field, so events build to a head inside the walls of the orphanage, and long-buried secrets come to light. Creepy, convoluted and rather gripping, this marks – along with the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Spirit Of The Beehive – another high point for child performances in scary circumstances.

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

Del Toro protégé Juan Antonio Bayona’s classy haunted house flick largely eschews tricks and jumps in favour of old-fashioned Gothic horror values: mood, atmosphere and story. There are shocks – and moments of body-horror that’ll hit you like a train – but it doesn’t really need them to scare you witless, especially once the menace facing mother-and-son pair Laura (Belén Rueda) and Simón (Roger Príncep) makes its presence felt. The film’s big star, though, is the creaking old mansion that stands like a tombstone at the heart of the tale. Once a home for abandoned children, it’s now the kind of place where you’d wake up to find the Rentaghost horse’s head in your bed.

Its secrets slowly reveal themselves in corridors haunted by a sinister child. What does Laura do? She calls Spain’s answer to the Ghostbusters. The ensuing set-piece, in which a parapsychologist forms a bridge with the past, is so astonishing we’d be surprised if the US remake doesn’t lift it wholesale. The Orphanage won Bayona Spain’s prestigious Goya award and a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Starring: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano

[•Rec] – the place the ‘•’ went after Wall•E – is a terrifying Iberian addition to the found footage canon. It had US producers scrambling for remake rights (the so-so Quarantine was the result) and spawned one watchable sequel for purists to get their teeth into, and another to come. The Romero-like premise deposits a TV camera crew, and some ill-fated firemen, into a locked-down Barcelona apartment block where bloody mayhem awaits. It may not be revolutionary in its conceit but the execution, a world of haunted-house jump-shocks to wake the dead, is enough to drag even the hardiest horror fan along for the ride.

It’s the gory handiwork of the coming force in Spanish horror, Filmax producer Julio Fernánde, and two directors at the vanguard of this new wave, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza Ángela. They’re a pair of Catalan filmmakers who transform their home town’s tenements into a rabid cauldron where even the neighbourhood old dear is likely to rip your head off and use it as a doorstop. This film is very unlikely to appear in the recruitment brochure of any Spanish fire brigade.

Director: Gabe Ibáñez
Starring: Elena Anaya, Bea Segura, Mar Sodupe

Not a biopic of the legendary Real Madrid defender, but a slow-burn horror-thriller with shades of Flightplan, The Vanishing, or a lesser thriller by their spiritual alma mater, Alfred Hitchcock. A ferry trip to a remote Canary Island (the titular El Hierro) ends in panic when Maria’s (Elena Anaya) young son disappears. Three years later a phonecall summons her back to identity his body and before you can say, “It’s not her son!” it turns out that it’s not her son.

Or is it? Yup, there are one or two hokey twists to sap the credibility from Maria’s quest, but ad veteran Gabe Ibáñez carves up a pretty gripping exploration of grief in which nothing is quite what it seems. Ibáñez drops enough horror tricks, including a discordant score, stark lighting and sudden jumps to keep viewers firmly spooked.

Director: Eugenio Mira
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Martina Gedeck, Bárbara Goenaga

This one’s arguably neither a horror nor even a psychological thriller – but then it’s one of those hard-to-categorise efforts that exist purely to make life difficult for those who sort their DVD by genre. Set in the 19th century, its heroine is a girl who, following a fall, has developed the titular condition and can no longer correctly interpret the information that her senses provide. So while she can see and hear, it all comes through as meaningless mumbo-jumbo – a bit like Rush Limbaugh.

But it’s not all delusions and craziness for Joana (Bárbara Goenaga), who may hold the key to her dead father’s potentially lucrative invention somewhere inside her confused head. Her dad’s partner will have that invention, and he sets into motion a giant con to get the information from her – only her condition makes conning her a bit complicated. One of the most gorgeous films you’ll ever see, this is a little harder than the rest to get your hands on, but delivers a steampunky, Age-of-Innocence-but-weirder-and-scarier sort of a thrill.

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Ryan Reynolds

Whether this is a horror or a thriller is debatable, but if you ask us, waking up buried alive in a coffin is pretty damn pant-wetting. Yet that’s exactly the fate that befalls poor, attractive put-upon Ryan Reynolds in this Rodrigo Cortés film, as he wakes up somewhere in Iraq in a wooden box with only a lighter and a half-powered mobile phone for company.

The thing about this film, based on a witty Chris Sparling script, is that it’s often very funny, as a whole world of uncaring bureaucracies frustrate Reynolds’ Paul and his attempts to get help before he runs out of air. But it’s a black humour of the most pitch hue, and Cortés ratchets up the tension again and again as Paul’s situation grows more desperate. If you can stand it, it’s very nearly essential viewing – not least because it will provide you with no end of jokes about Ryan Reynolds’ trouser snake.