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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: Waldemar Daninsky desperately tries to lift a curse on his bloodline.

The seventh chapter in the ongoing saga of immortally condemned Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky The Return Of Walpurgis (for some reason released in the English-speaking world as Curse Of the Devil) restores the franchise to its former glory after the effective but underwhelming Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1972). It is probably the most ambitious and epic of all the El Hombre Lobo episodes as it begins with a surprisingly well realized prologue set in 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition and then cuts to a 20th century present in early seventies Spain. Once again filmed from a screenplay by Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina) The Return Of Walpurgis follows Daninsky as he tries to undo a curse haunting his bloodline for the several centuries. Director Carlos Aured admirably rises to the task of realizing Naschy’s vision and even if it doesn’t have the visual flair and atmospheric finesse of The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) or the sheer excess and insanity of The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), Waldemar Daninsky rarely was in finer form than he is here.

Carlos Aured was not one of Spain’s more prolific filmmakers, amassing a filmography of a modest 15 movies in 12 years. Aured started out in the 1960s as an assistant director to, among others, León Klimovsky on The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) where his association with Paul Naschy began. Naschy and Aured would collaborate on Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and The Mummy’s Revenge (1975) before the latter became one of the key directors in the Barcelona softcore scene of 1978-83 with the shortlived Cine S or “el destape” movement. In that capacity he was one of the instigators of said movement with the likes of Ramón Fernández, Jaime de Armiñán, Jorge Grau, Mariano Ozores, Eloy de Iglesia, Vicente Aranda, and José Ramón Larraz. Aured was a frequent collaborator with Alfonso Balcázar, Iquino, or Jaime J. Puig. Cine S were quasi-comedic soft erotic romps featuring the likes of Verónica Miriel, Amparo Muñoz, Adriana Vega, and Sara Mora. However, it was Ignacio Farrés Iquino’s The Hot Girl Juliet (1981) that truly launched Cine S and Andrea Albani, a former basketball player and swimmer, before more largely similar romps sprung from the same genetic stalk. Albani wasn’t an Iquino discovery exclusively as she debuted in José Ramón Larraz’ Madame Olga’s Pupils (1980) a year earlier. After the Cine S genre collapsed Carlos Aured would return to the terror and horror genres with The Enigma of the Yacht (1983) with Silvia Tortosa and Trapped in Fear (1985). Two years later, in 1987, Aured would retire from filmmaking after the Deran Serafian (who did his share of acting in Italian shlock) directed Alien Predator (1987), which he produced, went over schedule with his US partners heaping the debts on him.

Somewhere in 15th century Spain Grand Inquisitor Ireneus Daninsky (Paul Naschy) ensures a great victory for his tribunal as he defeats a warlock, long rumored to be at the heart of the witchcraft and Satanic activity that has flooded his dominion, in a horseback duel. Countess Elizabeth Bathory (María Silva) and her handmaidens decide to invoke Satan in retribution for the slaying. Before they can do so Daninsky is able to capture them, subjecting the heretics to auto-da-fé. Bathory’s handmaidens are hung from the castle walls and Bathory herself is burned in effigy. Before being consumed by the flames Elisabeth Bathory places a curse on Daninsky and all of his descendants. 4 centuries later Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy) lives in a remote castle somewhere in the far reaches of the Carpathian mountains with his housekeeper Malitza (Ana Farra) and valet Maurice (Fernando Sánchez Polack, as Fernando S. Polack). On a hunting excursion with his friend Bela (José Manuel Martín, as Joe Martin), the latter shoots a silver bullet at what he believes to be a wolf. His prey turns out to be a stray gypsy man. Daninsky offers a monetary compensation to the gypsy clan for their loss. The clan matriarch (Elsa Zabala), a descendant of Countess Bathory, doesn’t believe his guilt to be genuine and instructs coven member Ilona (Inés Morales, as Ines Morales) to seduce the lovelorn lord. In the throes of passion Ilona curses Waldemar with lycantropy by slashing a pentagram into his chest with the same wolf skull used in the black mass ceremony earlier. Ilona subsequently flees into the woods where she is promptly hacked to pieces by escaped deranged axe-murderer Janos Vilaya.

Meanwhile in the 20th century Hungarian mining engineer Laszlo Wilowa (Eduardo Calvo) moves to the region for a year-long research project, bringing with him his blind wife Irina (Pilar Vela) and two daughters Kinga (Fabiola Falcón, as Faye Falcon) and Mariya (Maritza Olivares, as May Oliver). The attraction and affection between Kinga and Daninsky is instantaneous and their courtship is very much a thorn in the side of Mariya. That doesn’t stop Mariya from attempting to seduce and sway Waldemar into her embrace. Mariya is succesfull in her attempt but happens to do so on the night of the full moon. Not only does she seduce Waldemar in the hideout of axe-murderer Janos Vilaya, but Daninsky’s full moon sickness results in the both of them getting horribly slaughtered when he turns werewolf. Malitza, whose maternal feelings for Waldemar might just be a tad too strong, agrees to help him dispose of the cadavers. The sudden influx of homicide and unexplained deaths attract the attention of police inspector Roulka (Mariano Vidal Molina, as Vidal Molina). He attributes the spate of murders to the fugitive Janos Vilaya, but has to revise his initial theory when village kids happen upon the axe-murderer’s decomposed body one day. Before long the village has mounted a torch- and pitchfork bearing lynch mob to hunt and kill the beast, but mistake Maurice, Waldemar’s valet, for the recluse nobleman and gruesomely kill him. As the legend goes, only a woman that truly loves Daninsky will be able to kill him – but will Kinga be strong enough to drive a silver dagger through the heart of the man she loves?

As these things tend to go, the screenplay to every El Hombre Lobo feature is basically the same. Individual elements might differ from one installment to the next, and they tend to be reflective of the prevailing trend of the year they were made it in. Formulaic does not quite cover the workman-like efficiency of Naschy’s screenplays. The Return Of Walpurgis carries over the Bathory character from the prior year’s Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1972) and Elsa Zabala is given a larger part here than in the prior chapter. That The Return Of Walpurgis does not possess as much of the visual flair of earlier installments can be attributed to the editing and the cinematography. Director of photography Francisco Sánchez delivered much better work on The Dracula Saga (1973) the same year and the editing by María Luisa Soriano is a bit on the choppy side. Soriano was a regular in Spanish exploitation cinema having worked on Necrophagus (1971), and The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) prior. She would persevere with Naschy on The Mummy’s Revenge (1975) and lend her services to Juan Piquer Simón’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1977) and Eurociné zombie debacle Zombie Lake (1981). Special effects man by Pablo Pérez worked on Horror Express (1971) and would collaborate with Paul Naschy on his amiable Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and the Gilles de Rais epic Devil’s Possessed (1974). The score by Antón García Abril is functional enough but does not offer much of note.

While never descending to the lows of The Fury of the Wolfman (1970) and largely eclipsed by the all-out insanity of its successor The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), this El Hombre Lobo installment is defined purely by its functionality and likeness to its companion pieces Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and Devil’s Possessed (1974). As before Paul Naschy was able to attract some of the most beautiful domestic starlets with Fabiola Falcón, Maritza Olivares, and Inés Morales. Maritza Olivares is a typical Spanish beauty of the time, following in the footsteps of Dyanik Zurakowska, Aurora de Alba, Rosanna Yanni, Barbara Capell, and Shirley Corrigan. There never was any shortage of beautiful women in any of Naschy’s productions and it’s unfortunate that he never was able to work with continental European cinema belles as Silvia Tortosa, Luciana Paluzzi, Cristina Galbó, Diana Lorys, or Paola Tedesco. In the same respect it’s almost unbelievable that Naschy never ended up casting late Franco muse Soledad Miranda, mousy but sensual Susan Hemingway, domestic Cine S superstars Andrea Albani, and Eva Lyberten or even French import Florence Guérin in one of his productions. Neither would British exploitation stars as Candace Glendenning, Luan Peters, Judy Matheson, Valerie Leon, or Jenny Hanley (especially considering their association with Hammer) or Latin American imports as Gloria Prat and Susana Beltrán have felt out of place in an El Hombre Lobo episode.

It goes without saying that The Return Of Walpurgis was a tad too ambitious with its period costume prologue, brief as it might have been, on the budget that it had. The character of Waldemar Daninsky is interesting enough in itself, and it’s rather unfortunate that every episode insists on rewriting the origin of his lycanthropy while retaining the character’s basic kind-heartedness and pathos. At least here Naschy attempts to illustrate some kind of bloodline and how the transgressions of one Daninsky impact the life of a much later descendant. The concept is commendable enough but it would be cast to the side for the next installment. There’s seldom any continuity from one El Hombre Lobo chapter to the next and that robs them of any emotional connection the viewer could have built with any of the characters from one movie to the next. The Return Of Walpurgis isn’t the place to expect any important improvements or innovations in the El Hombre Lobo formula or canon. Two years later The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) would shake up the formula a bit. That it was the craziest El Hombre Lobo feature up to that point helped tremendously too. The Return Of Walpurgis on the other hand is very much just another day at the office.