Spanish Gothic Horror

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on July 22, 2013 in Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

In my last blog post, I intimated that in the case of countries like Italy, which have had a strong and committed relationship with the horror genre, critics have favoured an approach that sees the gothic as one more strand within a number of wider horror trends. This gothic subgenre tends to be distinguished through its use of imagery (old, onerous, decrepit castles or mansions), tropes (innocent people being wronged or murdered, dark and licentious secrets, family curses) and characters (damsels in distress, tyrannical patriarchal figures, revenants). One of the issues I will be exploring in this last of the European gothic horror blog posts is precisely whether it is possible to see what is normally perceived as the larger ‘horrific’ framework in which the gothic subgenre resides as, in itself, part and parcel of gothic film. My argument is that the reason why a film such as Who Can Kill a Child? / ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976) might appear to deviate from the gothic tradition is, precisely, that it reinscribes this tradition within a new topos – it relocates, transforms and adapts the gothic. Although perhaps less traditional in its visual or imaginary cues, the concerns and, most importantly, the feelings of suspense, horror and cloying claustrophobia, are manifest in it.

Gothic nightmares relocate to the Spanish coast in the controversial ‘Who Can Kill a Child’? (1976)

My other area of interest throughout this post – largely an introduction to Spanish horror – also develops from an idea I have touched upon but have not quite yet developed: what, for lack of a better word I must refer to as the glocal or transnational aspect of some European horror. Often set to compete in a market saturated with Anglo-American products, a large number of films produced by Spanish directors have sought to look, sound and feel international, to the point that, as Andy Willis mentioned in a recent talk, it is sometimes impossible for viewers who are not familiar with the material or the actors to determine its country of precedence.[1] My intention is to show that Spanish cinema has been strongly, although not exclusively, caught up in the industrial need to appear ‘other’ than autochthonous, that is, other than Spanish.[2] This has a direct influence on its allegiance to well-known gothic texts and motifs.

‘The Dracula Saga’ (1972) is one of Spain’s many continuations of the well-known Dracula myth

Adaptation and Innovation

If French cinema’s connection to the gothic tradition was sparse but constant throughout the decades, Spain’s development of gothic horror film varies in intensity due to rigid censorship and the still strong critical reception of the genre as low-brow and/or potentially corrupting. On the one hand, we have early cross-over or hybridised work that has a gothic aesthetic, such as The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks / La torre de los siete jorobados (Edgar Neville, 1944)[3] and the early fantastique trick films of the first Spanish director Segundo de Chomón.[4] On the other, we encounter the more overly generic films that flooded the market during the country’s overdrive periods and which have largely come to define what we understand today as Spanish horror.[5] I have mentioned in previous blog posts that this cycle has deep connections to European sexploitation. This means that many of these horror films are independent, low-budget and sometimes make extensive use of gratuitous nudity or soft-core sex.[6] This made them very appealing to foreign markets, particularly America, and a lot of Spain’s production (most famously the work of Jesús Franco) would be made from exile and with an international audience in mind. As happens with a lot of Italian horror of the time, films would be dubbed (both in Spanish and English) and would include recognisable and international monsters such as vampires, zombies or werewolves. In the case of ‘monster mashes’ such as Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (Tulio Demicheli, 1970), Dracula, Frankenstein, the mummy and the werewolf, although all of them with reworked names to avoid copyright infringement, would even fight each other.

The accomplished underground passages of the little-known ‘The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks’ (1944)

Spain also developed its own gialli, with notable films such as House of Psychotic Women / Los ojos azules de la muñeca rota (Carlos Aured, 1974), Night of the Scorpion / La casa de las muertas vivientes (Alfonso Balcázar, 1972) or The Killer Is One of Thirteen / El asesino esta entre las trece (Javier Aguirre, 1973), which often take place in gothic mansions and make use of recognisable tropes. But, as I have mentioned, it is perhaps the work in the fantastic genre that blossomed after the success of Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror / La Marca del hombre lobo (Enrique López Eguiluz, 1968) and The Werewolf versus the Vampire Woman / La noche de Walpurgis (León Klimovsky, 1971), with their gothic trappings and monsters influenced by the productions of Universal and Hammer, that has brought critical and fan attention to Spanish horror. Even the more recent post-millennial resurgence in Spanish horror relies in well-known gothic monsters, such as the ghost (in the case of The Others / Los otros [Alejandro Amenábar, 2001] or The Orphanage / El orfanato [Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007]), or the zombie, as in that of the on-going series kick-started by [Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007).[7] Although, as I will show below, it is possible to see a number of gothic monsters produced by this country as autochthonous or displaying essential traits directly descended from political or religious struggles that are heir to Spain’s history, it is true that there is a scarcity of adapted works from its national literature. One of the only exceptions, Cross of the Devil / La cruz del diablo (1975), which uses a number of works by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, happens to have been directed by the Britton John Gilling.

The success of ghost films such as ‘The Orphanage’ (2007) has been crucial in the development of a second resurgence of Spanish horror

As a cinema that has kept an eye open for easy cash-ins, it has been quick to imitate and adapt. This is particularly poignant in the case of Exorcism / Exorcismo (Juan Bosch, 1975), which reworked imagery and themes from the 1973 Hollywood hit The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). This film is interesting because it reveals some of the genre’s social context as well as the impositions and limitations of the industry: due to censorship of the original The Exorcist, Exorcismo ended up, ironically, reaching Spanish cinemas before the film that had inspired it. A lot of Spanish horror rewrites or continues Anglo-American myths that come straight from their literary gothic traditions or, more often, from Universal or Hammer’s visualisations. Two of the most memorable cases are perhaps The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la momia (Carlos Aured, 1973) and Hunchback of the Morgue / El jorobado de la morgue (Javier Aguirre, 1973), albeit for different reasons. The former is an excellent example of a Spanish product attempting to recreate a British one: outside shots of London, as well as Victorian costuming, suggest a camp period piece in the spirit of The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959) or Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971). Hunchback of the Morgue, which also features chameleonic Paul Naschy (he played such a vast array of monsters that people call him the Spanish Lon Chaney), is a weird ensemble that includes elements from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and even the work of Lovecraft and Goya. In this piece, a Quosimodo-like character lives in a basement, where he looks after the only person who cares for him: a sickly girl who eventually dies. His frustration with the human race eventually tangles up with the ambitions of a doctor who is making a monster out of body parts from the nearby graveyard and live victims.

The influence of Hammer on Spanish horror is at its most obvious in ‘The Mummy’s Revenge’ (1973)

Vampires: Tribute, Expansion, Parody

By far the most developed and sustained example of a Spanish horror figure is that of the vampire. Adaptations of Dracula and Carmilla, as well as continuations of either myth through their progeny or alternative vampire families abound: Count Dracula’s Great Love / El gran amor del conde Drácula (Javier Aguirre, 1973), The Dracula Saga / La saga de los Drácula (León Klimovsky, 1973) or Count Dracula / El conde Drácula (Jesús Franco, 1970), so far the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel and featuring Christopher Lee, were clearly influenced by Hammer Horror’s Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). In some, the eponymous count is invoked by name only, and is ultimately perfunctory to the action. Other films offered less tried-and-tested formulas: Night of the Walking Dead / El extraño amor de los vampiros (León Klimovsky, 1975) saw one of the first sympathetic vampires of Spanish cinema, who prefers to commit suicide by exposing himself to the sun rather than live a life without his dead human lover. The Legend of Blood Castle / Ceremonia sangrienta (Jorge Grau, 1973) follows the life of Countess Bathory, who, so the legend goes, would bathe herself in the blood of virgins to stay young forever. Malenka / Fangs of the Living Dead (1969), starring Anita Ekberg, is one of the most original gothic examples of Spanish horror, and includes everything from cursed bloodlines to doppelgängers. The Blood Spattered Bride / La novia ensangrentada (Vicente Aranda, 1972), one of the most interesting horror films made in Spain, saw Spanish sweetheart Marisol being haunted by vampire Mircalla Karstein, in a loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella. The implicit homoeroticism in this film would be foregrounded in more obvious sexploits such as the Anglo-Spanish Vampyres / Las hijas de Drácula (José Ramón Larraz, 1974), shot entirely in England, and Las vampiras / Vampyros Lesbos (Jesús Franco, 1971).

Spain’s own take on ‘Carmilla’: Vicente Aranda’s ‘The Blood Spattered Bride’ (1972)

Another strand of vampire films, and one that has proved long-lasting, is that of the comedy-horror. It started in 1965 with the first ever Spanish vampire film, A Vampire for Two / Un vampiro para dos (Pedro Lazaga, 1965), where two countryside dwellers who cannot spend time together due to conflicting schedules decide to look for work in Germany. Once in Düsseldorf, they begin working as butlers for a strange count who insists on wearing a black cape and is fond of morcilla (blood sausage). Other films worth noting include Vampires of Vögel / Las alegres vampiras de Vögel (Julio Pérez Tabernero, 1975), which includes a fantastic vampire flamenco musical piece, and Hard Times for Dracula / Tiempos duros para Drácula (Jorge Darnell, 1976), which tells the story of the count’s descent into poverty after his castle fails to work as a tourist attraction. More licentious and irreverent are the relatively recent Brácula: Condemor II (Álvaro Sáenz de Heredia, 1997), which features Andalusian comedian Chiquito de la Calzada, or It Smells of Dead Man in Here… (Well, It Wasn’t Me!) / Aquí huele a muerto… (¡pues yo no he sido!) (Álvaro Sáenz de Heredia, 1990), which featured comedy duo Martes in Trece in one of the most extreme slapstick examples of Spanish cinema. So household was the vampire by the end of the 1970s, that 1982’s Good Night, Mr Monster / Buenas noches, señor monstruo (Antonio Mercero, 1982) could go as far as to kiddify count Dracula and have him singing along to a then teenage act.

Vampire parody, Spanish style: Andalusian comedian Chiquito de la Calzada in ‘Brácula: Condemor II’ (1997)

Iberian Monsters

I would not want to suggest that Spanish horror is derivational, or that it has always used imported myths as the base for the stories it tells. Instead, it has often taken inspiration from abroad to develop a number of intrinsic or locally inflected gothic monsters and villains. One of these, Dr Orloff, a mad scientist influenced by Franju’s Eyes without a Face, appeared in what has retrospectively been seen as a cornerstone in Spanish horror film: The Awful Dr Orloff / Gritos en la noche (Jesús Franco, 1962). Set in France to avoid censorship, this Spanish–French venture featured the recurring blind henchman Morpho. The series would continue, with various degrees of accomplishment, through the further surgical nightmares of The Diabolical Dr Z / Miss Muerte (1966) or Faceless (1987). The second group of these regional monsters reflects on the relation between Spain and its religious history through a myth that is partly based on a Breton legend: the knights Templar of Amando de Ossorio’s The Tombs of the Blind Dead / La noche del terror ciego (Amando de Ossorio, 1972). Best remembered for the skeletal presence of its titular monsters and some creepy slow-motion horse-riding scenes, these films take place in Spain (although scenes were sometimes recorded in Portugal) and specifically develop a myth that would expand through three sequels. The Knight Templars’ national specificity is noteworthy when compared to the zombies on Let Sleeping Corpses Lie / No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Jorge Grau, 1974), set in the Peak District (with a fantastic opening credits sequence filmed in Manchester). Grau’s obvious investment in elaborating on a popular Anglo-American product is evident, and its director has often described his intention to make a bloodier version of Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). Instead, the Blind Dead haunt landscapes that evoke a Spanish sense of place and identity.

Horror in slow motion: The undead Knights Templar of ‘Return of the Blind Dead’ (1973)

Similarly, Paul Naschy’s French villain Alaric de Marnac is a character unique to Spanish cinema. Based on the violent and cruel historical character, Gilles de Rai, and developed over the films Horror Rises from the Tomb / El espanto surge de la tumba (Carlos Aured, 1973) and Frantic Heartbeat / Latidos de pánico (Paul Naschy, 1983), De Marnac comes back after having been killed in 1450s France to haunt their descendants. But perhaps the most iconic of all Spanish horror creations is the Polish werewolf Waldemar Daninsky, who made his first appearance in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror / La Marca del hombre lobo (Enrique López Eguiluz, 1968). Spain’s longest horror franchise has followed the adventures of this lycanthrope all over the world (including Tibet and Japan), has seen him battle mythical figures such as the Yeti, and has even had him turn into Mr Hyde. The werewolf seems to be a monster with a strong connection to Spain, particularly Galicia, as the characters of Game of Werewolves / Lobos de Arga (2012) recently pointed out. The Ancines Woods / El bosque del lobo (Pedro Olea, 1970), set in the Galicia of the 1800s, is loosely based on the story of real life serial killer Manuel Blanco Romasanta, who killed 13 people and plead insanity due to a werewolf curse. This case was actually investigated by Queen Isabella the II and is portrayed with a remarkable and pleasing degree of ambiguity in Olea’s film. This local history would be later recuperated in the more cinematic Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt / Romasanta (Paco Plaza, 2004), a vehicle for the Barcelona-based film production company Fear Factory. These films show that Spain has attempted to develop a gothic horror tradition that would be endemically Iberian yet simultaneously appeal to an international market.

Spain’s most iconic monster: Paul Naschy as Waldemark Danisky in ‘Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror’ (1968), the first in a long werewolf series

Like Italy, Spain has also given birth to horror auteurs that have strong followings outside Spain. I have already mentioned Jesús Franco and Paul Naschy, but most important is perhaps Narciso Ibánez Serrador, son of the equally important Narciso Ibánez Menta. After his successful TV series, Tales to Keep You Awake / Historias para no dormir (1966-1968, 1982) – which followed the independent weekly episodes format of the EC comics Tales from the Crypt – he would go on to direct one of the most famous and respected of Spanish horror films: The House That Screamed / La Residencia (León Klimovsky, 1969). This gothic set piece, complete with dark secrets, necrophilia and voyeurism, takes place at a school for wayward girls, where a spate of murders soon mingles with the strict education of  Luis (John Moulder-Brown) by headmistress and mother Mrs Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). Remarkable for its artistic eye, this is another perfect example of Spanish cinema masquerading as an international product. Ibánez Serrador’s second and last film, Who Can Kill a Child?, took the British connection even further in what we could term a holiday horror flick.[8] It follows an English couple as they find themselves stranded in a recondite Spanish island where children are bent on killing all adults. Their alien view of the country works fantastically to critique the common view of Spain as a colourful holiday resort, particularly when the man’s frustrating efforts to speak in Spanish fall into deaf years. This film feels radically different from some of the more obviously exploitative films that I have pointed towards in the first half of this paper, and it is a testament to a smaller and often-ignored part of Spanish cinema history: the art-house horror film.

Like mother, like son: German actress Lily Palmer and John Moulder-Brown in ‘The House That Screamed’ (1969)

Art-House Horror

The carious manifestations of art-house horror in Spain are only connected through artistic purpose or budget. It is therefore very difficult to find common threads running through them, but it is safe to say that they offer an interesting insight into the Spanish psyche. Some of these films rework landmarks in literary gothic or appropriate aspects of this mode of writing to negotiate contentious or forbidden topics. The Turn of the Screw / Otra vuelta de tuerca (Eloy de la Iglesia, 1985), for example, turned the governess in Henry James’s novella into a tutor with a deeply conflicted sexuality. This simple replacement manages to act as a critique of Catholicism, however, as the young man who takes care of the children is a clear product of the strictest form of religious education. The film seems to imply that his derangement, expressed through inappropriate sexual deviance, may be a direct consequence of moral repression. Agustí Villaronga’s art-house horror In a Glass Cage / Tras el cristal (1987) offered a similar portrait of warped psychologies. The film, which follows Nazi doctor Klaus – based partly on Gilles de Rai – is an excellent exploration of the effect and legacy of totalitarian regimes as played out in the microcosm of the home. The film uses an incredibly lush and gothic language to replay the effects of Spain’s civil war, preoccupied as it is with childhood and innocence. Sexualised violence, particularly connected to homosexuality, and a remarkable use of colour and camera, are also trademarks of de la Iglesia’s own The Cannibal Man / La semana del asesino (1973), which joined the ranks of the ‘video nasties’ in England.

‘In a Glass Cage’ (1987) uses psycho-sexual violence to articulate the horrors of a fascist heritage

As Joan Hawkins and Marsha Kinder have suggested, it is possible to see coded in Spanish horror a truly anti-Francoist spirit that manifests itself with various degrees of explicitness.[9] Perhaps the most interesting example is The Spirit of the Beehive / El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973), which has been read as a Southern Gothic attempt to negotiate the oppression of Franco’s regime through heavy-handed symbolism. Its episodic plot is concerned with a little girl’s belief that a local well is haunted by a spirit and with the subsequent murder of a ‘revolucionario’ who finds refuge in an abandon house nearby. Bell From Hell / La campana del infierno (Claudio Guerín, 1973) is an interesting inheritance-revenge story that features a man coming back from an asylum and landing himself a job in a local abattoir. Some gothic settings mix with interesting, surreal scenes in a film that seems ready to upset all received social mores. Its figure of young man that rebels against religious authority and his family, goes mad and eventually murders innocents seems to echo Cannibal Man. These non-supernatural films, driven by the oneiric, are perfect examples of the type of surreal Spanish horror that is often difficult to classify as part of the genre. Although they do not necessarily aim to scare, or not primarily, they recur to well-known gothic horror images, characters or situations and thus establish a connection to this tradition. Most notably, Frankestein’s monster appears in a key scene in The Spirit of the Beehive.

'The Spirit of the Beehive' (1973) incorporates images, and eventually replays part of a scene, from James Whale’s 'Frankenstein' (1932)

Concluding Thoughts

Spain has a long gothic horror tradition. Its detailed study is therefore particularly daunting. In this blog post, I have tried to assemble some of its most notable examples, as well as some less well-known masterpieces, into a coherent narrative that would highlight Spain’s huge debt to other national gothic traditions (particularly Britain and America, but also European countries such as Italy). Inevitably, such an endeavour has its limitations particularly when, as is the case for me, one is still navigating the area. I hope, however, to have generated some interest in the filmic history of a country that has rarely ever resorted to the ‘gothic’ label and has often preferred the supernatural of the interesting term ‘fantaterror’ (fantastic terror).[10] As I hope to have shown, the influence of gothic monsters and myths is substantial enough to have us rethink the value of ‘gothic’ as a marker of thematic specificity. This is of particular interest at a time when England an America have undergone a long critical, academic and pedagogic recuperation of their gothic traditions. It might even help us think about the possibility of what seems, in principle an antithesis: Spanish gothic (i.e. how can the gothic exist in Spain, given this mode’s connections to an Anglo-Saxon heritage that Spain has not, historically, had a direct contact with).[11] Its inter/national and transnational qualities, particularly its cult reception in America, would seem to point out to the exportable credentials of the gothic as an artistic mode.

Promotional image for ‘Rec 4’: Transnational Spanish Horror?

More largely, my approach in these blog posts has been largely thematic, with my specific focus being the gothic mode. As such, my comments are largely ahistorical and mainly aim to identify trends. Part of the reason for this, as I indicated in my first blog, was merely to attract attention to a number of films that are rarely ever considered outside cult circles or psychotronic academia. I also hope to have shown that the gothic has been more pervading as a filmic mode than we have, until recently, been prepared to acknowledge. Rather than a mere subgenre, I would like to suggest that the gothic has more largely penetrated horror to the point that it is difficult to differentiate one from the other unless films make an obvious investment in traditional locales or recognisable aesthetics. There is, however, a pressing need to ground the national horror cinemas mentioned throughout these blogs, and more generally European horror, within their respective reception histories and related fan practices, as the work of Antonio Lázaro-Reboll (2012) has recently indicated. The pressures and limitations of the industry, as well as those imposed by state and moral censorship, have played a big role that only contemporary critics are starting to acknowledge. These have shaped the horror cinema of Spain and may provide us with a key to understanding the gothic as a counter-cultural and politically transgressive form of art.

Works cited

Hawkins, Joan, Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000)

Kinder, Marsha, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993)

Lázaro-Reboll, Antonio, Spanish Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012)

Lee Six, Abigail, Gothic Terrors: Incarceration, Replication, and Bloodlust in Spanish Narrative (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2010)

López Santos, Miriam, La novela gótica en España: 1788-1833 (Vigo: Editorial Academia del Hispanismo, 2010)

Matellano, Víctor, Spanish Horror (Madrid: T&B Editores, 2009)

Marsh, Steven, Popular Spanish Film under Franco: Comedy and the Weakening of the State (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

Pulido, Javier, La década de oro del cine de terror español: 1967-1976 (Madrid: T&B Editores, 2012)

Sala, Ángel, ‘¿Cine gótico español? Un viaje a las mazmorras del subdesarrollo y otros infiernos’, in Pesadillas en la oscuridad: El cine de terror gótico, ed. by Antonio José Navarro (Madrid: Valdemar, 2010a), pp. 319-50

—, Profanando el sueño de los muertos: La historia jamás contada del cine fantástico español (Pontevedra: Scifiworld, 2010b).

The beginnings of Spanish horror film may be traced to the ‘cine fantástico’ of Segundo de Chomón: Still from ‘Satan at Play’ (1907)


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[1] Andy Willis, ‘There’s Still Something Hairy in the Woods’, ¡Viva! 19th Spanish and Latin American Film Festival,12 March 2012, Cornerhouse (Manchester).

[2] I have no space here to consider an even more pressing matter, namely what we might want to term ‘Spanish’ in the context of this country’s territorial and cultural politics. A number of autonomous communities, most notably Catalonia, have continuously expressed their perceived difference, and, in some instances, desired separation, from the rest of Spain. The labels ‘Spanish cinema’ or ‘Spanish horror cinema’ are therefore problematic and potentially overlook the more complex sense of national identity that operates in the communities which constitute Spain.

[3] Steven Marsh, for example, describes The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks as both a ‘historical drama and a comic horror film’ (2006: 66).

[4] La casa hechizada / The Bewitched House (1906) and Satan at Play / Satán se divierte (1907) are the forefathers of the supernatural, or what is called ‘cine fantástico’ in Spanish horror criticism. See Sala 2010b: 9-18 or Aguilar (1999), which conflates ‘terror’ and ‘cine fantástico’.

[5] The 1970s, but more specifically 1968 to 1976 is considered to be the golden age of Spanish horror, with over 120 titles being released in 1972 alone. See Pulido (2012).

[6] The Arrow Films DVD version of The Man with the Severed Head / Las ratas no duermen de noche (Juan Fortuny, 1973) offers a number of expanded softcore sex scenes that were removed from some theatrical releases and which can be viewed separately.

[7] As of 2009, The Others and The Orphanage were still the two most financially successful horror films in Spain, with [Rec] following closely at number seven. See Matellano (2009: 110).

[8] Lauren Randall has called this type of cinema ‘beach gothic’ in her paper, ‘Find Yourself Here’: How the Dream of the Beach becomes a Gothic Nightmare’, Bad Things: Gothic Study Day, Lancaster University, 14 June 2013.

[9] See Hawkins (2000: 93-95) and Kinder (1993: 138).

[10] For a very recent exception, see Angel Sala (2010a).

[11] The work of Lee Six (2010) and López Santos (2010) has started this endeavour from the point of view of literary studies.

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