Spanish Horror for Beginners

9 Must-Watch Films for Anyone Who Wants to Starting Watching Spanish Films

A still from The Orphanage.

Spain tends to bring up vivid mental imagery of quaint towns, crystal blue beaches, and bullfights (at least for me), but it also hosts a thriving movie industry—especially for horror fans. From The Awful Dr. Orloff to Pan’s Labyrinth, the Spanish horror industry delivers plenty of scares while still retaining a certain je ne sais quois that tends to be absent in many American films.

1. The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962)

Spain has a long history of horror folktales stemming from its rich, world-melting-pot history, but the first real horror film wouldn’t appear on the country’s cinematic landscape until 1962’s The Awful Dr. Orloff. The reason for the delay? Francisco Franco banned horror films because they were “a potential site of ideological subversion.” [1] Written and directed by Jesus Franco, the film is in the same vein as the 1953 U.S. classic The House of Wax with a much more interesting storyline. It’s evident when watching Dr. Orloff that Franco heavily leaned on what was being produced in Italy; however, the film is unique enough to stand on its own two legs as well. The film put Franco on the map as a horror auteur specializing in B-list exploitation films and brought in a rush of horror films that would define the decade while establishing horror as an acceptable genre under the crumbling Franco regime.

2. The Mark of the Wolfman (La marca del hombre lobo) (1968)

Naschy's werewolf is chained to a wall in a cave, his fangs and bare chest on full display.
Naschy as the werewolf.

No horror list is complete without Enrique Lopez Eguiluz’s wolfman installment, The Mark of the Wolfman. The story truly starts with the film’s star, Paul Naschy (born Jacinto Molina Alvarez). Regardless of Spain’s horror film ban, some American films were able to sneak in—especially the Universal creature features. When Naschy was around 10 years old, he saw Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, later recalling,

My chance to see the film came when it was re-released on a double bill at a cinema near my home. The lights went out and the magic began. Suddenly I was immersed in the spellbinding story which led to the amazing, spectacular, and quasi-surreal scenes in which the tormented lycanthrope slugs it out with Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creation. After the film had finished I went out into the street in a trance […] From that day on Larry Talbot was my hero […] The stunning transformations brought on by the full moon really made an impact on me. I even recall that on one occasion when my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied, “A werewolf.” [2]

Naschy’s impact on Spanish cinema cannot be understated. He more than deserves the Spanish Lon Chaney moniker bestowed upon him. In 1967, he approached director Enrique Lopez Eguiluz with an idea to make a Spanish wolfman film. Lopez refused but eventually relented and found funding. Working under his birth name of Jacinto Molina, Naschy wrote the film rather quickly, with most of the pre-production time being spent on costuming and makeup. [3] The film isn’t likely to blow minds, but its rich Eastman color, the introduction of Naschy, and titillating storyline make it a must-watch.

3. The House That Screamed (La residencia) (1969)

The first Spanish film shot in English, The House That Screamed featured German-American actress Lilli Palmer (a woman whose life could have been the basis for its own horror film). Taking place in a boarding school, the film details Senora Fourneau’s (Lilli Palmer) strict running of a boarding school for troubled girls and Fourneau’s near-psychotic helicopter parenting of her son, Luis (John Moulder-Brown). Director Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s directorial debut, the film’s budget skyrocketed to over 50 million pesetas (an amount unheard of in the Spanish film industry at the time). [4] Critics openly vocalized their concerns about Serrador’s budget, citing a decline in the Spanish film industry and the director’s lack of experience; however, the film would eventually earn nearly $1,000,000 in its first 8.5 months and opened up the world market to the Spanish film industry. [5] Unfortunately, the film didn’t reach the U.S. market as hoped, making its way through the drive-in circuit due to issues with American International Pictures’ distribution and promotion.[6]

4. The Witches Mountain (El monte de las brujas) (1973)

I’m not going to say this is the first Spanish horror film to use tourism as a plot point, but I think it’s safe to say The Witches Mountain was the first to do it to such devastating effect. Yes, the film is cheesy, over the top, and completely implausible, but it perfectly encapsulates the exploitative nature of ’70s European horror films. Following a photojournalist who takes an assignment in the Pyrenees Mountains with a writer he’s just met, the leads eventually hear about a coven of witches who reside on the next mountain. Hijinks ensue as the couple makes their way over to the coven. Monica Randall, an original scream queen, is the prime highlight of the film, adding animalistic sexual undertones that breathe life into the film.

5. Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?) (1976)

Considered by many one of the greatest Spanish films of all time, Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes viewers on a wild, emotional ride. Based on writer Juan Jose Plans’ Children’s Game, the film follows a British couple as they travel to a remote island off the Spanish coast. After reaching their destination, the couple quickly realizes murderous children are the primary inhabitants of the island. Like The House That Screamed, Serrador intended for the film to reach American audiences. However, the controversial subject matter of murderous children resulted in many critics disliking the film. [7] As film historian Antonio Lazarro-Reboll points out, Who Can Kill a Child? reflects Spanish uneasiness about the future of the country after the death of Francisco Franco, creating an enthralling horror film with plenty of grittiness and tasteful gore that makes viewers wonder if they could kill a child. [8]

8. Bloodbath (Las flores del vicio) (1979)

Starring Dennis Hopper and Caroll Baker, bother suffering from lows in their respective Hollywood careers, Bloodbath follows a group of ex-pats living in a small village and terrorized by a hippie cult. Like others on the list, Silvio Narizzano made the film in English with the hopes of reaching American audiences. Surreal at best, the similarities to the Manson cult will not go unnoticed by eagle-eyed viewers. It’s not a particularly strong entry into the Spanish horror genre, but it’s worth watching for the cast and beautiful Spanish countryside.

7. In A Glass Cage (Tras el cristal) (1986)

This film is far from being for the faint of heart, with a focus on pedophilia, Nazism, and torture. When Klaus (Gunter Meisner), a former Nazi, attempts suicide, he ends up in an iron lung. A mysterious caregiver, Angelo (David Sust), appears with the intention of settling a score with Klaus. Described by film historian Ronald Schwartz as “a wild, wild film,” the film isn’t for everybody; however, the visually stunning work perfectly encapsulates the claustrophobic, visceral feeling director Agusti Villaronga is going for. [9] Viewers will be disgusted and horrified simply by the depravity they see on screen. In A Glass Cage shows how excessive gore and jump scares do not always make for a good horror film.

8. Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) (2006)

A faun, with large horns and long fingers that appear to be made out of wood, holds Ofelia's face while talking to her.
A scene from Pan’s Labyrinth

Directed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth continuously ranks as one of the most beautiful horror films ever created and catapulted Spanish horror films to the international stage. Del Toro blends fantasy with reality to create a fantastical world rooted in the realities of the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of a little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Lazaro-Reboll notes that the film tapped into “current topicality with debates around the legacy of the Civil War and memoria histroica.” [10] Spain is still attempting to deal with its past under the Franco regime, with some still holding the dictator’s memory in high regard.

The film’s appeal, according to Screen International and del Toro, partially lies in its use of allegory, saying:

The international market is obsessed with the question of how-to unit a global audience divided linguistically and culturally while retaining a sense of purpose and integrity. Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth opens worldwide later this year, believes one answer lies in allegory [which, according to the director], politically, is the most powerful form of discussion. [11]

However, the film’s visual appeal cannot be understated. While allegory gives the film a universal language, the astounding cinematography and relatable plotlines allow people from around the world to enjoy the film.

9. The Orphanage (El orfanato) (2007)

Produced by del Toro, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage takes viewers into the world of gothic supernatural horror as a young family takes over an orphanage in rural Spain. The cinematography is a love letter to del Toro’s work while still allowing Bayona to leave his own mark. While not the scariest film one can watch, the film offers a mystical, suspenseful watch that harks back to ’70s Spanish horror cinema. The film was a huge success in the Spanish market and waves amongst American audiences as well. It was selected as Spain’s nominee for Best Foreign Feature at the 2007 Academy Awards but sadly wasn’t selected by the Academy.

I’m a firm believer in the supremacy of Spanish horror cinema. Most aren’t going to offer the same amount of gore that American audiences seem to crave, and they tend to focus on excellent storytelling on more modest budgets to create wondrous visual and emotional films that still go bump in the night. While my selections are in no way a comprehensive list of every Spanish film one should see to appreciate the genre, it’s intended as a beginner’s guide for those looking to explore Spanish horror cinema—a country’s work that’s been overlooked for far too long.

Works Cited

[1] Nicholas G. Schlegel, Sex, Sadism, Spain, and Cinema: The Spanish Horror Film (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), XV.

[2] Paul Naschy, Paul Naschy: Memoirs of a Wolfman, (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee Press, 2000), 49.

[3] Antonio Lazaro-Reboll, Spanish Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 71.

[4] Ibid., 110.

[5] Ibid., 110.

[6] Ibid., 125.

[7] Ibid., 121.

[8] Ibid., 119.

[9] Ronald Schwartz, Great Spanish Films Since 1950, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 193.

[10] Lazaro-Reboll, Spanish Horror Film, 256.

[11] Ibid., 261.

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Written by April VeVea

I'm a definite film enthusiast which combines well with my history degree. I've appeared on numerous podcasts, radio shows and even national television to discuss my love for classic film and the stars of yesteryear. When not watching and dissecting film, I enjoy spending time with my son and our schnauzer, Phil.

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