The Fire Within: The New Spanish Strange Wave

A fresh generation of Spanish filmmakers specializes in a hyper-stylized, deeply interior brand of horror.
Anna Bogutskaya

La Pietà (Eduardo Casanova, 2022).

Something strange is brewing in Spain. 

At this year’s Fantastic Fest, the biggest genre festival in the US, two Spanish horror films picked up major awards: Eduardo Casanova’s La Pietà won the top prize in the Main Competition, and Carlota Pereda’s Piggy won best picture in the Horror Features category. This year’s selection included not just one or two, but eight Spanish-made horror films (plus one co-production and a series): the sci-fi adjacent Amazing Elisa and The Antares Paradox; new work by established names like Carlos Vermut with Manticore, Jaume Balangueró with Venus, and Casanova with La Pietà; and the series Garcia! (In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a programmer at the festival.) Outside of the strong representation at this year’s showcase, over the last few years there has been a noticeable upsurge in genre pictures coming from mainland Spain: films that defy and update the country’s long-standing tradition of horror filmmaking by eschewing their Gothic influences and focusing instead on terrors both bodily and internalized. 

The 1960s and ’70s were considered the golden age of fantaterror, a portmanteau of “fantástico”—fantasy—and “terror.” This cinema aimed to encompass Spain’s particular national brand of genre, which mixed elements from supernatural, gothic and exploitation cinema. Born from an era of high censorship during the Franco dictatorship—the restraints of which were not lifted until 1977, a few years after the tyrant’s death—these films were often grand in concept, low in budget, and situated somewhere between the exploitative and the psychosexual. While the Italian giallo tradition, which in turn skirted between crime thrillers and horror films, gravitated to stories of deviant murderers and blood-saturated crime scenes, their Spanish neighbors preferred stories of werewolves and vampires, eerie mansions, and sinister lords, with a few nudie scenes thrown in for good measure. Like the monsters of Universal Studios or Hammer, many of these films drew from classic literature; in a way, the entire spirit of fantaterror was embodied by multi-hyphenate Paul Naschy, who played the melancholic lycanthrope Count Waldemar Daninsky in The Mark of the Wolfman (1968). Often aimed at the international market, the fantaterror films were dubbed and shot in anonymously grand settings that could be Spain, France, or Transylvania, as required by the story. The resulting films were weird and out-of-place because they actively tried to seem less Spanish. As Xavier Aldana Reyes, co-lead of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, writes, this was “an eminently transnational, low-budgeted, exploitational form of national cinema that riffed off universal (or at least widely recognised) Gothic myths and settings, but which could not help but adapt to a specific national context.” 

These films, beloved as they are, were not considered high art and existed outside of the mainstream cinema arena. It was in the ’90s that genre underwent a generational shift: a fresh crop of young filmmakers—like Alejandro Amenábar with Thesis (1996), and Álex de la Iglesia with Acción Mutante (1993) and El día de la bestia (1995)—quickly achieved critical, commercial, and awards success. Their films were slick, stylish, ambitious, and extremely localized: Thesis used the bowels of Madrid’s largest, most well-known university, La Complutense, as its setting; in Amenábar’s sophomore success Open Your Eyes (1997), he closed down the capital’s busiest street, Gran Via, to have his leading man gormlessly run through an empty, unreal city; and de la Iglesia set the finale of his occult comedy-horror Day of the Beast (1995) at the giant, inclined Gate of Europe buildings. This cohort of filmmakers was also bred on American horror films, and as they blended genres, they clearly prioritized pace and plot over depth of character. Because of their influence, genre became a talent-breeding pool in Spanish cinema, much like it had been in the US.

The most successful Spanish horror franchise arrived in 2007: Paco Plaza and Jaume Balangueró’s REC is a found-footage zombie film that spawned three sequels and a lesser American remake. That same year, J.A. Bayona, whose recent credits include Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, kickstarted his career with the Gothic-infused horror film The Orphanage, which managed to pierce through international audiences to become a worldwide success. By this point, Spanish horror had two clear interests: zombies and fairytales. And yet, in these films, genre is used to investigate afflictions of an individual nature. REC takes place in a single residential building that could be a stand-in for any house, really. The distraught mother in The Orphanage is concerned above all with protecting her child. The characters are not special, grand, or supernaturally-chosen, but are forced to accept the supernatural as a new layer in their lives. Perhaps this was a way for filmmakers to rewrite their own history while paying tribute to the Gothic traditions of fantaterror, but it was also the first step toward making Spanish horror much more interested in physicality and emotion. 

Piggy (Carlota Pereda, 2022).

Jumping ahead to the present, this new wave of horror filmmakers is even more strongly committed to open wounds of the individual kind, not the historical. La Pietà, the second film by child-actor-turned-director Eduardo Casanova, depicts the toxicity between mother and son, a sacred relationship in a heavily Catholic country like Spain. His first feature, Skins, is a series of heavily John Waters-influenced body horror vignettes about characters with different kinds of bodily mutations. La Pietà, meanwhile, is a hyper-stylized portrait of just two characters: Mateo (Manel Llunell) and his mother Libertad (Ángela Molina), who has a Munchausen-like obsession with her son’s health. He gets diagnosed with cancer, and she decides that she is ill too. Casanova’s film focuses on the aesthetic representation of toxic behavior rather than any attempts to diagnose it. Libertad and Mateo are cast as tragic, almost mythical figures, and Casanova updates Biblical imagery for an Instagram-influenced, hyper-stylized tragic horror realm. Casanova’s characters talk like they belong on Spanish daytime television, giving the film a sense of otherworldliness and a stylistic specificity. The presence of pink–a constant in Casanova’s work–is overpowering, a tool to visualize the suffocation he’s interested in exploring. This boxing-in of the audience through deliberately un-naturalistic filmmaking tools is a constant among Casanova’s filmmaking peers. 

Both Casanova’s and Pereda’s films are intrigued by the body, especially bodies that are considered undesirable at best, and at worst, unworthy of life. Piggy, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is an expansion of Pereda’s short film of the same name, wears the dehumanization that its lead character suffers in its title. Sara (Laura Galán) works in her parents’ butcher shop and is constantly teased by the local mean girls, who call her “piggy” and oink at her because of her weight. Pereda’s film is, in many ways, a traditional slasher (key ingredients being: summer, teenagers, brutal killer). Shot in a tight 1.33:1 ratio, once again boxing us in, the film’s brutal style and aggressive dialogue is at odds with the gentleness with which Sara is framed. She exists in a state of near-constant fury and hurt; while she barely speaks up, everyone around her speaks about her, carrying in their accent their class and social status. Transplanting an American genre to mainland Spain, Pereda gives the film a strong sense of place through its characters: the gossiping townies, the out-of-town mean girls, Sara’s family of butchers. Through Sara, someone who might be the side character in a summer slasher film becomes the protagonist, which reframes Pereda’s approach to the genre: we are not meant to root for the killer’s victims at all.

Manticore (Carlos Vermut, 2022).

All of these characters are at a tipping point. The horror happens when they explode. Carlos Vermut, whose previous films Magical Girl (2014) and Quién te cantará (2018) operate in the fine line between the fantastical and the earthly, returns this year with Manticore, a portrait of a man with pedophilic fantasies. Rather than physicality, Vermut finds horror in a psychological portrait. Julián (Nacho Sánchez) would be perfectly cast-able in a rom-com if it weren’t for the sinister thoughts that are always lingering in his mind. Much like Piggy and La Pietà, we are boxed in with this character, rarely leaving his apartment and his company. Like Sara, Julián doesn’t speak that much, and when he does, it’s stilted. Vermut never makes us complicit in his depraved fantasies—that would be the work of a much less gifted filmmaker—but instead makes us spend time in close proximity to Julián, observing his day-to-day life, fearful of what the next scene may hold. The camera barely moves, lingering on him when other filmmakers would have moved on. Vermut is interested in everyday eeriness rather than full-on terror, and this group of films is permeated by an unflinching determination to look directly at grotesque characters. In the process, these films question what constitutes “a grotesque character”: is Mateo the grotesque one because he’s sick, or is it his mother because of her dependency on him? In another film, would Sara be the freakish one instead of her bullies? Is Julián the only monster in this film, or is it also the woman who loves him, despite knowing what he is?  

Among this new wave, there is a marked fascination with the elderly and aging bodies, both as a source of horror and as a force of rebellion. In REC co-director Plaza’s The Grandmother (La Abuela, 2021), which Vermut wrote, the titular grandmother is plotting to take over her granddaughter’s body so she can live longer. She fits neatly into the archetype of the crone, the elderly witch concerned primarily with extending her own youth and beauty, but she’s also metaphorically defanged for most of the film. This theme is picked up in this year’s The Elderly, directed by Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez, which transposes the high-concept, internal-invasion conceit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) onto Madrid’s elderly, who become aggressive, disoriented, and even suicidal. The film focuses on one such man, Manuel (Zorion Eguileor), whose wife suddenly commits suicide, forcing him to stay with this impatient son and his family. His behavior worsens: he becomes eerily distant, volatile, and convinced his dead wife is coming back. Both of these films use their actors' physicality and broad strokes of body horror to confront us with why we’re scared of, bluntly, aged bodies. Are the elderly protagonists of The Grandmother and The Elderly creepy and old, or creepy because they’re old? The latter is what the filmmakers know we’re trained to see, but their elderly protagonists here are agents of power, seen through the condescending eyes of their family.  

The Grandmother (Paco Plaza, 2021).

There is a grandness in the fantaterror films that isn’t present in these newer features. These films look inward, and even their supernatural elements are rooted in a bodily kind of otherworldliness, not the haunted-house variety. They are thematically ambitious, investigating thorny subjects like aging, trauma, abuse, and familial relationships. There are no grand transformations, no Gothic archetypes or sinister overlords, nor a particular standout star in the way Naschy dominated the 1970s and Belén Rueda was the grande dame of horror in the 2000s. After the pandemic, it’s noticeable that these films take place almost entirely in interiors. Grand, eerie mansions are supplanted by minimalist apartments or old-fashioned, spinny flats. These films offer timely visions of Spanish identity through the lens of genre. 

There is a global appetite for genre right now, and an equally global examination of why we’re drawn to horror: Somerset House is putting on a major exhibition investigating how horror has informed the last 50 years of artistic practice in the UK; the BFI is presenting their major season of horror films, In Dreams Are Monsters (full disclosure again: I co-curated it); and outside of the Halloween season, New York’s MoMA presented a wide-ranging program of horror films this past summer. These large-scale projects tie into general post-pandemic introspectiveness, since horror, as it always has, shows us what we’re really scared of at any given time. This Spanish wave is not united generationally but rather thematically, with a new set of filmic influences that feel more contemporary than previous waves of terrora la española. The influence of gothic texts and British horror that so dominated the 1970s was updated to a distinctively American set of influences for the 1990s crop of horror. These films, meanwhile, belong completely to a modern blend of arthouse and horror, toning down the desire to be anything other than a Spanish film. They keep a strong focus on character rather than plot, experiment with hyper-stylized aesthetics, and develop a clear sense of place through performance and production design. On the surface, La Pietà, Piggy, Manticore, The Grandmother, and The Elderly might have nothing in common except their country of provenance. Looking more closely, though, their shared brand of strangeness represents a distinctly contemporary, deeply interior type of genre cinema.

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Eduardo CasanovaCarlota PeredaCarlos VermutPaco PlazaRaúl CerezoFernando González Gómez
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