Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, ‘Spanish Horror Film’ (2012), reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on March 19, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

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

Antonio Lázaro-Reboll’s Spanish Horror Film (2012) has been a long time coming. With only a few chapters and journal articles dedicated to the topic, this book comes to crystallise what is an important and growing academic field. Spanning the last five decades and focusing on important ‘horror overdrive’ periods in the history of Spanish cinema, this volume serves as both an introduction and a scholarly redefinition of the boundaries of the genre within the context of European and Hollywood horror cinema. Lázaro-Reboll’s readings of key texts, directors and cycles acknowledge the ‘[c]ontemporary contexts of horror, psychotronic and paracinema fandom’ (p. 1). This specific critical lens makes for a refreshing account of horror that addresses contemporary concerns in Film Studies such as the transnational nature of the genre in the twenty-first century. It also acknowledges the importance of understanding circumstantial elements that shaped the look and tone of the films considered, such as their nature as mass culture products, their allegiance with pulp novels, or their limited budgets. Lázaro-Reboll carefully traces influences (comic books, trends in Spanish popular cinema) and takes into account the subsequent reception and legacy of horror within the Spanish film tradition.

The introduction and first chapter, ‘The Spanish Horror Boom:1968-1975’, are instantly seminal, both showcasing an extensive contextual knowledge and establishing an innovative reading of specific films through para-cinematic elements like pressbooks or contemporary reviews in mainstream publications. Most importantly, the author emphasises the need to study the ways in which these films ‘engaged with international examples of horror or how their consumption is linked to the development of a horror subculture’ (p. 18). This manages to shift the focus from a line of enquiry that has sought to evaluate the quality of these films through comparison with other more mainstream texts that did not necessarily undergo comparable conditions of production and marketing. Such a judgemental positioning is dangerous, not only because it assumes traditional (and potentially conservative) understandings of what constitutes texts of cultural significance, but also because, as Lázaro-Reboll explains, it has ‘hampered the critical development of the genre in subsequent histories of Spanish cinema’ (p. 18). Instead, the emphasis in these chapters lies on reception and the potential pleasures, following Matt Hills (2005), which horror opened to both indigenous and international audiences of the time. Crucial here is a very perceptive reading of the role of Spanish horror within the larger framework of Euro Horror and its problematic collapse into s/exploitation. Without ignoring or excusing the salacious nature of some of the material at hand, Lázaro-Reboll provides a very valid endorsement of the conditions of production and consumption that reads horror as a business built around the expression and foregrounding of transgression.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 provide a more localised exploration of the filmic framework discussed in the preliminary sections. Case studies of two of the most notable directors of these key decades, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador and Eloy de la Iglesia, allow for a better understanding of both the creative processes behind their films and the many challenges they experienced in relation to critical disapproval and strict censorship rules. These auteristic chapters, if more specific than previous survey sections in the volume, offer nuanced investigations of how the films analysed attempted to legitimise the artistic and informed nature of their directors (Ibáñez Serrador’s references to the Gothic and horror traditions) or how their packaging and subsequent life in film culture complicates clear-cut labelling (Eloy de la Iglesia’s films were not necessarily perceived as horror by contemporary audiences). They also complement chapter 2, ‘Spanish Hall of Monsters in the 1960s and 1970s’, and paint a mosaic of autochthonous fantastic creatures. In the case of the latter, Lázaro-Reboll expertly exposes how film cycles such as Jesús Franco’s Dr Orloff series (1961-1966), Paul Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky werewolf franchise (1968-2004), and Amando de Ossorios’s The Blind Dead quartet (1971-1975) may have deliberatively inscribed themselves within an established pulp tradition. Often deemed derivative, this new outlook imbues these texts with a subcultural capital that is important for a reappraisal of the potentially ‘universal appeal’ of their ‘local inflection’ (p. 140). Most importantly, Lázaro-Reboll’s many insights into the conditions of production, marketing and reception of these films ‘highlights the relevance of cultural mediation and media consumption in constructions of the field of Spanish horror’ (p. 145).

Chapter 5 is perhaps less focused than the others and seems slightly out of place in the wider context of the book. This is not because the ensuing discussion does not yield interesting results. As the author shows, fanzines and film magazines are ‘cultural documents which provide us with actual examples of the discursive activities of “genre-users”’ (p. 156) and, among other things, ‘provide valuable insights into the (sub)cultures within which they circulate’ (p. 157). The inclusion of a detailed background of the evolution of Terror Fantastic and 2000maniacos seems difficult to justify, however, given that, as is indicated in the conclusion, key films such as El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973), Arrebato (Iván Zulueta, 1980) or Angustia (Bigas Luna, 1987) have been left out due to spatial constraints. Chapters 6 and 7, return to the more cultural materialist approach of the rest of the book and focus, firstly, on the dearth of Spanish horror production during the late 1970s and the 1980s. A few notable examples are singled out and analysed in the context of the Transición period and the Ley Miró. Particularly illuminating is the inclusion of Sebastià D’Arbó’s paranormal films alongside the more obligatory gore B-movie productions of Juan Piquer Simón (Mil gritos tiene la noche [1982] and Slugs, muerte viscosa [1988]) is illuminating. The discussions of Tesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996), El día de la bestia (Álex de la Iglesia, 1995) and El orfanato (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007) also do a very good job of juggling the content and reception of the film with the wider filmographies of their respective directors, and particularly welcome are the sections on the Spanish slasher of the early 2000s and the Barcelona production company Fantastic Factory. The last chapter, entitled ‘Transnational Horror Auteurs’, centres on the work of three key contemporary Spanish directors: Nacho Cerdà, whose influential short Aftermath (1994) is a favourite of gore anthologies; Jaume Balagueró, self-professed horror auteur and director, with Paco Plaza, of [•REC] (2007); and Guillermo del Toro, who despite not being a local director, has contributed two memorable films, El espinazo del diablo (2001) and El laberinto del fauno (2006), to the Spanish canon.

Lázaro-Reboll’s monograph is a timely addition to the growing field of Spanish Horror film. It complements other foundational works, mainly in Spanish, that have taken a more encyclopaedic approach: Víctor Matellano’s Spanish Horror (2009), Ángel Sala’s Profanando el sueño de los muertos (2010), and the anthologies Cine fantástico y de terror español: 1900-1983 (1999) and Cine fantástico y de terror español: 1984-2004 (2005). These books have sought to map out this neglected and vast area of European Film Studies and have come up with comprehensive histories that should not be undermined. Instead of repeating their efforts for an English-speaking audience, Lázaro-Reboll ‘proposes an archaeology of the genre which draws upon recent theorisations of the horror genre within film studies, cultural studies, and historical and reception studies, to understand the larger cultural field of Spanish horror and its cultural experiences’ (p. 7). He also makes a crucial, and overlooked, distinction between horror and supernatural or fantastic cinema. Sitting comfortably along similar volumes in EUP’s catalogue, such as Jay McRoy’s edited collection Japanese Horror Cinema (2005) and Johnny Walker’s forthcoming Contemporary British Horror, it will become essential reading for both academics working in Spanish horror and enthusiasts of Euro Horror. In its incorporation of discourses surrounding fandom and consumption, Spanish Horror Film demonstrates more widely how taste and critical processes behind genre classification have been fundamental to the creation of a horror tradition and, in the case of Spanish cinema, how the study of horror films may result in a ‘refigur[ing] [of] related film histories’ (p. 276).

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