El Día de la Bestia

The Day of the Beast

review by Lang Thompson

The collision of farce and occult thriller in The Day of the Beast, far from being a surprise, pretty much follows the mainstream of contemporary horror films.  Perhaps the result of an exhausted period in the genre's history and to a large part triggered by Re-Animator and Evil Dead II, this tendency hit a mass consciousness with the bewildering success of Scream.  Though The Day of the Beast was also a huge hit in Spain (depending upon which source, either its year's biggest or tied-for-biggest box-office draw), it draws from a different tradition of both black comedy and religious transgression.  Though Iglesia has three features to his credit, all co-written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría (who also wrote Live Flesh), only the Almodovar-produced, quasi-political science fiction splatter film Acción mutante (1993) has gathered much notice outside Spain, and then primarily to genre buffs and cineastes already disposed to that type of film.

The Day of the Beast is more coherent and well-made, it rarely achieves the sheer weirdness Accion Mutante sometimes achieved.  The Day of the Beast opens with a timid and frightened priest (Angulo) confessing to a colleague that he's discovered the key to interpreting the Revelation of John.  The Apocalypse, it turns out, is only a few days away.  Instead of resigning himself to prophecy, the priest decides to stop the coming events.  So he tries to be as evil as possible so that when he calls up Satan to sell his soul (when he'll make his anti-Apocalyptic move), it'll be plausible.  In his attempt, he enlists the help of a very unwilling TV occultist (De Razza) and a heavy metal record store clerk (Santiago Segura, who won a Goya for Best New Actor, never mind that this was his fifth or sixth film--including all of Iglesia's; Segura would later direct 1998's Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley/Torrente, the Stupid Arm of the Law, the highest-grossing film in Spanish history).

Iglesia shows a real knack for rendering such peculiar characters plausible, which helps maintain a balance in a film pushing to be labelled "bizarre."  The main problem, though, is that he's not willing to push too far.  The priest's foul deeds include such things as stealing luggage and pushing a mime down subway stairs, not exactly what most people--let alone the Prince of Darkness--would consider evil.  (However he does burn crosses onto the soles of his feet; a sacrilege that would have passed me--and presumably many other American viewers--right by if I hadn't read about Medieval heretics accused of such practices.)  So there's never much of a sense that anything important is really at stake, even at the end when it's a bit unclear how far the priest has gone in his attempt to avert the end times.  When the film shows regular humans attacking homeless people, it's more a shock than anything the priest has done or that we hear that Satan will do.  

The Day of the Beast comes close at times to bogging down in comic antics (will the landlady discover the drugged girl?) but at such moments the pace picks up shortly.  Iglesia's firm visual sense is never more apparent than his mix of long and medium shots which doesn't quite follow the usual practice but is appropriate for a film that moves from close, mostly verbal scenes to broad physical action.  (And several shots--notably the grandfather's first appearance--show a masterful use of framing for comic effect.)  One unexpected result of Iglesia's honest approach to the material--not condescending like so many would-be comic horror directors--is that the last 30 minutes are genuinely spooky, with some potentially clumsy special effects made quite appropriate.  Perhaps that's typical of The Day of the Beast where style and a genuine sense of wit stand the film out from more cynical efforts, though it's hard not to wish that Iglesia had intended something more than just a first-rate entertainment.


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