!Dios mio! There are so many exceptional Spanish language horror films, it was hard to choose just 5 – so we didn’t! Whether it’s a Mexican director working in Spain, a Cuban zombiepocalypse, or ghosts, zombies, mad doctors or madder clowns, we have you covered with our fuzzy math salute to el cine de los muertos.
6. Juan of the Dead (2011)
By 2011, finding a zombie film with something new to say was pretty difficult, but writer/director/Cuban Alejandro Bruges managed to do just that with his bloody political satire Juan of the Dead.
First, what a kick ass title. Honestly, that’s a lot to live up to, begging the comparison of Dawn’s scathing social commentary and Shaun’s ingenious wit. Juan more than survives this comparison.
Breathtakingly and unapologetically Cuban, the film shadows Juan and his pals as they reconfigure their longtime survival instincts to make the most of Cuba’s zombie infestation. It’s a whole new approach to the zombiepocalypse and it’s entirely entertaining.
5. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone unravels a spectral mystery during Spain’s civil war. The son of a fallen comrade finds himself in an isolated orphanage that has its own troubles to deal with, now that the war is coming to a close and the facility’s staff sympathized with the wrong side. That leaves few resources to help him with a bully, a sadistic handyman, or the ghost of a little boy he keeps seeing.
Backbone is a slow burn as interested in atmosphere and character development as it is in the tragedy of a generation of war orphans. This is ripe ground for a haunted tale, and del Toro’s achievement is both contextually beautiful – war, ghost stories, religion and communism being equally incomprehensible to a pack of lonely boys – and elegantly filmed.
Touching, political, brutal, savvy, and deeply spooky, Backbone separated del Toro from the pack of horror filmmakers and predicted his potential as a director of substance.
4. The Skin I Live In (2011)
In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.
The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.
Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.
3. [Rec] (2007)
Found footage horror at its best, [Rec] shares one cameraman’s film of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. Bad, bad things will happen.
The squad gets a call from an urban apartment building where one elderly tenant keeps screaming. No sooner do the paramedics and news crew realize they’ve stepped into a dangerous situation than the building is sealed off and power is cut. Suddenly we’re trapped in the dark inside a building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.
The found footage approach never feels tired – at first, he’s documenting his story, then he’s using the only clear view in the darkened building. The point of view allows [Rec] a lean, mean funhouse experience.
2. The Last Circus (2010)
Who’s in the mood for something weird?
Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia offers The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.
Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.
Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.
The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.
1. The Orphanage (2007)
Sometimes a throwback is the most refreshing kind of film. Spain’s The Orphanage offers just that fresh breath with a haunted house tale that manages to be familiar and surprising and, most importantly, spooky.
Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son, Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.
One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.
A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.