Spanish Horror: A Beginner's Guide

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Spanish Horror: A Beginner's Guide

When it comes to countries with illustrious histories of horror cinema, Spain is both well-represented and a bit overlooked by some all the same. Perhaps it’s the relative geographical proximity to Italy—with its indefatigable supply of lurid giallo, slashers, zombies and monster movies—that makes Spanish horror seem less celebrated by way of comparison. It could be that Spanish horror cinema simply doesn’t benefit from quite the same international name recognition that goes along with famed Italian horror directors such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, despite films that tread some of the same stylistic territory. For whatever reason, Spanish horror cinema is more of an acquired taste; a cultivated appreciation that many of the most ardent horror geeks share.

Because rest assured, Spain has produced more than its fair share of instant classic horror films in the last 20 years in particular, across a wide range of genres that include classical ghost stories, found footage shockers and sociopolitical satires in equal measure. It’s been a sustained boom period for Spanish horror, in fact, ever since the early 2000s, and it shows no sign of stopping. Combine that with an equally fascinating classic period in the 1960s and 1970s, anchored by filmmaking legends like Jesús Franco, Paul Naschy and Amando de Ossorio, and you have a horror scene that has seen several golden eras and influenced other markets (like Hollywood) more often than you might expect.

But where to begin, in exploring Spanish horror? Here’s a detailed primer, in chronological order, presenting some of the most horrifying selections that Spain has to offer.

Please note: We’re trying to keep this list specifically to horror films from Spain, rather than simply including all kinds of Spanish-language horror films. Other countries with their own history with the genre, such as Mexico, fully deserve their own horror guides.


1. The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962)

Director: Jesús Franco

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It’s hard to know what other filmmaker to use as an example when you’re trying to find a comparison for Jesús “Jess” Franco. One might trend toward the likes of Quentin Tarantino, but Tarantino is more like the film geek end result of Franco’s existence—a more pretentious artist without the stubborn preference for gonzo indie filmmaking and genuine sleaze. Franco, on the other hand, is a legend among students of independent and Euro cinema, a galvanizing and polarizing figure whose prodigious output during the ’60s-’80s and onward (until his death in 2013) made him both an idol and an outcast. In a career that vacillated between gothic monster flicks and Marquis de Sade-esque sexual fantasias, his work was never designed for the mainstream. In fact, you’d find just as many people describing him as a pornographer as you would a “horror film director.”

The Awful Dr. Orloff is sometimes cited as Spain’s first true “horror film,” and kicked off decades of Franco pushing cinematic boundaries, while simultaneously illustrating his willingness to exploit just about any idea he thought would be profitable, in the vein of a more tawdry Roger Corman. In a plot that bears more than a little obvious similarity to the French classic Eyes Without a Face from two years earlier, the titular mad doctor Orloff wishes to repair his disfigured daughter’s face with skin grafts from another woman he has taken prisoner. Under Franco’s watch, though, the result projects a considerably more lurid, grindhouse tone than the French original. The Awful Dr. Orloff is ultimately like an amuse-bouche for Spanish horror and the work of Franco, which would go on to be filled with sexy horror films such as Vampyros Lesbos or The Bare Breasted Countess, and even 1970’s Count Dracula starring Christopher Lee in one of his few largely forgotten Dracula appearances. So too would it eventually be effectively remade itself, almost 50 years later, as Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. But more on that soon enough. —Jim Vorel


2. The Mark of the Wolfman (1968)

Director: Enrique López Eguiluz

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You might be surprised to find out that one of Spain’s most enduring horror franchises is actually based around an aristocratic Polish werewolf, but that’s really just scratching the surface of the remarkable horror career of actor-writer-director Paul Naschy. Born Jacinto Molina Álvarez, the stage-named Naschy has often been described as the “Spanish Lon Chaney,” but in reality he was more like the Spanish version of Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre all rolled up into one man. Across a prolific career, he played nearly every iconic monster/horror role imaginable, from Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Dr. Fu Manchu. He’s best remembered, however, for playing werewolf “Count Waldemar Daninsky” in no fewer than a dozen films, starting with 1968’s The Mark of the Wolfman. Amusingly released in the U.S. as Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror despite the fact that there’s nothing at all to do with Frankenstein in this movie, this series takes its cues from Universal’s Wolf Man series by depicting Naschy’s character as something of a doomed antihero, perpetually resurrected and set against overwhelming odds and supernatural adversaries. The dozen “hombre lobo” movies spotlight both Naschy’s tenderness and ferocity, but are almost entirely unconnected by any kind of concrete timeline or continuity. Rather, they’re pure popcorn entertainment. —Jim Vorel


3. Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

Director: Amando de Ossorio

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A young woman, riding a zombie horse, being pursued across a field in broad daylight by a bunch of sword-wielding Templar zombie knights, also riding zombie horses—that’s something that happens in this movie. Tombs of the Blind Dead was quite successful when released in its native Spain, a key film in that country’s early ’70s horror boom, in which restrictions on sexuality and violence loosened to be comparable to the giallo films of Italy. Director Ossorio questioned whether it should be considered a “zombie” film, as its revenants seem to be vampiric at times as well, but it’s really splitting hairs. The film follows some (quite dumb and impulsive) vacationers who end up in the abandoned ruins of the evil Templar monastery, awakening the blind dead, who can locate you by hearing your heartbeat. It’s a slow movie, and not quite on par with some of the Italian classics from Fulci and co., but is memorable for the great production design, sets and skeletal zombies, who, as I’ve already pointed out, ride freaking zombie horses. It also features a delightfully unexpected ending involving the slaughter of an entire train of innocent people. It was the first in an entire series of “Blind Dead” films from Ossorio, followed up by Return of the Blind Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975). —Jim Vorel


4. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, AKA The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)

Director: Jorge Grau

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The U.S. is the first nation one tends to associate with zombie cinema, likely followed by Italy, perhaps followed then by countries such as Britain or Japan. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, then, is an interesting outlier combining the resources of multiple film industries—it’s a Spanish-made zombie movie, filmed in Italy and set in England. In this one, the living dead are brought up from the ground by a “sonic radiation” machine designed to kill insects—the results, suffice to say, are not quite as intended. It’s an interesting mix of American zombie tropes and hard-to-place foreignness that moves a little slow but features some appreciably moody imagery. The zombies, however, look great, and the restored copy on Amazon Prime right now is a wonderfully high-quality version of the film in particular. It’s a somewhat underappreciated entry in the zombie annals that you won’t find in just anyone’s collection, but worth a look, especially if you’re into ’70s Spanish horror or want to branch out from the Italian zombie movies of directors such as Lucio Fulci.—Jim Vorel


5. Pieces (1982)

Director: Juan Piquer Simón

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Pieces is the sort of silly, head-scratching early ’80s slasher where it’s difficult to decide if the director is trying to slyly parody the genre or actually believes in what he’s doing. Regardless, it’s a delightfully stupid movie, featuring a killer who murders his mother with an axe as a child after she scolds him for assembling a naughty adult jigsaw puzzle. All grown up, he stalks women on a college campus and saws off “pieces” in order to build a real-life jigsaw woman. The individual sequences are completely and utterly bonkers, the best one being when the female lead is walking down a dark alley and is suddenly attacked by a tracksuit-wearing “kung fu professor” played by “Brucesploitation” actor Bruce Le. After she incapacitates him, he apologizes, says he must have had “some bad chop suey,” and waltzes out of the movie. The whole thing takes less than a minute. That’s the kind of randomness one finds in Pieces, which also boasts one of the best film taglines of all time: “Pieces: It’s exactly what you think it is!” Director Juan Piquer Simón would go on to create the classic MST3K film Pod People, along with another minor classic English-language horror film in the late 1980s, Slugs: The Movie.—Jim Vorel


6. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

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One might come into this list expecting to see quite a few entries from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, but given that he’s a Mexican filmmaker rather than a native of Spain, most of his work has been precluded from appearing on this particular list. The Devil’s Backbone is an exception one must make, though, for the fact that this spectacular, classical ghost story is not only set in the Spanish countryside, but was largely filmed in Madrid. As such, it demands inclusion.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth has been widely celebrated as one of the Mexican fantasist’s most beautifully macabre masterpieces, but it was that movie’s earlier “sister film,” The Devil’s Backbone, that was his most chilling (and personal) work in the horror genre. Against a similar backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and again told from the perspective of a young child (Fernando Tielve), The Devil’s Backbone is less about escaping from a world of horrors via either imagination or the existence of a faerie realm, and more about confronting those personal terrors in the starkness of reality and with all the limitations of being virtually powerless. Santi, the young ghost haunting this Spanish orphanage, is a mystery—a cipher whose desires are alien to us, brackish as the ghostly water consistently weeping from his wounds. Slowly ratcheting up the tension as an unexploded bomb from the war merrily ticks away in the courtyard as a living memento of the violence around them, The Devil’s Backbone combines some of the chilling, ghostly scares of J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage with the sense of childhood secrecy and pacts that del Toro understands so well (a la Stephen King). It remains his purest horror film.—Jim Vorel


7. The Others (2001)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

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This is another film that, on the surface, might not read as particularly “Spanish,” given Nicole Kidman’s Aussie roots and its English-language presentation and setting. But writer-director Alejandro Amenábar’s beautiful ghost story was, like Devil’s Backbone, produced, written and filmed all in Spain, shooting in Cantabria, Northern Spain and Madrid. In fact, it went on to win seven Goya Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, becoming the first movie in the history of the awards to win Best Film without a single spoken word of Spanish in it. A neat little accolade for the horror genre, there.

The Others is a stately ghost thriller that is classical in structure, sumptuous in appearance and somewhat familiar in its plotting. Borrowing heavily from the modus operandi of gothic horror literature and Hammer horror productions of the ’60s, it’s hard not to look at Nicole Kidman here and see her as doing an impersonation of Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, except playing a mother rather than “governess.” Still, The Others takes the bones of that kind of story, in the mold of The Turn of the Screw and adds a few more modern layers—an absent husband who mysteriously returns; a pair of servants who seem to know more than they let on; a few genuinely creepy scenes involving the children. It was rightly praised upon release as a stylish throwback in an era that was considerably more dominated by monsters and slashers, and its period piece setting gives it a certain timeless quality, 20 years later. The best ghost stories age well, and The Others is doing exactly that.—Jim Vorel


8. REC (2007)

Directors: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza

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2007 was a breakthrough year for post-Blair Witch found footage horror, including the first Paranormal Activity and George Romero’s own Diary of the Dead, but it wasn’t only in the U.S. that people were effectively employing that technique. The best of all the found footage zombie films is still probably REC, which exhibits some playfulness in redetermining exactly what a “zombie” is or isn’t. The Spanish film follows a news crew as they sneak inside a quarantined building that is experiencing the breakout of what essentially appears to be a zombie plague. The fast-moving infected resemble those of 28 Days Later and are later revealed to be demonically possessed in a way that moves through bites, ably blending traditional zombie lore and religious mysticism. It’s a capable, professional-feeling film for its low budget, and there are some excellently choreographed scenes of zombie mayhem that feel all the more claustrophobic for being filmed in a limited, first-person viewpoint. Zombie horror seems to go hand-in-hand with the found footage approach more naturally than some other horror genres—perhaps it’s the fact that in the digital age, we’d all be compelled to document any such outbreak on our phones or other devices? Regardless, it’s not nearly so forced as some entries in this particular horror subgenre, and gives an excellent sense of what it might be like if you were just an average person locked in a huge apartment building filled with zombies.—Jim Vorel


9. The Orphanage (2007)

Director: J.A. Bayona

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It seems safe to say that director J.A. Bayona was more than a little influenced by Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone when he laid out The Orphanage, but the film also channels a more stately, gothic brand of horror rather than the dusty, dingy realism of del Toro’s Spanish Civil War ghost story. Here we have something with a bit more grandeur—a crumbling, seaside mansion that would look out of place if it didn’t have a ghost. Belén Rueda is fantastic as Laura, a woman who moves into the orphanage where she grew up with her husband and young son, before being drawn into the secret history of both the house and the other former orphans who once lived there alongside her. Deep-seated emotion and the impossible desire to protect loved ones from the inevitable permeate the film, but once the home’s restless spirits become active, it’s also quite chilling. Tomás (Oscar Casas), the sack-masked young boy you’ll no doubt see on the DVD cover of The Orphanage, cuts an iconic figure among child ghosts, but it’s the things left unseen that make The Orphanage chilling. In particular, the scene featuring a reprise of the knock-knock game once played by the orphans is almost unbearably tense. —Jim Vorel


10. The Skin I Live In (2011)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

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With The Skin I Live In, based on the novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, Pedro Almodóvar continues his career-long examination of the feminine mystique from the outside inward. In this case, that’s a good thing. The skin in question has many meanings here beyond the largest organ of the human body, though that’s certainly on ample display. In this engaging thriller, skin can refer to anything from protection, to pretension, to the last dangling thread of identity in a world that makes no sense.

Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, an accomplished and vastly wealthy plastic surgeon with a mansion in Toledo, Spain, who has its own operating room for his clients. At the beginning, we meet him in his home, along with Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman alone in one of the mansion’s rooms, who we’re informed bears a striking resemblance to the doctor’s dead wife. With her toned physique, decked out in a beige unitard with stitching that outlines various body parts, Vera resembles a performer from Frankenstein as envisioned by Martha Graham. From the multiple security cameras pointed at her, to the copious tick marks, crowded writings, and artwork meticulously sketched on the wall, it becomes pretty clear that she’s being held captive. It’s no big surprise that Ledgard uses her for experiments, such as to test out his controversial new artificial skin, resistant to high temperature and bug bites. But the true reason for her captivity, as well as the vague but charged relationship she shares with the doctor, is the core mystery.—Dan Kaufman


11. Witching & Bitching (2013)

Director: Álex de la Iglesia

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What Shaun of the Dead did for zombies and What We Do in the Shadows did for vampires, Witching & Bitching essentially did for the cinematic depiction of witches, albeit on a less visible scale. Of the two comparisons, it’s Edgar Wright’s zom-com that rings more true of Iglesia’s Witching & Bitching, which is essentially a heist movie that takes a detour into cannibalistic witch country, with a side of absurdity. Full of solid performances from its Spanish cast, and infused with a quick wit and surprisingly gory streak, it’s a horror-comedy that doesn’t skimp on splatter. You can’t quite take its witches seriously, but that won’t stop them from tying you to a spit and roasting you alive. It’s a good illustration of the meta-modern comedic streak that has also become common in Spanish horror cinema of the last decade.—Jim Vorel


12. Verónica (2017)

Director: Paco Plaza

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Paco Plaza, the Spanish director of landmark 2007 found footage horror film REC, has largely delivered diminishing returns via REC sequels. Verónica, therefore, has been received as a welcome venture into a new concept from the director, even if the results are somewhat on the derivative side. A spirit/demonic possession movie in the vein of Witchboard, the film follows a 15-year-old Spanish student (Sandra Escacena) who unwittingly invites evil into her home while conducting a Ouija séance with her school chums. Where the movie shines best is largely on the presentation side: It looks great whenever its images aren’t too dark, capturing an interesting moment in history by setting the film in 1991 Spain. Charismatic performances from multiple child actors serve to bolster a story that unfortunately feels frustratingly familiar, recycling elements of Ouija, The Last Exorcism and practically every possession film ever written. This is very well-trodden ground, but Verónica is at the very least more than competent, even if it’s not the revelation for which we were hoping from the director. You can think of this as Spain’s answer to the continued success of movies in the Conjuring and Insidious film universes. —Jim Vorel


13. The Platform (2019)

Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

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The Platform benefits immensely from the strength of its simple, high-concept premise and all the superfluous information that is withheld from the viewer. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why exactly people are placed into this diabolical, vertical prison structure, in which the only sustenance arrives once a day in the form of a steadily descending, increasingly gross stone slab piled high with perishables. Nor do we really need to know how this apparent social experiment operates, although the repeated glimpses we get at cooks slaving over perfect dishes to be sent down to the doomed convicts is no doubt designed to needle at our curiosity. What matters is that we observe the differences in human reaction to this plight—the ways that different personalities react to adversity with an “us or them” mentality, or a predatory hunger, or a spontaneous drive toward self-sacrificing altruism. The fact that the position of the prisoners is constantly in flux is key—it gives them both a tangible reason to be the change they want to see in their world, and an almost impossible temptation to do the exact opposite out of distrust of their neighbors. One expects a nihilistic streak here, and you won’t be disappointed—but there’s a few glimmers of hope shining through the cracks as well. Just enough, perhaps, to twist the knife that much deeper.—Jim Vorel


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.