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Plot: eclectic group of urbanites is locked into a studio during a TV gala.

Álex de la Iglesia has never released a truly bad film. While there are peaks and valleys in his filmography de la Iglesia is a master technician who knows exactly what he’s doing. What has become clear over the past couple of years is that Blanca Suárez is his new muse, and has rekindled his creativity. Not that everything that de la Iglesia commits to celluloid is an instant (or guaranteed) hit at the box office. Mi Gran Noche (My Big Night internationally) takes its title from the 1967 hit single and 2013 triple CD+DVD compilation Mi Gran Noche (50 Éxitos De Mi Vida) from headlining star Raphael and is a celebration of his impressive life and career (albeit infused with a bit of fiction). It was presented at the 2015 San Sebastián Film Festival but neither was apparently enough to get the necessary draw at the cineplexes. Which is perplexing because with a few minor cuts this is the stuff that usually does well on the Asian and Indian markets.

After his Hollywood bid The Oxford Murders (2008) failed to establish him in the English-speaking world and the gothic horror throwback Witching and Bitching (2013) didn’t do much to catapult Spanish horror back into the mainstream Álex de la Iglesia returned to his old stomping grounds of the comedy. Since the limited series Plutón B.R.B. Nero (2008-2009) de la Iglesia has surrounded himself with an assembly of new talent, both young and old, while alternating between drama, comedy, and the occassional horror. As Luck Would Have It (2011) and Perfect Strangers (2017), the 2016 Italian original was inscribed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being adapted no less than 18 (!!) times, as of this writing, across the world in countries including but not limited to Turkey, Mexico, South Korea, France, Hungary, Armenia, Greece, Vietnam, China, and Russia. A rebel at heart Álex de la Iglesia is at his best when he can lay fire at the establishment and its institutions. Filmed from late February until mid-April 2015 on an estimated budget of 4 million euro (and recouping 2,6 million of that at the box office) My Big Night sees Álex de la Iglesia satirizing celebrity culture, tabloid journalism, as well as the plasticity and manufactured nature of populist entertainment. To be more specific, it offers a damning critique of how heavily-scripted televised entertainment is a product, a medium to convey, confirm and perpetuate a certain narrative, agenda, or ideology. In other words, this is a black comedy harkening to the days of Common Wealth (2000).

Blanca Suárez follows in the footsteps of Maria Grazia Cucinotta and Macarena Gómez and is, for all intents and purposes, de la Iglesia’s latest muse. It’s easy to see why too. Suárez looks absolutely ravishing and with appearances in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011), as well as the Platino Award-winning series Cable Girls (2017-2020) and Jaguar (2021-) she could very well be on the verge of an international breakthrough. No wonder then that he would cast her again in The Bar (2017) just two years later. Ana Polvorosa, Mario Casas, and Hugo Silva all were in Sex, Party and Lies (2009) and Polvorosa would go on to star alongside Suárez in Cable Girls (2017-2020). Enrique Villén, Carmen Machi and Carmen Ruiz have been with him for over a decade by this point. Compared to them Mario Casas, Pepón Nieto and Jaime Ordóñez are relatively new additions. The prerequiste monument here is Terele Pávez. Pávez first drew attention some 56 years prior with the romantic comedy We Are Eighteen Years Old (1959). This wouldn’t be all that special or noteworthy under any of the usual circumstances, except that it was the debut of none other than infamous enfant terrible and future prolific one-man exploitation factory Jesús Franco. Pávez has been with de la Iglesia since his breakthrough with The Day of the Beast (1995) and the wonderful Common Wealth (2000) as has Santiago Segura – and it’s great to see him be so respectful as to always write a role or two with them in mind. Pávez would pass away in 2017, aged 78, after an impressive six-and-a-half decade career. Also present are producer Carolina Bang and crooner Raphael as a fictionalized version of himself.

October, 2015. At the studios of Mediafrost TV it’s all hands on deck for crew and technicians as filming for the 2016 New Year’s Eve gala drags on into its second week. When an unfortunate on-set accident kills one of the extras the ETT summons chronically unemployed José Díaz Martiño (Pepón Nieto) at the last minute to the industrial pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid where the gala is being recorded. There he’s hurried to table 21 by stage manager Paco (Luis Callejo) and seated with seasoned extras Yanire (Ana Polvorosa), her boyfriend Josua (Luis Fernández), and playboy Antonio (Antonio Velázquez). While exchanging the usual formalities who catches his eye is beautiful Paloma (Blanca Suárez), an affluent socialite everybody believes is jinxed. José is supposed to watch his retired and superstitious septuagenarian mother Dolores Martiño Sepúlveda (Terele Pávez) as his high-strung sister María (Toni Acosta) is on the way to Disneyland in Paris, France for a vacation with her kids. Complications arise when Dolores torches his sister’s apartment and a municipal police officer (Daniel Guzmán) drops her off at the studio. At another tabe sits grifter Soriano (Enrique Villén) and he's in cahoots with Romanian thug Luca (Filip Bulgary) to pull off a daring extortion racket on one of the show’s young stars. Meanwhile outside angry demonstrators violently protest the studio’s recent management decisions.

Behind the scenes things aren’t much better. Producer José Luis Benítez Quintana (Santiago Segura) has to keep things moving according to plan and constantly deal with everybody’s fragile egoes. Hanging as a sword of Damocles above him is the imminent termination of 500 employees to keep the channel profitable. Hosts Roberto (Hugo Silva) and Cristina (Carolina Bang) are married and when they’re not at each other’s throat (sometimes literally) they’re actively sabotaging each other’s career. Caught in the middle of the domestic dispute is their writer (Ignatius Farray). Aging crooner Alphonso (Raphael) has stipulated that he will only perform as the headliner. Alphonso’s embattled Russian personal assistant, publicist, and attorney Yuri (Carlos Areces) has had enough of the decades of thankless abuse and plans to get even with his employer. For that purpose he has hired Óscar García (Jaime Ordóñez) who will kill Raphael during the show’s climactic finale. What he doesn’t know is that Óscar García (is de la Iglesia a vintage Terrorizer fan?) an Alphonso superfan. Standing in the shadow of Raphael is blonde chiseled Latin music star Adanne (Mario Casas). The beefcake heartthrob is the victim of groupies Lourdes (Marta Castellote) and Sofía (Marta Guerras), unaware that they are recruits in Soriano’s extortion scheme. Adanne’s unscrupulous handler Perotti (Tomás Pozzi) is desperately trying to contain the situation. In the exterior production control room mobile unit master control operators and “hysterical lesbians” Rosa (Carmen Machi) and Amparo (Carmen Ruiz) try to cut the best footage from a chaotic production while dealing with personal problems. As the night drags on things come to a violent head during the gala’s epic finale.

With Álex de la Iglesia growing up with the classic Iberian fantaterror and the decades worth of exploitation that his country had spawned the first thing that My Big Night flashes after the musical opening number is a pair of big bouncing naked breasts. That being out of the way you know exactly what you’re in for. About half an hour in Nieto and Suárez start comparing scars in a vignette that’s as childlishly funny as it is innocent. Well, any and all excuse is good to have Suárez showing off her thong. Here it’s that and in The Bar (2017) he and writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría invented a scene that required her to strip down to her lingerie. How we suffer for our art. When it’s not Suárez glancing seductively de la Iglesia points his camera at the Martas, Castellote and Guerras. We probably missed a ton of references, but it’s always fun to have Julio and Enrique Iglesias, horror director José Luis Merino, and Marie José Cantudo casually mentioned in passing. As with much of his post-Common Wealth (2000) repertoire there are references to Star Wars (1977) and the bit with the circular blade is the closest de la Iglesia has come to re-enacting the drillbit scene from Lucio Fulci’s City Of the Living Dead (1980). Adanne is a parody of Puerto Rican singer Chayanne and the song 'Bombero' (a riff on his 2002 hit 'Torero') more than a few times reminds of ‘Dard – E – Disco’ from the Farah Khan-Shah Rukh Khan hit romantic comedy Om Shanti Om (2008). Not only does it feature similar production design it oozes with the same garish Bollywood excess. Sadly there’s no ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ equivalent, but it’s the sentiment that counts. It sort of makes you long for de la Iglesia doing a The Dirty Picture (2011) take on Spain’s Cine-S star Andrea Albani. Not that this ever reaches the levels of self-awareness of that or, say, Om Shanti Om (2008), but as a general swipe at television and mass entertainment you could do far, far worse.

When My Big Night failed to perform as expected at the box office de la Iglesia and Jorge Guerricaechevarría almost immediately went back to the drawingboard. Was it always the plan for My Big Night to set up The Bar (2017), was one just the natural result of the other, or was the second a mere economic necessity to recoup the losses? Who knows… What is perhaps most telling is that Luis Fernández’ Josua at one point flat out states the central premise to The Bar (2017) in what otherwise would be considered a throwaway line. Either way de la Iglesia was able to retain all principal players (Suárez, Casas, Ordóñez, Machi, and Pávez) and in record time penned a screenplay that felt like a much more serious and darker take on what was done here. My Big Night and The Bar (2017) are two sides of the same coin, two interpretations of the same idea, and thus thematic companion pieces featuring the same leads. Hardly the worst idea on part of Álex de la Iglesia and writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría as a main cast this talented couldn’t possibly let go to waste that easily. Blanca Suárez certainly has reignited the fires of creativity for Álex de la Iglesia and he would be out of mind not to utitlize the prestige she brings to a project to the fullest possible extent. Here’s hoping that the next de la Iglesia-Suárez feature is even bigger and better.

Plot: teen girl and her mother are beset by seven homicidal psychopaths.

The year is 1992. Horror was in a completely different place and had become an entirely different beast upon the dawning of the new decade. The once-flourishing Italian horror industry had gone all but extinct, the Spanish fantaterror would not make a comeback until Álex de la Iglesia’s The Day Of the Beast (1995), and in France it would take until the tall end of the decade’s second half before returning with Two Orphan Vampires (1997). In America The Craft (1996) and its junky imitations kept the genre afloat until Scream (1996) reimagined the tired (and tiring) slasher of the prior decade. The Netherlands hadn’t partaken in the zombie and slasher craze of the eighties. Now that the wave for both had crested Intensive Care (1991) was poised to set the Netherlands on the international horror map. It did, but probably not in the way the producers/director intended. Instead it turned into a massive critical – and commercial misfire. If there ever was a time to turn Dutch horror into something cerebral and atmospheric, that time was now. To everybody’s surprise this horror attracted a healthy 200.000 attendees and was a critical darling on film festivals across the world. Not bad. Not bad at all. And the feature to do that? De Johnsons (The Johnsons, internationally) or the project that everybody had given up upon.

The basis for The Johnsons was conceived at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1988 where actor, producer, and director Roy Frumkes was employed as a teacher. Frumkes had gained notoriety with his documentary Document Of the Dead (1980) that offered an extensive and highly-detailed look behind-the-scenes during the production of George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn Of the Dead (1978). With his own Crystal Plumage Films Frumkes would write, produce, direct and act in Street Trash (1987). In his screenwriting class Frumkes had two students, the American Rocco Simonelli and Dutchman Richard Abram. Abram’s father invested $100,000 and set up the R.A. Film Marketing Projects development company with the idea of developing two scripts the men were working on. Simonelli, the star pupil of Frumkes’ screenwriting class, was developing two scripts with his teacher. One was the raw urban drama The Substitute, the other the occult horror The Johnson-Blues that had grown out of an earlier draft called The Jackson White. After spending a year Stateside Abram was forced to return to the Netherlands. R.A. Film Marketing Projects was dissolved and the assets were divided equal. Frumkes and Simonelli retained the rights to The Substitute and Abram got to keep The Johnson-Blues. Frumkes would bring his own script to the screen as the solid The Substitute (1997) (with Tom Berenger). Five years prior Abram returned to the Netherlands to produce The Johnsons-Blues.

With an estimated budget of 5 million gulden and director Ruud van Hemert – a lovable eccentric prone to exageration and known to push his actors to the limit to get the performances he wanted – attached to direct with Liz Snoyink starring in what was shaping up to be the Netherland’s most expensive horror production up that point. Van Hemert had directed the black comedies Darlings! (1984), the sequel Hitting the Fan! (1986) and the raunchy sex comedy Honeybun (1988) (with Nada van Nie) but after a spat with producers Chris Brouwer and Haig Balian he was let go. Inheriting the project was Rudolf van den Berg, a specialist of thoughtful and socially aware dramas and documentary maker for the VPRO channel, a director for the elite and the intelligentsia. Van den Berg recruited Leon de Winter to rewrite the script to their liking. Kees Beentjes had some involvement with these rewrites, although the extend of his involvement has never been fully disclosed. The specialized (and general) press had nothing but scorn and derision for a director just trying to make a living and he was chewed out accordingly. How scandalous was it that the man behind Bastille (1984), Looking for Eileen (1987), and the Gerard Reve adaptation Evenings (1989) was lowering himself to the populist muck of horror. Now starring were Monique van de Ven from the early Paul Verhoeven features Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975) as well as other Dutch classics as Burning Love (1983), The Assault (1986), Amsterdamned (1988), and The Discovery of Heaven (2001). Co-starring would be 18-year-old Esmée de la Bretonière - a debutante and starlet that would build an extensive career on the small – and big screen and model from time to time, including for Playboy (September 2003). Also present is Johan Leysen, he of The Girl with the Red Hair (1981) and Desiring Julia (1986) (with Serena Grandi).

1971. Esteemed American surgeon Dr. Johnson (Rodney Beddall) has just delivered a septuplet via a Caesarian section. Having no knowledge of their biological lineage nor their miraculous conception the hospital simply decides to call them The Johnsons. Upon driving home the doctor is overcome by some strange malevolent force, stops his car near a local marshland and starts to engage in a strange summoning nocturnal. 1978. In a high-security prison complex the genetically similar 7-year-old Johnson septuplet inexplicably slaughter 16 of their fellow inmates adorning the walls with strange blood-drawn symbols leaving authorities and law enforcement clueless. 1992. Victoria Lucas (Monique van de Ven) is a freelance photographer who just captured the mayor (Carol van Herwijnen) in an embarassing moment during a wage strike of the municipal garbage collectors. Her photo is such a rousing success that Lucas is commissioned by National Geographic to photograph a rare bird known as the night heron in the marshes of Biesbosch. At the same time Victoria’s 14-year-old daughter Emalee (Esmée de la Bretonière, as Esmee de la Bretonière) is suffering from recurring nightmares. In a frightening vision she finds herself sexually assaulted by seven virile men wearing nothing but full-head clay masks in some bizarre ritual. Making things worse is that Emalee’s nightmares act as a precursor to her first period. Victoria figures that taking Emalee with her to Biesbosch will be the change of scenery she needs.

Winston Keller (Kenneth Herdigein) is a fellow at the university and professor of anthropology. He’s an an ardent proponent of rationalism, empiricism and the scientific method and in his latest intervention he has to protect his superstitious father (Otto Sterman) from the latest batch of disgruntled clientele to whom he sold Winti “charms”. On the way home Keller the younger stops by at the university where his assistant Angela (Olga Zuiderhoek) informs them of their latest donation. They are shown footage of the 1934 expedition of Henri Vidal-Naquet and his time living among the Mahxitu Indians of the Amazon who worship a crystal-encased embryonic god called Xangadix. The tribe spoke of an ancient prophecy of seven brothers in full-head clay masks who will bring out the Eternal Night by impregnating one of their own. Having barely collected his wits Keller is hurried into a vehicle by government spook De Graaf (Rik van Uffelen) who requires his expertise for business he has in Biesbosch. The facility where seven brothers, all aged 21, have been staying is about to close down and Major Jansma (Johan Leysen) has no idea what to do with them. When Keller learns that The Johnsons were the first to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation from eggs clandestinely donated by an unknown orphan some twenty-one years earlier, it’s just the question where Winston will be in time to save Victoria and Emalee from their murderous offspring.

While van den Berg approached The Johnsons as “a job” he made sure to give it his own touch. He rewrote the original Rocco Simonelli screenplay together with Leon de Winter keeping the original story’s skeleton, lead characters, and overall structure the two completely rewrote it otherwise. Adding themes of anthropology, taboo sexuality (incest), religious allusions, and ancient fertility rites The Johnsons transformed from a pretty basic The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House Of the Left (1972) derivate into a full-blown occult horror. Being a specialist of dramas and human interest documentaries van den Berg ensured that the mother-daughter and brother-sister relations were properly explored and expanded upon. Since a bit of money was being thrown at The Johnsons director of photography Theo Bierkens was able to line up a number of artsy, atmospheric scenes of both the demon entity Xangadix as well as leading ladies Monique van de Ven and Esmée de la Bretonière. The special effects are actually pretty decent. Of those Sjoerd Didden had worked the year before on the disasterpiece Intensive Care (1991) while Floris Schuller, Andy Taylor, and Casper Lailey have become beloved Hollywood craftsmen in the decades since. Ben Zuydwijk meanwhile has been and remains steadily employed as a production designer. Van de Ven has since described The Johnsons as a weird outlier in her repertoire and for la de la Bretonière it was the ideal springboard to launch a model – and singing career.

It’s a strange fate that befell The Johnsons. On the one hand this was a prestigious project that forever enshrined the Netherlands in the annals of world horror cinema while on the other hand it was misunderstood, undervalued, and laughed off the screen when it originally saw release. Director Rudolf van den Berg never attested that he was attempting anything more than a decent, atmospheric fright flick. No, credit should go to writer Leon de Winter for imbuing The Johnsons with rich symbolism and allusions to religion, superstition, and the levels of perception. The father-and-son Keller subplot is rife with the merits of different perspectives and the duality of man. It deals with everything from science vs faith, of conservatism vs progressivism, and superstition vs facts. The Johnsons is far more ambitious than your average horror romp and many of its ideas are genuinely begging to be further explored. In more recent years the Xangadix Lives! (2017) retrospective documentary has taken a deep dive into the history, the mechanics behind the scenes, and the legacy of The Johnsons. More importantly, The Johnsons was never tainted or diluted by a raft of unnecessary and redundant sequels.