Over the last twenty-five years serious fans of horror and science fiction cinema have been happy to witness the awakening of book publishers to the idea that there is more to talk about than the monster make-up and special effects that are the most obvious point of interest in these films. It has always been difficult for those fascinated by genre films to convince mainstream film aficionados of the deeper, more thoughtful aspects of these movies because of the surface elements that attract the most obvious widespread attention. Because of this prejudice the long road to the publication of serious intellectual works focused on horror films almost had to start with movies that have stood the test of decades of popular acclaim and were slowly, grudgingly accepted as good cinema. Those first steps were books of deep discussions of films with literary roots such as Dracula and Frankenstein and movies with often tenuous links to Edgar Allan Poe. When those books proved successful the doors cracked open and, aided by several foreign press' similarly delving into the cult film world for new subject matter, more attention began to be paid to the high quality (and even low quality) works of horror. We are now at a point where someone interested in horror film studies doesn't have to rely on one or two reference books in a certain field but might actually find themselves in the position of having so many choices it becomes difficult to know where to start. Of course, this is a problem I'm glad to have even if it complicates my desire to learn more about the movies I love.
But one area of cinema interest has been, until now, mostly neglected by film academics and that would be the monster and horror films of
Spain. In the United States much attention has been paid to the
various Spanish language genre films of Mexico
has suffered in the dark. This might be because of the shared border that makes
it easier to import scratchy VHS and DVD copies or the colorful nature of the
Masked Wrestling films of El Santo and his cohorts or the fact that K. Gordon
Murray ran dubbed Mexican genre movies through kiddie matinees like a madman who
had learned there was gold in them there theaters! But it is probably also
because, for American viewers, it can be difficult to distinguish a Spanish
made horror film from one of Italian origin since they were all dubbed and
often by the same voices. A casual fan might never notice the differences
inherent in these films or even realize that these differences depend upon
their country of origin. Those who are really interested do begin to pick up on
the ways in which Spanish horror efforts are distinct from their European
brethren and luckily we now have a book that can serve as an intelligent
Cinema by Nicholas Schlegel focuses on the Spanish genre films produced during
what is now termed the Golden Age of Spanish Horror from 1968 to 1977. He examines
the reasons the genre was finally allowed to flower under the Franco
dictatorship and the ways in which the restrictions placed on filmmakers helped
shape the movies in both obvious and more subtle ways. For anyone unaware,
Schlegel lays out a brief history of the Spanish Civil War, the ascendancy of
General Franco, the post WWII economic problems of the country and the eventual
opening of the country to tourism that saw Sadism,
Spain Spain grow into a prosperous
nation. These are the conditions and history that Schlegel points to as the
creative seedbed that made the best of the country's hundreds of horror films distinctly Spanish.
In the largest, most fascinating sections of this book he uses several specific
movies as examples of this. Dividing them into productions co-financed with
money from other counties and then the completely homegrown films Schlegel describe
the details that mark each as a specific product of Spain. It is in these chapters that
genre fans will find much intellectual meat to tear into.
As a Paul Naschy fan I was immensely curious to see what the author would find in his werewolf and other monster efforts and I was not disappointed. When discussing one of Naschy's most famous films Walpugis Night (a.k.a. Werewolf Shadow a.k.a. The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman) he notices that Naschy's screenplay has structured the movie monster's psyches along the lines of the classic Freudian formulation of the id, ego and superego. As I read Schlegel's detailed analysis of the creature's driving desires with this framework I was shocked to see exactly what he meant. The vampires are pure id always seeking pleasure regardless of costs while the tortured werewolf wants only to end his eternal existence because he kills aligning the ego and superego within his bifurcated body. Using this view to examine the rest of the tale opens up whole new avenues that makes thinking seriously about these movies fascinating.
Another amazing discussion is Schlegel's dissection of one of the best and best known Spanish horror films Horror Express (1972). Earlier in the book he pointed out that while American filmmakers had thirty years to refine their craft to the moment that they produced something as monumental in the genre as Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) Spanish creators had to absorb those lessons in a brief few years and synthesize them in order to compete. That they succeeded so well is a testament to their talent and skill with Eugenio Martin's astonishing film standing as the perfect example of transmutation within the confines of chosen set of limits. Part science fiction, part murder mystery, part period adventure and part EC comics horror this film - according to Schlegel - also serves as a view inside the Franco dictatorship from a Spanish citizen's restricted perspective. Indeed, he poses the bold claim that its not an alien monster that stalks the Trans-Siberian train but history itself that moves throughout the narrative. This is an amazing reading of the film's narrative that, at first I was surprised by, but eventually the author won me over with the force of his argument and some pointed quotes from director Martin. And even if this view of Horror Express doesn't jib with your own, the idea itself is fascinating regardless of authorial intent.
This is exactly the kind of film commentary book I love to read! The films examined are accepted as works of quality within their field and worthy of study because of that fact. The intentions of the filmmakers is explored, the times of the production are probed, the concepts presented are teased apart for relevance while the whole is enjoyed as an entertaining work. Nicholas Schlegel has written a fine work delving into an area filled with untapped potential for study. Fans of Spanish horror are lucky that someone has finally begun to explore the deeper aspects of this neglected field and doubly lucky that someone with writing talent has taken the first step. The fear that a book of this type might be dull or dry is one of which I can happily disabuse you. This is a book written by a man who is first and foremost a fan of these movies but has applied his academic mindset to a beloved sub-genre. I hope that he eventually explores these field further in a second volume and continues to burnish the Golden Age of Spanish Horror to a high sheen.