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Spain's cabinet of horror

There are zombies in the building and ghosts of dead Republicans in the hallway. Spanish horror films from the late 1990s up to now are a moody, stylish amalgam of urban creepiness, plain supernatural and a touch of historical terror.

From today until Saturday, the “Spanish Film Festival 2023: A Panorama Of Horror And Intrigue Films” will screen a selection of six titles at House Samyan, with one film showing every day at 7pm (two films from the programme will also screen at Thai Film Archive on Saturday).

Unlike the Italian giallo horrors — a 1970s genre featuring black-gloved psycho-killers lurking behind shadowy piazzas — the Spanish ghost, murder, monster, supernatural and good-ol’-exploitation flicks of the same period are little known in this part of the world. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that a wave of Spanish filmmakers (or Spanish-speaking nationals working in Spain) gained international reputation with sleek and spooky films such as Alejandro Almenabar’s Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and The Others, as well as Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone — the latter is the opening film of the festival tonight.

Most audiences are probably more familiar with del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and, of course, his Hollywood monster picture The Shape Of Water (2017). But it’s The Devil’s Backbone, released in 2001, that established the Mexican filmmaker as a credible auteur of fantasy-horror steeped in the lore of cinema history — and Spanish history.

R.E.C. imdb.com

The Devil’s Backbone takes place in the final years of the Spanish Civil War. The setting is a boarding school where the sons and daughters of dead leftist fighters are sheltered, while a bomb dropped by the fascists remains stuck in its courtyard. The floorboards creak, the hallways hiss and a spirit stalks the children. A simmering ambience finally explodes, and The Devil’s Backbone is choke-full of del Toro’s trademark combination of shock, violence, melodrama, tragedy and fantastical horror. If you’re fascinated by Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is the seed that start it all.

In 2007, Spain claimed a spotlight at the height of found-footage and faux-docu horror wave with R.E.C., a zombie film set in a Barcelona apartment building and seen through the viewfinder of a video camera. The story is not new by today’s standard (a reporter and her cameraman enter a building with firefighters and confront a plague of zombies). But at the time, R.E.C.’s frenetic energy and relentless pacing made it a smash hit with audiences and critics alike and spawned three more sequels. The original film was remade in Hollywood as Quarantine — how prescient.

R.E.C. has two directors, Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza. Each would go solo to make more horror films; Balagueoro’s Sleep Tight (2011) is also showing in the Spanish horror programme. Like R.E.C., Sleep Tight is a site-specific creep-fest set in a Barcelona residential building where the caretaker is a man tormented by memories and dark obsessions. There’s a political subtext, perhaps, as well as a critique on class and social oppression, and the film shows how an innocuous urban setting can harbour underlying horror.

Intacto. Photos © IMDB.com

Three other films in the programme draw on diverse sources for fear and paranoia. Intacto, directed by J.C. Fresnadillo from 2001, bears an intriguing premise: a world where luck is a commodity that can be traded or stolen, where lucky people try to get luckier by challenging other lucky people to daring games of chance (gambling and Russian roulette, for starters).

More recent films in the selection touch on modern issues. In Carlota Pedera’s Piggy (2022), a bullied teenage girl gets her gory revenge in a story that is much more than just a fantasy of vengeance; while Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts (2017) is a slow-burn thriller about a French couple who find themselves at odds with the residents of a rural Spanish village.

The Beasts. imdb.com

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