While the contemporary Spanish and Mexican horror cinema has garnered considerable attention over the past ten to fifteen years, the longer-established traditions it grew out of have as yet remained largely ignored and unexplored except by a small body of fans.
This lack of attention be explicable if these films were simply bad. Certainly a lot of them are. But they are all interesting as responses to the dominant Hollywood version of the genre that take into account the social, cultural and indeed political contexts of Spain and Mexico in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Beyond this, some are also artistically accomplished.
Here we present a selection of seven Hispanic horrors, ranging from the occasionally sublime — Jesus Franco’s The Awful Dr Orlof — to the frankly ridiculous — Chano Urueta’s Brainiac — but always Fun with a capital F.
The Vampire / El Vampiro
Fernando Mendez | Mexico | 1957 | 95 minutes
Pre-dating Hammer’s Dracula in presenting a be-fanged vampire, Mendez’s influential vampires on the hacienda outing features an impressive performance by the iconic German Robles as Count Lavud, a role he would reprise in the following year’s sequel before starring in the Nostradamus series.
Braniac / El baron del terror
Chano Urueta | Mexico | 1961 | 77 minutes
In Mexico City in 1661, Baron Vitelius of Estara (producer Abel Salazar) is condemned by the Inquisition and sentenced to be burned at the stake. As this sentence is carried out, the Baron promises that he will return with the next passage of a comet, and slay the descendants of his accusers (a who’s who of Mexican horror at the time).
Fast-forward to 1961, where the promised comet does indeed return, carrying with it Baron Vitelius, who takes advantage of his considerable abilities as a sorcerer to carry out his threat: he is able to change at will into the hairy monster of the (English-language) title in order to suck out the brains of his victims with a long forked tongue; furthermore, he has strong hypnotic capabilities and is able to render his enemies motionless or force them to act against their wills.
One of the best known and most bizarre Mexican fantasy entries, this is a true cult/trash cinema classic that everyone should see at least once.
The Awful Dr Orloff / Gritos en la noche
Jesus Franco | Spain | 1962 | 90 minutes
The first horror film from the most prolific Spanish contributor to the genre, this face-transplanting riff on Eyes Without a Face introduces a number of the director’s recurring characters – the blind henchman Morpho, the detective Tanner and Dr Orloff himself – along with his love of jazz, and half-forgotten pulp literary and film sources.
Though much of Franco’s output can be described as for fans only, this is actually a decent horror potboiler, with some impressive Expressionistic images.
Night of the Bloody Apes / La Horripilante bestia humana
Rene Cardona | Mexico | 1969 | 81 minutes
Once banned in the UK as a “video nasty” account of the inclusion of graphic actuality footage of open heart surgery, this 1969 entry from prolific all-rounder Rene Cardona was notable for being the first Mexican fantasy-horror film to move away from the traditional family-friendly into more adult territory – a fact foregrounded by its alternate title of Horror y sexo (i.e. Horror and Sex)
The story sees a mad scientist transplant a gorilla’s heart into his son’s body to save his life. This works, but has the side effect of turning the son into an ape-faced monster who embarks on a rape and murder spree. For good measure, there’s also a touch of luchadora action in there as well, reflecting the fact that the film is actually a remake of the director’s earlier Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy.
La noche del terror ciego / Tombs of the Blind Dead
Amando De Ossorio | Spain / Portugal | 1971 | 86 minutes
In the 13th century there existed a legion of evil knights known as the Templars, who quested for eternal life by drinking human blood and committing sacrifices. Executed for their unholy deeds, the Templars bodies were left out for the crows to peck out their eyes. Now, in modern day Portugal, a group of people stumble on the Templars abandoned monastery and unwittingly rouse the inhabitants from beyond death…
Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti / The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Jorge Grau | Spain / Italy | 1974 | 95 minutes
A near fascist cop (Arthur Kennedy) chases two hippies (Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbo) whom he suspects of being behind a series of bizarre Manson family-like murders; unbeknownst to him, the real culprits are the living dead, brought to life with a thirst for human flesh by an experimental pest control device…
Who Can Kill a Child? / ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador | Spain | 1976 | 105 minutes
A couple of English tourists rent a boat to visit the fictitious island of Almanzora, just off the southern Spanish coast. When they arrive, they find the town deserted of adults, there’s only children who don’t speak but stare at them with eerie smiles. They soon discover that all the children of the island have been posessed by a mysterious force or madness which they can pass from one to another, and which makes them attack and murder their elders…
Director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador had earlier made important contributions to Spanish horror with the TV series Tales to Disturb Your Sleep and his big-budget feature film debut La Residencia / The House that Screamed.