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.