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Plot: eclectic group of urbanites is locked into a bar during a pandemic.

When we were initially exposed to The Bar in 2018 there was excitement and electricity in the air as we were anxious to see Álex de la Iglesia return to the genre that made him famous, horror. But who wanted to see him tackle an old school terror film? One about a pandemic, no less? Hollywood had tried that 22 years earlier with Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995) – wasn’t that subgenre considered dead, and relegated a thing of the past? On the other hand, there was the cast. An assembly of talent, old and new. Bright-eyed television stars and old hands who had been with de la Iglesia since the dawn of the new millennium. Why would anyone try to breath life into a subgenre that had been dead for well over two decades? Hindsight is a terrible thing. Who could possibly have foreseen that The Bar – far closer to Common Wealth (2000) than any of de la Iglesia’s full-blown horrors – would so eerily (and realistically) predict the reponse of the common man to the current (and ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic?

Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia has proven to be a master technician who understands each of the genres he tackles. He first manifested his potential with Mutant Action (1993), a dystopian science fiction epic on a modest budget. It wasn’t until The Day Of the Beast (1995) that de la Iglesia showed what he was really capable of. It isn’t for nothing that that movie has since been enshrined in the annals of Spanish cinematic history as the most important production of that particular decade. He followed his surprise horror hit up with the Javier Bardem-Rosie Perez crime caper Perdita Durango (1997) and the thriller-comedy Common Wealth (2000). De la Iglesia’s bid for mainstream success came with The Oxford Murders (2008), but he always worked better with domestic talent. The gothic throwback Witching and Bitching (2013) marked de la Iglesia’s return to horror, but that was virtually immediately followed by the lighthearted comedy My Big Night (2015). With The Bar Álex de la Iglesia and his trusty writing partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría pay tribute to George A. Romero's The Crazies (1973), Jean Rollin's atmospheric The Grapes Of Death (1978), and Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974) without ever actually having to revert to horror. The Bar is grippingly tense, masterfully suspenseful, and now frightingly realistic to boot.

On an average day commuters fill in and out of the businesses on Plaza Mostenses in Madrid. In a bar on the square a number of different people – socialite Elena (Blanca Suárez), PR man Nacho (Mario Casas), middle-aged gambling addict Trini (Carmen Machi), and homeless vagrant Israel (Jaime Ordóñez) - along with owner Amparo (Terele Pávez), bartender Sátur (Secun de la Rosa) as well as regulars Sergio (Alejandro Awada), and apparent government spook Andrés (Joaquín Climent) are all minding their own business, wrapped up in their own problems, when an office worker (Diego Braguinsky) and later a streetsweeper (Jordi Aguilar) are mysteriously shot and killed out on the boardwalk. When the group discovers that the square has been evacuated and that the government is attempting to contain the situation panic grips their hearts. When the media mysteriously refers to the incident as “a fire” tension starts to grow among the assorted patrons. As fear and paranoia mount suspicion falls on everybody for a number of completely different but understandable reasons, the bearded and Arab-looking Nacho being the first. Before they very well realize it a power struggle erupts in their midst as everybody has an agenda of their own. Not helping matters is Israel’s constant spouting of ominous and cryptic warnings, often Biblical and apocalyptical in nature. When a bloated, obviously very ill, man (Daniel Arribas) stumbles into the bar and collapses, fear and mistrust grows even bigger. As later one of their number comes into possession of a gun things take a turn for the ugly and later the fatal. Will anybody be able to survive and escape from the bar?

The premise is deceptively simple and Álex de la Iglesia handles it with all the panache and finesse you’d expect of dyed-in-the-wool veteran. What primarily sells The Bar as effectively as it does is the writing of de la Iglesia collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría. For starters, none of the initial victims are ever given a first name, and neither are any of the leads given a last name. Every main character is given just enough backstory and motivation to justify their actions, but nothing is overly explained making them just enough of a cipher. Blanca Suárez’ Elena initially comes across as a somewhat high maintenance socialite, but soon turns out to be one of the most sympathetic characters. Jaime Ordóñez’ beggar Israel is painted as a raving lunatic for most of the feature but he turns out to be the sole voice of reason. The screenplay touches on a variety of topical subjects including, but not limited to, the war on terrorism, the police state, racial profiling, mass media, and the rampant militarisation of the police force. It’s very much a The Crazies (1973) for this generation. Likewise does Guerricaechevarría’s screenplay leave the finer details of the pandemic wide open to interpretation. Is the situation really as worse as the fevered imaginations of the patrons makes it out to be? Is it not? Who knows… That the incident is never really explained is The Bar’s greatest forté. With Suárez in the cast a romantic subplot was expected and while it is briefly suggested (Elena and Nacho are briefly an item) it’s just as quickly discarded as tensions mount. To his credit Guerricaechevarría finds a a plot-convenient excuse for Elena to strip down to her white lingerie, but the aim is never to tantalize or seduce. In fact the sheer necessity of Elena stripping is to facilitate the survival of the group.

Similarities between The Bar and Common Wealth (2000) are fairly obvious. It is mainly a character-driven feature with only the most peripheral elements of other genres (in this case, horror). The set-up merely functions as a background for the various character interactions and conflicts. For the most part The Bar is a small-scale production, limiting itself merely to a handful of characters and few locations. It doesn’t aim to be some big special effects extravaganza and it never turns into one. The cast consists of both old and new faces. Terele Pávez and Carmen Machi have been with de la Iglesia for a long time. Blanca Suárez, Secun de la Rosa, and Jaime Ordóñez are fairly recent additions. All of the characters come from different walks of life and their clashing viewpoints in assessing the direness of their collective situation is a big part of why The Bar works as well as it does. When the thinning of the cast begins some kills are more predictable than others and it pays that The Bar has a strong female lead. Multi-award winning actress Blanca Suárez, famous for her turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) and the series Cable Girls (2017-2020), and Mario Casas are pleasant discoveries in their own right. Jaime Ordóñez’ performance as Israel, the apocalyptical Biblical passages spouting vagrant, is reminiscent of Alberto de Mendoza as the Rasputin-esque Father Pujardov in the Hammer Horror imitation Horror Express (1972), Paul Naschy as Alaric de Marnac in Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), and Álex Angulo as the half-mad with terror Father Ángel Berriartúa in The Day Of the Beast (1995). The bloated infectee with bulging eyes is something straight out of Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) or Jesús Franco’s classic The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962).

Since The Bar de la Iglesia has made the considerably smaller Perfect Strangers (2017), apparently a remake of the 2016 Italian movie of the same name and Veneciafrenia (2021), which sounds like a Spanish take on Inbred (2011). As of right now he’s involved with post-production on the comedy The Fourth Passenger (2021) once again with Blanca Suárez and Jaime Ordóñez. The Bar is an old-fashioned thriller that throws a bunch of characters from different walks of life into an extra-ordinary situation and then lets them quarrel among each other as an external threat grows graver with each passing minute. The viewer is privy to just as much information about what’s going on as the characters. The beauty of the screenplay is that it acknowledges that any group of people is only as strong as the weakest link among them; and that any group put in a restricted environment will inevitably tear itself apart over the most trivial of matters.

All characters could have survived had they put aside their petty differences and worked together instead of devolving into incessant quarrelling and power games. However that would be rather boring as a movie. Álex de la Iglesia has proven plenty of times that he is a master filmmaker who understands any genre. The Bar sees him reaching back to his past in horror – and terror films. What makes The Bar so interesting is that it plays up its horror elements farther than most exercises in this genre, but never to the detriment of the whole. At heart it’s a thriller written as a horror movie but without ever having to abide by the restrictive conventions of that genre. Tension is what sells The Bar. Tension that builds from ordinary human interactions and misunderstandings. If The Bar teaches us anything it’s that the thing we should fear most is not some unseen, intangible contagion – but indeed our fellow man. Fear is the mindkiller and The Bar shows how fast things can go haywire when we let fear dictate our rationale.

Plot: priest, metalhead, and conman must stop the Apocalypse

The Day Of the Beast is probably the single most important Spanish horror movie of the nineties. The picture won 6 Goyas, including the one for best director, and breathed new life into a genre once so prominent in Iberia. With the fantastiques of Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco, the portentious gothic horrors of Léon Klimovsky, Amando de Ossorio and Miguel Iglesias as well as the occult erotic potboilers of José Ramón Larraz definitely being a thing of the past director Álex de la Iglesia rejuvenated Spanish horror with his second feature The Day Of the Beast, a horror-comedy reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Peter Jackson’s irreverent splatter horror debut feature Bad Taste (1987). As far as cultural importance goes it more or less was the Verónica (2017) of its day.

As the American horror landscape devolved into self-referential, self-reflexive, and meta-commentary, a brief genre resurgence occured in Spain. In the mid-to-late nineties directors as Alejandro Amenábar, Jaume Balagueró, and Álex de la Iglesia breathed new life into the once so flourishing Spanish horror industry. Each of these three men at some point early in their career tried their hand at the genre either in the form of slick dark thrillers or plain old-fashioned horror genre pieces. Amenábar directed the excellent Thesis (1996) and later the dreamy, surrealist Open Your Eyes (1997) (duly remade for the US market by Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky in 2001). Balagueró shot the atmospheric thriller The Nameless (1999), but wouldn’t find success until [Rec] (2007) almost a decade later. Álex de la Iglesia was more of a Spanish equivalent to early Peter Jackson, packing The Day Of the Beast with an equal amount of scares and laughs.

The director of The Day Of the Beast is Alejandro "Álex" de la Iglesia Mendoza, a screenwriter, producer, and erstwhile comic book artist. Prior to directing The Day Of the Beast, de la Iglesia helmed the subversive Acción Mutante (1993) that was produced by Pedro Almodóvar. Acción Mutante won two prizes at the Montréal Fantasia Festival, and three Goya's. The Day Of the Beast marked the first collaboration between de la Iglesia and producer Andrés Vicente Gómez. The Day Of the Beast is wonderful not only because it’s iconoclastic and irreverent much in the same way as Alucarda (1977) but, more importantly, because its mix of shocks and laughs serves a larger purpose; that of social satire. The Day Of the Beast has its share of slapstick comedy sequences but it never reverts into pure comedy. While it stays fairly lighthearted it always maintains an ominous, dark tone through out. Much in the fashion of earliest Peter Jackson, de la Iglesia uses humor to amplify the horror.

Basque Roman Catholic priest Father Ángel Berriartúa or simply Cura (Álex Angulo) has dedicated his life to deciphering Saint John's cryptic Book of Revelations at the Sanctuary of Aránzazu. The theologian has at long last discovered the numerical values denoting the date and place of birth of the Antichrist and the subsequent apocalypse. Which happens to be Christmas eve in Madrid, Spain. As he shares this knowledge with his monsignor sacerdote Anciano (Saturnino García) the latter is flattened by a falling cruciform. In a desperate, last bid attempt to come in the Dark Lord’s favor, Cura goes on a city-wide rampage commiting as much sin as possible, a quest that leaves him halfmad with terror and one that brings him to the attention of local media and law enforcement authorities. His deranged trek through Madrid brings him to the Carabanchel district where he meets dim-witted, loveable metalhead and record store owner José Maria (Santiago Segura), who offers him food and shelter because he appreciates the priest liking “heavy stuff”. José Maria hands Cura the demo tape of local metal act Satanika who, if rumors are to be believed, have affiliations with genuine Satanists. After visiting one of their shows Cura is convinced that José Maria is trustworthy ally and a partnership is formed. However, to summon the Dark Lord (and to stop the birth of the prophecized Antichrist) they require the help of a specialist in the occult.

José Maria suggests that Cavan (Armando De Razza), a public access TV medium and alleged connoisseur of and intendent to the secrets of the black arts, might be able to help on that end. The two break into the conman’s opulent apartment, scaring the living daylights out of Cavan’s supremely sluttish girlfriend Susana (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), and when negotiations breaks down they resort to plainly kidnapping the supposed medium. Cavan - the now battered and bloodied host of the paranormal talkshow “The Dark Side” - relays that in order to summon the Dark Lord they need to complete a ritual, one that is contingent on the pure, virgin blood. Cura immediately goes about securing said blood by attempting to talk José Maria’s saintly sister Mina (Nathalie Seseña) in voluntarily donating hers. With Mina not being open to the idea Cura is forced to kill her leading to a violent domestic dispute in which her matriarchal shotgun-toting mother Rosario (Terele Pávez) comes to her rescue, injuring and nearly killing the old padre in the process. The trio enact the ritual causing the Goatlord to appear, but the horned apparition leaves them no clues of the Satan spawn’s whereabouts.

After a daring escape from the Gran Vía (Capitol building, formerly the Carrión building) high-rise the trio is able to track down the unholy forces of evil to the Puerta de Europa (formerly known as the KIO Towers). After putting up a courageous fight José Maria is killed by the agents of Satán (Higinio Barbero). In a last desperate bid for survival Cura and Cavan, who since his mysterious disappearance has been replaced by the suave but entirely phony Nuevo Cavan (El Gran Wyoming), bundle their forces and face off against the lord with horns. Against impossible odds the duo somehow manages to succeed and soon find themselves as madly babbling drifters in the streets of Madrid while the rest of the world carries on with their mundane lives unaware of what has transpired.

The writing of Jorge Guerricaechevarría and de la Iglesia realizes how absurd the entire premise is, and amplify the whole by making every character a broad genre archetype. Cura is the priest in a crisis of faith who discovers the impending apocalypse. José Maria is a dim-witted death metal enthusiast (and record store owner) who throws shoplifters face-first through glass. Rosario, his mother, is the racist native who’d want all undesirables to stay at her pensione so she could blow them away with her rifle. Cavan is an alleged medium, who pretty much admits he’s a conman, but who engages in exorcisms and writes book on the occult and paranormal because that’s what his audience wants and who is he not to indulge them? Cavan’s girlfriend Susana serves no other purpose than to bounce around in skimpy lingerie and occassionally act as a damsel-in-distress when the script calls for one. Maria Grazia Cucinotta oddly reminds of a mid-to-late 1980s Lina Romay with her white wig. The three leads play off each other wonderfully. Cura is a babbling madman on a quest that nobody really understands, José Maria is a kind-hearted soul in a bulky physique that responds with “heavy” every time their situation gets worse, and Cavan acts a lone voice of reason that keeps both men holding on to what little remains of their sanity. In the end Cura and Cavan realize that the world has already gone to hell as nobody even has the slightest clue of the perilous journey they went through to prevent the apocalypse.

The cast of The Day Of the Beast were, for the most part, carryovers from de la Iglesia’s Acción Mutante (1993) or fresh new faces. Álex Angulo, Saturnino Garcia, and Santiago Segura all were in de la Iglesia’s debut feature with Angula scoring his most remembered role in the series Periodistas (1998). Segura turned up in the mid-90s Jess Franco debacle Killer Barbys (1996) alongside an aging Mariangela Giordano, but would redeem himself with de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango (1997) and reinvent himself as a Hollywood darling in the new millennium with bit parts in Blade II (2002), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), Guillermo del Toro’s comic book adaptation Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), and the Torrente franchise (1998-2004). Maria Grazia Cucinotta was a former model and one of several curvaceous Mediterranean actresses (Monica Belucci and Penelope Cruz being the two most important other competitors at the time) tipped for international superstardom. The Day Of the Beast, along with a role in the domestic drama The Postman (1994), as well as a guest spot on the popular HBO series The Sopranos and a cameo in the Bond vehicle The World Is Not Enough (1999), set her on the road to superstardom. As these things go voluptuous Cucinotta has done little of note in the cinematic world since.

Needless to say The Day Of the Beast was probably the most important Spanish horror movie in 1995, back when the once so glorious genre had all dried up in the country. At various points it channels the spirit of some of the old masters and injects it with a much-needed boost of youthful energy and irreverence that, at its best, reminds of a young Peter Jackson. Few directors can manage to combine such contrasting (not to mention conflicting) genres as slapstick comedy, atmospheric horror and human drama without doing concessions to either. The Day Of the Beast knows what it is, and what it wants to be, and its enduring longevity comes from not only from its classic plot but that it never forgets that it is a horror production. True to its time it’s not nearly as thick on that earthen Mediterranean atmosphere of old and its rather demure on all fronts – more importantly, however, is that de la Iglesia paid homage to the old Iberian horror masters without ever coming across as rustic or plain old-fashioned. The Day Of the Beast was as slick and modern as they came in 1995, but it always remained vintage at heart.