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I.

Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema. Frontier- and pioneer-mythology is not too close to British experience over the last centuries, except probably the nightmare of colonialism. In fact there is a scepticism about American myths like the civil war, the declaration of independence and the idea of ‘regeneration through violence’. But anyway: the British western does exist.

British cinema has brought forth very few constant genre traditions which established themselves in film history. Besides the monumental success of David Lean’s epics and William Wyler’s dramas, there is most notably the huge influence of Hammer horror films since the late 1950s, establishing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as leading men. In their wake actors like Oliver Reed and Dirk Bogarde appeared who made their own way during the 1960s. In their search for remarkable projects Hammer studios also experimented with the western genre and made The Singer, not the Song (1961), a psychological and moralistic western-drama about the eternal fight of good against evil. In fact it is about a well intentioned priest, caught between his own feelings and the duties to the church (John Mills) and the local bandit, Anacleto, a truly intelligent atheist at the mercy of his own (Dirk Bogarde). Horror professional Roy Ward Baker had never been fond of this project in the first place, also facing the fact that several Hollywood stars declined to playing the role of father Keogh: Richard Widmark, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, James Mason, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Anthony Perkins and John Cassavetes. In the end the actor duel between Mills and Bogarde delivers the necessary depth, so Baker later admitted that his only western is in fact a beautifully shot drama.

Anacleto, or ‘El Malo’, dominates and exploits the village through fear and violent threat. When crossed, he orders his men to kill, but always in a way as to make it look like an accident. The police forces are not powerless, but without real evidence they cannot act. The old priest has been left in a state of desperation, but the new one, Father Keogh, is ready to face the challenge. A young girl, Locha, shows love interest in the new priest, and Anacleto – against his better judgement – begins to like the priest. Father Keogh in return is increasingly obsessed by the idea of saving Anacleto’s soul. ‘Isn’t that your job, Father; To keep hoping that any soul can be saved, even mine?’, asks the bandit. Anacleto in fact is a complete atheist, who has been taught to hate the church from youth. In the end, Father Keogh is forced to choose between the benefit of the village and his goal of bringing Anacleto back on the rightful path. When Locha is kidnapped by the bandit to make the priest ‘speak to the congregation’ favourably about him. Incidentally the priest returns Lochas emotional ambitions. When Anacleto comes to the church expecting the favourable sermon, Father Keogh instead denounces him and brings in the police to arrest him. A gun battle is unleashed, during which both men are shot. The dying priest sitting without sight or hearing by the dying Anacleto implores him to an act of contrition, and to press the priest’s hand if he is doing so. The bandit does that murmuring: ‘It’s the singer, not the song.’

The Singer, Not the Song is the first typical example of a British western, and it already shows all the differences between Euro-western and US-western: The subtext is not American mythology, but general ethics and moral questions. The character constellation is mainly psychological, not archetypical in the traditional western sense: the hero is a priest while the villain is homoerotic fetishist in tight black leather gear. The film takes place in the early 20th century, so automobiles are already in use. Even the most action-packed sequence takes place in a car with a cut break-wire rolling down the hill – more of a thriller scenario than a western sequence. And finally: The film itself focuses on the fetishist use of costumes, weapon props and imagery know from US-western, but on a meta-level. Thus Baker’s drama is not naïve at all as many US-western out side the Hawks/Ford-canon may seem. Baker’s film predated the huge international success of the Italo-western by some years and remains as a genuine non-American access the western genre. Yet the financial payoff of Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s Euro-western was in fact an influence of further British western – but some years later.

II.

The idea of the Euro-western always included the casting of at least one international star, and the British western logically made use of one of ist most important super stars: James-Bond-veteran Sean Connery. Edward Dmytryck cast him in his nearly epic widescreen adventure Shalako (1968) as a western professional, a pathfinder and tracker for a group of Europeans: arrogant and snobbish hunters, who are keen on killing deer and shooting savages. That is the tone set by the group’s  leader, Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). He and his group, a German and a bunch with British accents are invading the frontier country. Carlin – or Shalako, how the Indians call him – tries his best to keep the group together. Female confusion is introduced by Brigitte Bardot as Countess Irina Lazaar and Honor Blackman as the femme fatal Lady Julia Daggett. So Shalako has a very classical melodramatic twist, ending up with Countess Irina staying with Connery. Despite very mixed reactions Shalako’s qualities are mainly on the atmospheric side and in a very honest perspective on European decadence in supposedly colonial territory. Shalako is also about British mentality.

George Seeßlen points out that Shalako-producer Euan Lloyd stayed with the genre for some time and initiated two other outstanding action-western: Catlow (1971) by Sam Wanamaker and The Man Called Noon (1973) by Peter Collinson, both films shot on location in Spain – as many Italian western and later British western as well. In Seeßlen’s opinion there is no true identity to British western because they mainly use American cast and crew to appear like genuine American procutions. Anyway the shooting location in Europe is certain a link to Italo-western and marks British western as a hybrid between American and Euro-western.[1]

While Shalako was the British version of a serious star-ridden western-adventure, there was also a genre parody called A Talent for Loving (1969) shot at the same time starring western-veteran Richard Widmark.

III.

The key element of British western nevertheless was not humour but violence. American TV-professional Don Medford was hired by British investors to shoot a quintessential hard-edged anti-American Euro-western featuring all elements banned from classical western: rape, savagery, torture, and nihilism. The Hunting Party (1970) is in fact the most nihilistic chapter in general western history – very surprisingly facing the fact that it is cast with Hollywood-stars like Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen as well as British genre and character star Oliver Reed. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) planted the seed that The Hunting Party brings to full bloom. The American land owner and ranger appears even more depraved and corrupt than in Leone’s and Tinto Brass’ already very anti-capitalist Italo-western.

Oliver Reed play Frank Calder, a tough leader of an outlaw gang who wants to learn to read. Assuming she is a school-teacher, he kidnaps the young and attractive Melissa (Candice Bergman), wife of the very wealthy cattle baron Brant Ruger (Gene Hackman). Ruger in fact is a cruel sadist, what we learn  in the first sequence, when the branding of a cow is intercut with Ruger abusing Melissa. Later his abuses and mistreats a prostitute with his cigar. When Melissa is abducted Ruger talks his wealthy colleagues into hunting down the outlaw gang and picking them off one by one with new generation long distance rifles. He actually proposes it more as a game of revenge or sport than out of love or fear for his wife’s safety.

Calder and Ruger are both brutal men, but Calder values human life and relationships while Ruger only cares for satisfying his passions at any cost. Though his friends start to sicken of the game and beg him to stop, the fanatic won’t be deterred from the game. As the movie develops, Calders emotional and sexual involvement with Melissa deepens, while Gene Hackman’s ultra-violent character brings a disturbing single-minded intensity to the screen. Candice Bergman as a young actress just survived the Soldier Blue-adventure (1969, directed by Ralph Nelson), where he plays a white woman raised by Indians and later rejected by her own people. In The Hunting Party her character is caught, both literally and figuratively in a war of emotions. Bergen’s looks made her a hippie role model, so she appears as the female victim and the self-conscious modern woman at the same time. It has a macabre logic that her raving husband in the end shoots her by aiming between her legs. His misogynist impulse is carried to a final solution, even facing his own death.

The Hunting Party is the ultimate nihilist western, stripped bare of any romantic ideas about the American myth, reduced to cynicism and pure violence, beyond any moral relations. There is no justice in this world, only the power of the wealthy. Medford’s film in this aspect is much closer to Leone, Corbucci and Brass (Yankee, 1966), yet it at least visually appears as a Peckinpah-spin-off done within the critical New Hollywood of the early 1970s.

IV.

Michael Winner is a true British director, making his name with typical black humour comedies and a very eccentric Henry James adaptation called The Nightcomers (1970), where Marlon Brando is seen as a gardener corrupting two innocent children in a fin de siècle villa. Winner made his way into mainstream with a couple of films starring Charles Bronson, who became famous in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1964). Inspired by Ralph Nelson’s Vietnam parable Soldier Blue about the historical Sand Creek massacre he directed his own vision of revenge for the genocide of American Indians. His western thriller Chato’s Land (1971) is a true classic: Long seen as a western predecessor of director Michael Winner’s later urban Charles Bronson-thriller Death Wish (1974) it shows Bronson as a quiet and dangerous Indian, whose wife is raped and tormented by a group of vigilantes after he has killed a man in self-defence. Chato’s Land signals its politics by a very clear title: it’s the Indian country which is raped and invaded by white men. While Robert Aldrich’s Indian western Ulzana’s Raid (1970) still has the view point of the American soldiers hunting Apache Indians – although creating a kind of understanding of the Indian acts of cruelty – Winner’s film is on Chato’s side. He marks the American Indian as the true American, knowing his homeland inside out. Always a step ahead of his hunters. What might have been seen as another Vietnam war parable at its time may be considered a truly un-American western today.

With similar nihilism and savagery Winner directed Burt Lancaster, Aldrich’s favourite star, as the upright Lawman (1971) and then turned to contemporary police films and thrillers. As British/American co-productions Winner shot his films in two versions, with Chato’s Land featuring a much more explicit rape-scene in the British Cut, but omitting several provoked horse-falls which are forbidden under the British law against animal cruelty.

Again the main focus of British based western is excessive violence with a political edge.

V.

It is obvious that Sam Peckinpah’s pessimistic late western films inspired several British attempts to feed the genre. Some of his cast and crew appear in British films of the time, while Peckinpah himself came to Great Britian to shoot his first non-western Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall. Burt Kennedy, US-genre professional, was engaged to shoot the rape-revenge-drama Hannie Caulder (1971) with Raquel Welch in Europe ‘Italian style’, casting Peckinpah-veterans Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin. Hammer-star Christopher Lee is seen here as the weapon master providing Welch with her superior gun. Hannie Caulder is a rough and bloody rape-western at the same time as it is a macabre parody of the genre – caught between American genre basics and Italian eccentricity. Hannie Caulder is therefore typical of its time, with an A-cast and B-action, a hybrid between national cinematographies and their respective genre variations.

On the other hand Captain Apache (1971) by Alexander Singer is more of western-crime-drama. It features Lee van Cleef as Captain Apache, an Indian Confederate scout, who solves the murder of an Indian agent. As several British western before it this film features an Indian hero opposing the white decadence and corruption. While this film has the usual American stars like Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman, Lee van Cleef is imported from Sergio Leone’s Dollar-trilogy. He is the odd outcast between the lines and cultures – and probably because of this splintered identity the only upright and just westerner left in a dying world.

Italian western are sometimes regarded as political subversive, especially when done by Damiano Damiani, Tinto Brass or other left-wing-directors. The British western does not follow suit, but the closest one of them comes to the political revolution-based western is Robert Parrish’s A Town Called Hell (1971) a.k.a. A Town Called Bastard. This films unfolds on the background of the Mexican revolution, where Robert Shaw plays a legendary revolutionary leader later to become priest. Greed and violence explode as a dual man-hunt reaches its terrorizing climax at the town called Bastard and everyone in there is held hostage. Starring such American genre and TV-regulars Telly Savallas, Martin Landau, Fernando Rey, and Al Lettieri, the film introduces Stella Stevens (from Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970) as a vengeful widow who is called ‘the witch’ and sometimes appears in nightmarish context. While the film superficially tries to deliver a meta-mythological commentary on revolution – following Joe Hembus’ review – it is in fact not much more than a reverb of the mentioned Italian predecessors.

VI.

Long before the mid-seventies the British western phenomenon died along with it other European counterparts like the German Karl-May-films and the Italian ‘spaghetti-western’. It was quiet for some years within the British motion picture industry, which even rushed into a severe crisis. With the huge success of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1980) the renaissance of British cinema  finally happened. Known as the New British cinema it focussed mainly on British social context and logically developed a new breed of British Ganger films and thrillers. The only director experimenting with western elements was ex-punk-filmmaker Alex Cox, who directed the semi-spaghetti-western-parody Straight to Hell (1987) and the Latin American revolutionary drama Walker (1989), strong inspired by the political aspects Italian revolution western. In the bloody show down he again paid homage to his idol Sam Peckinpah and the iconic monument The Wild Bunch. But western seemed to be a mere relic from a distant past not at all connected to British all day problems.

This changed again with the huge financial success of Kevin Costner’s Indian western Dances With Wolves (1991), a film that was partly inspired by the growing spiritual interest in Indian culture and religion, but also by genre classics like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man (1970) and Chato’s Land. He established the western genre again as one of many possible means of expression for mainstream cinema. In its wake masters of classical and New British cinema made huge star-ridden productions like The Hi-Lo County (1998, Stephen Frears), Grey Owl (1999, Richard Attenborough) or The Claim (2000, Michael Winterbottom). Now it was mainstream and art house cinema using genre pattern to create their visions, and although western films a not a constant phenomenon in British cinema they nonetheless may be considered a recurring phenomenon with very more or less impact. Finally it always depends on who is handling the material – or how Dirk Bogarde says it: ‘It’s always the singer, not the song.’

Bibliography:

Joe Hembus: Western Lexikon, München 1976 / 1982

Christian Kessler: Willkommen in der Hölle. Der Italo Western im Überblick, o.O. 2001

Georg Seeßlen: Western. Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms, Marburg 1995

Studienkreis Film: Um sie weht der Hauch des Todes. Der Italowestern – die Geschichte eines Genres, Bochum 1998


[1] Seeßlen 1995, p. 148

The world is full of spirits – there is a world beyond our imagination. Who knows what lives between heaven and earth – between life and death. Who knows where souls go when death finally arrives. All animistic cultures believe in the soul and in spirits. Japan has its Shinto religion which builds a perfect spiritual background for the traditional and the new ghost stories – a culture in its own right. But we do not have to turn to the Far East… At the end of the Nineties we witnessed the rise of another cinematic new wave: the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers. These films – among them THE OTHERS, THE NAMELESS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE – create a special vision du monde, influenced by catholic ideas of guilt and sacrifice, occult rituals, and ancient myths. This article will try to shed some light on this phenomenon and present the key elements of a special kind of European suspense cinema that is slowly but steadily acquiring a cult following.

Abandoned souls

A mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman), and her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) are living at a lonely country estate. It is the year 1944, briefly before the end of World War II. Walls of fog are covering the English countryside in autumn. Grace’ father and her husband are missing in action, the house-keepers have mysteriously disappeared. Out of the blue, it seems, a trio of caretakers appears at the estate: a friendly old lady, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a mute girl (Elaine Cassidy), and a grumpy old butler, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes). They could not have been aware that Grace was looking for servants, but as they are in the right place at the right time, they are hired… This is the beginning of Alejandro Amenabar’s film THE OTHERS (2001), a gothic dream-play inspired by Henry James’ classic novella of psychological horror ‘The Turn of the Screw’. This is a least what it seems…

But the young mother has more severe problems: her children both have a deadly allergy to light. They have to live in darkness by day, the curtains must be closed all the time. In their isolation the children seem to have developed a disturbing obsession: they report strange noises, curtains are opening and closing by themselves, piano music is playing… A family of ghosts seems to visit them from time to time. As the film lingers through the gothic twilight of the foggy surroundings, Grace tries to unveil the secret. Some day her husband returns home, but his behaviour is as strange as everything in the house. He is apathetic, like a living dead person. And finally the housekeepers are threatening the children.

The last sequence presents one final twist to the almost classical storyline: the point of view changes to neutral observation and it turns out that we have spent one and a half hour with a family of ghosts. All the obsessions and neuroses find their explanation in the fact that the ‘ghost’ haunting the mansion are the real people living in the house, who are not aware of their neighbours in another dimension. THE OTHERS is not a real terror-movie but a highly stylised drama about the loneliness of abandoned souls, living in a half-world between our world and the beyond. Amenabar created a sterile surrounding, often missing any atmospheric sound, totally reduced to elementary sounds. The visuals are dominated by brownish and golden colours, often washed out, monochromatic, sometimes covered by rising mist. THE OTHERS live in a world between the boundaries: a world of fog and darkness. But they still have the urge to preserve their essential family values. Grace desperately tries to save the family. She is blind to the fact that everyone around her is devoid of life and vitality. Amenabar’s film breaks the rules of ‘reliable narration’ that genre-film normally depends on. But at the same time his film does not lie. He simply demonstrates the subjectivity of cognition and narration. THE OTHERS is not a film about death – it is in fact a film identifying with the dead, a bleak portrait of useless longing for life.

Even in his earlier cinematic efforts, Amenabar concentrated on the darkest aspects of existence: TESIS (1996) is a tense thriller about snuff-films produced at a film school. As a female student realizes that a teacher and other students are involved in this macabre project she finally has to fear for her life. OPEN YOUR EYES (1999) – which was remade in the USA as VANILLA SKY (2002) – tells the baffling story of a successful womaniser (Eduardo Noriega) who is trapped between two different women, one of which tries to kill him in a car crash. But he survives and is forced to wear a mask to hide his horribly damaged face. More and more reality-levels seem to shift. His consciousness begins to jump between past and present. The mystery of the film is finally solved in the science-fiction-context: he is struggling with implanted memories while his body is frozen to wait for better medical care in the future. Even here the ambitious director brings to life a cold and stylised film-noir-world, the artificial dream-state of a haunted and disturbed character – perfectly executed in the first sequence in which Cesar (Noriega, here named after the somnambulic hero of Robert Wiene’s CABINET OF CALIGARI) wakes up in the morning, gets up and drives downtown – only to realize that he is the only living person in this world. Then the bell rings again… But where does imagination end and reality begin? Cesar as can be seen as one of those twilight creatures, an abandoned soul lost between memories of the past and an imaginative present.

Another dark ghost-story, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) by Guillermo del Toro, offers its audience a gothic-horror-variation of Agustí Villaronga’s intense TBC-asylum-drama EL MAR (1998), which also takes place in the time of World War II. Del Toro’s film is paradigmatic for this New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers, especially for its monologue, which is spoken by an old male voice over images of an abnormal embryo with a comb-like spine: “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? … A sentiment suspended in time? … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber?” The ghost as a phenomenon questions the nature of life and death, of reality and imagination. It transcends the physicality of the human body and signifies the existence of a soul…

The world of DEVIL’S BACKBONE (a reference to the embryo of the title sequence) is very complex, and there are several possibilities of defining its ghost-like nature… In an impressive top shot we follow a huge black bomb falling down to earth and crashing into the inner yard of an isolated mission estate in the desert. The year is 1939, the Spanish Civil War. Ten year old Carlos, whose father was killed in battle, is brought to the mission, which now has the function of an orphanage. There he discovers the secrets of this estate: the unexploded bomb in the yard is a constant threat to the people, like a ticking time-bomb; in the basement below the kitchen, the ghost of Santi seems to live, a boy who was drowned there and finds no peace; and there is Jacinto, an angry young man who spent his whole youth in the mission and now tries to rob the gold that Carmen, the headmistress, and her elderly husband Casares guard for the rebels. Carlos soon realizes that Santi has been killed by Jacinto for he had discovered the young man’s secret longing for the gold-treasure. Now he speaks to Carlos to warn him: Something terrible is going to happen… Indeed, as Jacinto violently tries to get his hand on the gold, a huge explosion kills many of the boys and Carmen. The survivors are locked away to be killed later. But the boys manage to drown Jacinto in the fountain where he had killed Santi. Casares unlocks the door and the boys escape.

The film reaches its turning point right in the last frame where the old man Casares stands in the shadow. In the background we see the boys run away. Casares repeats his introducing monologue, closing with the insight that he himself is a ghost, having been killed in the explosion long before he could have freed the orphans. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE can be seen as classic gothic fiction, like THE OTHERS very similar to Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. For a long time the film shifts between psychological and metaphysical levels of reception. It is never made clear whether we see Carlos’ subjective visions or an objective incident (dealing with the supernatural). It also appears very strange that the film starts with an old man reflecting the key phenomenon and then switches to a young boy. We could easily take the old man’s voice as the adult voice of Carlos – but the turn in the end changes the perspective radically: With the shadowy ghost of Casares the film finally enters the world of fantasy. Del Toro’s best film to date is therefore closely connected to the ‘unreliable’ narration of THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS which are also told from the viewpoint of the dead. And yes – a ‘ghost’ is probably everything that Casares mentions: a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over – like an insect trapped in amber… But what happens if the dead envy the living?

THEY’RE WATCHING US (2002) by Norberto López Amado in a way refers to Robert Harmon’s Horrorthriller THEY (2002) about living shadows behind the mirror terrorizing and kidnapping the unhappy chosen few who are able to be aware of ‘them’. Amado’s dark film tells the story of police inspector Juan (Carmelo Gómez) whose sister disappeared in a mysterious manner during a school play. In the present Juan has a family of his own with two children. But a new case will knock his life out of balance: During his research on the disappearance of a wealthy businessman three years before he discovers that during the past decades thousands of people have disappeared without a trace. The final proof of the disappeared man’s life is a videotape – filmed via a mirror – on which Juan discovers strange shadowy creatures who seem to exist in a twilight-world between life and death. Even in the city and on the subway he begins to see those shadows, appearing in reflecting surfaces. He discovers that these are abandoned souls who never totally passed away into the realm of death. Now they envy the living and therefore terrorize them. Juan realizes that his children, especially his daughter, see them as well. Even in his past the shadows were there and pulled his little sister over to their side. To save his little daughter the policeman sacrifices himself: He enters the real ‘night-train’ into the abyss. In the last sequence we witness that he is still present for his daughter – who is the next of the chosen ones, but with a shadowy guardian angel on her side…

Amado’s film creates a very dark and brooding atmosphere via stylistic means that we know from Jaume Balaguero’s films THE NAMELESS and DARKNESS: monochromatic, mainly brown and green colour-schemes, a low frequency drone on the soundtrack, high-contrast chiaroscuro-lightning, and finally the discovery of occult symbolism (within a dream sequence). Juan is yet another haunted soul (as in DARKNESS), a dark father figure that becomes a threat to his family (especially when he shoots at his children in panic). He is the original source of evil within the family – although that is not his fault, for he is a victim of the twilight world himself. The only way to save himself and his kin he has to sacrifices himself for the benefit of a (fleeting) peace. In the end it is clear that he passed the curse over to his daughter. The idea of self-sacrifice to restore the order is clearly a very conservative element in most of these Spanish films. On the surface, a scepticism concerning supernatural and spiritual elements seems to dominate that slowly passes away. Without being explicitly ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’ in their attitude these films nevertheless glorify conservative Old Testament ideas of martyrdom and redemption.

Pain and sacrifice

Deeply connected with Spanish mysticism is the myth of pain, sacrifice and martyrdom. It comes therefore as no surprise that the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers often contain connections of physical pain, spiritual suffering and redemption.

THE NAMELESS (1999) by Jaume Balaguero, the most complex key-film in this context, goes far beyond any moral ideas: here we come to know the leader of a sect that glorifies pain and agony and longs for the total destruction of individuality. The believers are called THE NAMELESS for they loose everything except the ability to give and receive – pain and agony. Their guru had once been the victim in a Nazi concentration camp, but the conclusions he drew from his painful experiences is not the fight against inhumanity but the celebration of pure and total agony. This is a truly radical model, and the film deals quite consistently with it: The female protagonist – the mother who seeks for her daughter – will finally realize that her ex-husband belongs to the cult and uses their daughter as a means to provide her with the greatest pain of all: She will loose her beloved a second time. The adolescent girl shoots herself in front of her mother (and that’s the end of the film!). From this point of view everything that happened throughout the film has been in vain: the reporter dies in vain, the mother’s hopes are destroyed. Her future is bleak. In Balaguero’s film we are confronted with total nihilism. The world as he sees it is built of guilt and latent evil that can break through the walls at any time. It comes as no surprise that his follow-up circles around ‘darkness’ itself … the end of everything. Total nothingness.

In KILLING WORDS (2002) by Laura Maná the attractive psychiatrist Laura (Dario Grandinetti) is in a desperate condition: Bound to a chair he kidnapper forces her to watch videos that show him a vicious serial-killer. At the same time he shows her his list of victims – and her name is already at the end. The killer begins to play a cruel game with her: in case she wins, she will be free – but if she looses, he will extract on of her eyes. And so forth… – This kind of sadistic cruelty to an unwilling victim seems essential to catholic societies. It reminds us of the great success Mel Gibson’s idea of the PASSION OF THE CHRIST had in Latin America, Italy and Spain. Catholic dominated culture seems obsessed with violent sacrifice, passionate suffering and redemption through violence. And the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers perfectly mirrors this moralistic excess.

IMPULSE (2002) by Miguel Alcantud  shows some similarities to KILLING WORDS but appears to be more of a psychological drama than a thriller. Here a young suicidal woman, Sara (Ana Risueno), witnesses an act of murder by a passionate serial killer, Jaime (Daniel Feire), – who is an elementary-teacher in his everyday life. The attractive and cultivated man pushes someone in front of an underground train. What appears as an accident is actually part of a killing spree. Jaime has this uncoordinated impulse to kill people spontaneously, sometime in a row, sometimes within several weeks. Later he collects the newspaper articles on his victims from the internet. Supposedly out of her latent death wish, Sara starts to blackmail the killer. She says that she has filmed the murder. Between the two disturbed characters, a strange relationship begins to grow, one that circles around the fatal ‘impulse’ to take lives… Secretly Sara hopes that Jaime will finally help her to find – death. This could have been a suspenseful thriller filled with sadomasochistic subtexts etc. but turns out to be a very tame psychological drama about a lonely woman in trouble. Music – in this case very jazzy –, advanced photography, and eccentric editing contribute to an existential seriousness that finally damages the sensual and metaphorical impact of the idea. What could have been a most intimate gaze into the human abyss is in fact a conventional and lame vehicle for ideas. In the last frame Sara finally sits in the bathtub with the blade in her hand to slit her wrists while Jaime is filming her with a video-camera – but she refuses. This strange love between two people obsessed by death gave her power to live – a macabre ending in its own right.

Father, Son, Unholy Spirit

A dark male figure slowly walks through a dimly lit hallway toward us. Photographed from a low angle central perspective, such shots remind us of classical gothic horror films. They are also a key framing device in the Spanish mystery thriller, mainly focussing on one of the most important protagonists: the evil father. We see such shots in Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness (2002) and The Nameless, as these films build up the whole drama around the haunted, possessed and threatening father who is unable to protect his family.

Also based on a novel of British writer Ramsey Campbell (the author of NAMELESS) is SECOND NAME (2001) by Paco Plaze, a dark psychological thriller that appears to be a kind of prototype of this New Wave along with THE NAMELESS. This time the plot is told from the perspective of a young woman Daniella (Erica Prior) who used to have a very close relationship with her caring father. Right at the beginning of the movie this man commits suicide – seemingly out of the blue. Daniella is shocked – and even more so when his grave is discovered empty some days later. Since the police doesn’t care too much about the vanished corpse, she takes the investigations into her own hands. Soon her father’s body is found at an old cemetery: mutilated and bound with barbed wire to a piece of wood. Her research lead sher into two different directions: the first one is connected to a strange professional hitman who seems to follow her and collects photos of Daniella; the second track has to do with a religious sect called the ‘Abrahamites’. They believe that biblical Abraham did in fact kill his first-born child – and that the bible is interpreted erroneously. To gain success in life, the ‘Abrahamites’ ritually kill their first-born children. And that’s the key to both the evil-father theme and the solution of Daniella’s father’s suicide. The woman soon realizes that a lot of people are involved in the death-cult, even her father who tried to run away from his ‘ritual duty’. Like THE NAMELESS this film has a downbeat shock ending that seems to affirm the continuity of the ‘Abrahamitic’ cult.

Paco Plaze, for whom this is his debut to feature films, does not have the stylistic strength of Balaguero, but SECOND NAME succeeds in several aspects: it has a very bleak piano-score, spiced up with gothic chorals; it makes effective use of make-up and violent special effects, and it features some impressive camera angles. Nevertheless the theme of the evil father is not very elaborate in this film – simply because it is split up into different characters. Nonetheless, SECOND NAME presents a whole society based on the concept of a destructive patriarchy. From this perspective the female point of view makes absolute sense. Unfortunately, it is not Plaze’s talent to build up tension as effectively as THE NAMELESS or the supernatural examples mentioned above. The highlight may be Daniella’s discovery of a dead child buried under a tree in the garden of her close relatives. At that point there seems no way out of this destructive system…

Jaume Balaguero’s DARKNESS also culminates in a ritual executed by a possessed father getting deeper and deeper into a fatal system. But the genre-context is completely different: the film simply works on the basis of elements taken out of THE SHINING (1980) by Stanley Kubrick and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) by Stuart Rosenberg. A family with two children moves into a Spanish country house where something seems wrong. The mentally unstable father drifts more and more into the obsessive idea that there is ‘something’ in the past of the house, while the adolescent daughter Regina (Anna Paquin) discovers bruises on her younger brother’s (Stephan Enquist) face and body. She tells her mother (Lena Olin) – who is very passive and ignorant – that she suspects her father of violating the boy. Annoyed by an aggressive father and an ignorant mother Regina escapes to her Spanish boyfriend Carlos (Fele Martínez) to help her. As the films offers up some genre-quotes, director Balaguero is finally in his element: Connected with a scientist, a friend of the family (Giancarlo Giannini), the disturbing truth about the house is revealed. It was once owned by three strange women who used to performs human sacrifices in praise of the World Serpent (Uroboros). Beneath the living-room-floor is a ritual place where a number of young boys were sacrificed. When the last blood is spilled darkness itself will cover the earth. The father-turned-abuser in this case seems to be the last chosen ‘high priest’ to close the circle. But things are not as they seem: Not his son has to die but he himself. And he is finally killed by his family as he became a threat to their lives. Unfortunately this preventive killing closes the circle. Finally darkness is raised… Rarely has a film bathed in such apocalyptic ideas: In the end, light simply disappears out of the frame. Total DARKNESS is raised. The cult of the evil father has succeeded. The supposed ‘bringer of life’ is really the destroyer of everything.

At another place: Santiago de Compostela 2002. Jacobo (Juan Diego Botto), a young sculptor of twenty years, returns to his hometown after many years. His mother is mentally ill and lives in an asylum. Jacobo wants to care for her and visits her. In the asylum he meets some figures his doomed past whom he would have preferred to forget. They remind him of strange incidents of his past from which he tried to escape his whole life: Xavier Villaverde’s WHEN THE BELL Chimed 13 (2002) finally turns out to be the ultimate evil-father-drama. In the first sequence we see him as a young boy trying to copy the art of his father. When the father arrives he is dissatisfied with his son’s work. Actually it is the night when he wants to leave his wife together with his son – ‘to protect him from the mentally unstable mother’ as he says. But right at midnight, when the bell chimes, the mother seems to shoot her unfaithful husband. As Jacobo remembers just at that time the bell chimed once more: 13 times. All his life he secretly believes that this incident had been of supernatural origin. This belief is linked to his mother’s obsession that her husband never really died and is haunting her with his ‘eyes in the walls’ around her.

Indeed Jacobo soon meets the ghost of his father in an old cathedral where the sculptor was supposed to build a marble statue. The evil ancestor wants to force his son to fulfill the unfinished work. Jacobo – who is not as talented as his father – agrees. In a strange supernatural act their hands melt together within a clay sculpture. The young man is now obsessed by the ghost of his aggressive father. Not quite himself any more, he tries to rape the woman his father once loved. His mother dies of a heart attack, and the woman is killed by accident. Every act of resistance against the will of his father results in another catastrophe. But with the skill of his father’s hands Jacobo finally manages to finish the statue.

The film makes it increasingly clear that this is only one side of events: Jacobo’s point of view. A young girl who loves him tries to solve the mystery surrounding Jacobo and realizes with the help of a befriended psychiatrist that our antihero suffers from schizophrenia – like his mother. His father seems to live within him. Villaverde’s direction shifts between supernatural horror and sophisticated psychological thriller. In the film’s final within the cathedral we reach the level of latent guilt again: The bell did actually not chime 13 times. Between 12 and 1 there is one hour lost in Jacobo’s memories. And the viewer can guess what really happened: The little boy killed his father himself – trying to stop the man from beating up his mother. When this truth is revealed Jacobo is freed of his haunting visions. Or so it seems – for the final sequence shows him in his father’s working place now threatening his own little son. But he again manages to keep control…

WHEN THE BELL CHIMED 13 may not be as strong as the cinematic predecessors – but this film works perfectly within the father/son/unholy spirit-context: the generational conflict is being passed on from one generation to the next like a virus. Villaverde makes prominent use of sacral locations, especially the cathedral, where father and son create a huge crucifixion scene in white marble. Even the showdown takes place in the tower of the cathedral. The sacred place can not protect the victim’s of destructive patriarchy.

The ‘rightful path’

As we have seen, the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers celebrates, in a very stylish and at the same time strikingly conservative way, the battle of occult versus Christian powers. They show a world of permanent temptation – the latent seduction to go the ‘wrong path’ willingly. Even if they show characters with a connotation of ‘innocence’ – e.g. the children – the seed of evil is already present. The innocent become guilty simply by being the tool of evil – as shown to great effect in the end of THE NAMELESS. The only way to be granted redemption is through self-sacrifice – a totally violent act to purify the ‘stained’ world.

Most of these Spanish thrillers avoid admitting that they are constructed within a system of catholic guilt complexes. They focus on the stated opposite: the occult world, the shadow world, the twilight zone. In these destructive circles of fate, the protagonists get punished for their involvement in occult rituals and practices. On the visual level of the films, this is represented by a conflict of ancient symbolism and the icons of Christian belief. In this context, it is also quite very fascinating that, despite being mainstream films, the films I have discussed also avoid happy endings: in the end there is either the destruction of the protagonist’s soul, ultimately his death, or – as in DARKNESS – apocalypse itself. Through the back door, a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary ‘medieval’ Christian vision du monde, sneaks in. And this is truly frightening.