The Best Spanish Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we whip out our passport and go looking for Spanish terrors deserving of more eyeballs.)

Spain is a beautiful nation filled with rich culture, wonderful people, and the abomination that is bullfighting, and like most countries, it’s also home to past sins and acts of government-sanctioned barbarism. It’s no surprise that Spanish (and Mexican) filmmakers often infuse their horror films and thrillers with that history, and that reflection on very real pain has resulted in some fantastically dark genre films from the grisly fun of Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) to the emotionally scarring loneliness of The Devil’s Backbone (2001). More recently, they’ve proven themselves capable of delivering kick-ass “zombie” films with REC (2007) and REC 2 (2009), the supernatural masterpiece that is The Orphanage (2007), and terrifying psychological horror movies including Julia’s Eyes (2010), Kidnapped (2010), and Sleep Tight (2011).

In addition to being well-known, though, most genre fans have already seen those movies. (Although if you haven’t, you should fix that sooner rather than later as they are all fantastic.) So in an effort to do what I do, I’m highlighting some other Spanish horror films this week that are a bit less recognizable despite being equally fantastic. All six are Spanish productions (despite two being in English), and while they lean heavily towards the horrors humans inflict upon each other, I made sure to toss in some hungry gastropods for good measure.

Keep reading for a look at some of the best Spanish horror movies you probably haven’t seen.

Anguish (1987)

John is a mild-mannered optometrist’s technician whose life is wholly under his mother’s control. When a bad customer interaction gets him fired, he takes revenge on the woman and returns home to his disapproving mother who decides the world doesn’t deserve her beautiful son. She hypnotizes him and sends him out with a simple thought – “The eyes of the city are mine.” Still under his command, John heads to a theater, takes a seat in the dark theater, and begins methodically killing moviegoers one by one… and then removing their eyes.

Filmed entirely in Spain with an English-speaking cast, Anguish is a terrifying and twisted tale that was clearly well ahead of its time. What begins with the familiar – a psychopath hung up on his mother – is made wholly original here when barely a third of the way into the film something unexpected occurs. Our view pulls back to reveal that the movie we’ve been watching is actually a movie being screened in a moderately full theater. From there, the narrative splits ,moving viewers between the original film and what’s happening in the “real” world, and yes, Scream 2‘s opening sequence did borrow a bit from this earlier film. There’s something of a meta-commentary at play here on the power of movies, imagination, and the combustive combination of the two.

The film’s terror comes in its scenes set inside the second theater. While the first feels like the movie it is thanks in part to terrific turns by the highly recognizable Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein, the “real” theater sees a nightmare unfold that in today’s world is no longer fictional. It delivers some tense and frightening moments, and it’s guaranteed to fuel fears in the back of your mind the next time you sit down in a darkened theater.

Anguish is available on DVD from Amazon.

In a Glass Cage (1986)

Klaus misses the good old days of World War II when he was allowed to abuse, molest, and murder young boys under the cover of war and its aftermath. Years after a failed suicide attempt, he lives confined to an iron lung to assist with his breathing. He lives with his wife, daughter, and a nurse, but when a young man named Angelo sneaks in one night, Klaus insists he be allowed to stay as his new caretaker. He was a former victim of Klaus’, but if you think he has a simple revenge in mind for the old Nazi, think again.

This is a hard watch at times – and by “at times” I mean from beginning to end – as it leaves viewers desperately searching for a character worth supporting. Harsh things are happening on screen both in the past (via flashbacks) and the present as Angelo’s intentions make themselves clear, and if torture porn was a real thing (it isn’t), this is the kind of movie some people might cite as an example. I realize none of this is selling the movie to you very well, though, so I’ll add that the performances are strong and the relationship that develops between the two is compelling in its unsettling and creepy nature. The teacher becomes the student, and both cruelty and submission are on the lesson plan.

The closest comparison to this brutally draining feature is Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” which was published in 1982 and adapted into a film in 1998. As with King’s tale, the theme here is that evil often passes from one generation to the next and is taught by example. It’s a dark and grim truth, but writer/director Agustí Riutort shares it with beautiful and haunting visuals that bring a gothic feel to the very grounded sins being committed before our eyes. It’s rare for an attractively shot film to be this ugly, but on the bright side, it’s also fairly depressing.

In a Glass Cage is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon and is also currently available to stream on Shudder.

Painless (2012)

As the Spanish Civil War begins, a prison-like castle is transformed into a home for curiously ill children. They’re unable to feel pain, and their lack of understanding has left them labeled dangerous to themselves and others. Doctors with competing methods decide the only cure is to teach them the intricacies of physical suffering. Decades later, a doctor has a car accident and discovers he has a brain tumor requiring a bone marrow transplant from a relative, but his search for family leads to an unwelcome truth.

This tale of past sins fits in well with the historical horror films mentioned above as it explores the fears, violence, and motivations of people caught up in the iron grip of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Fascists strike blindly against rebels who often aren’t any kinder, and as World War II heats up, a Nazi officer develops an interest in the possibility of future soldiers impervious to pain. The story being told is fictional, but the core truths involving an effort to wipe out Communists by whatever means necessary are equated to the ease with which people inflict pain and death on neighbors, strangers, and children alike.

There’s both sadness and thrills throughout, but the real horror of it all comes in the film’s third act. The two timelines begin to connect in ways that confirm and surprise, and as the doctor gets closer to his truth scenes from the past reveal some grisly sequences and frightening set-pieces. The ending manages to be both sad and hopeful as it suggests that past mistakes can be corrected in generations to come. There’s no guarantee, of course, but there’s hope.

Painless is not currently available.

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