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The Ridiculous And The Epic: The Cinema Of Alex De La Iglesia

by j.d. lafrance

From the grotesque mutants who threaten Earth in Accion Mutante (1993) to the graphic voodoo practices in Perdita Durango (1997), horrific, often bizarre imagery has always been prominent in Alex de la Iglesia's movies. Like his cinematic contemporaries--Mexico's Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, 1993) and France's Christophe Gans (Le Pacte des loups, 2001)--de la Iglesia impishly mixes a variety of genres in his films:

"I like to play with genres and construct my own movies...What I am trying to do is inject poison into these genres. In a happy comedy I like to introduce poison and make the movie freaky and weird, with a tasteless sense of humor."

It is no surprise that, like del Toro and Gans, de la Iglesia comes from a comic book/fanzine background that informs all of his work. There is something of the film geek in all of three filmmakers that results in a desire to include show-stopping spectacle set pieces in their movies and to quote other films in their own work, fueled by an obsession with American culture.

"I love Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Poe and Lovecraft, Noam Chomsky, and Billy Wilder. All at once, in an eclectic manner. The transcendent and the comic, the ridiculous and the epic. Dreyer and Hellzapoppin'."

Alex de la Iglesia was born in Bilbao, Spain in 1965. He is a philosophy graduate from a Catholic university who ended up working in the comic book field at a young age. He had a brief stint in television before finding work as artistic director on Enrique Urbizu's Todo por la pasta (1990). Urbizu has made a number of crime thrillers and comedies but also, most interestingly, is credited as a co-screenwriter on Roman Polanski's horror film, The Ninth Gate (1999). De la Iglesia then took part in the short film, Mama (1988), a homage to American B-movies by Pablo Berger. This little seen short film focuses on a family forced to live in a basement after a nuclear war and features a little boy who wears a Batman costume. This short anticipates the science fiction-horror of Accion Mutante. He then met Jose Guerricaechevarria and together they made the short film, Mirindas Asesinas (1991), in which a boring man, whose mind is gradually degenerating, is on the verge of becoming a psychotic killer. The two men became fast friends and have worked together ever since, writing the screenplays to every one of de la Iglesia's films.

Based on the strength of Mirindas Asesinas, Pedro Almodovar's production company (El Deseo) financed his feature film debut, Accion Mutante. A crazy blend of science fiction and horror, it turned the alien invasion genre upside-down. In many respects, it is Spain's answer to Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987), a hilarious alien invasion movie made in New Zealand. Both films gleefully thumb their noses at respectability with a tasteless sense of humour and large doses of slapstick gore.

El Dia de la bestia (a.k.a. The Day of the Beast) is de la Iglesia's genre-specific horror movie. Padre ┴ngel Beriart˙a (Alex Angulo) discovers and decodes a cryptogram that predicts the Apocalypse occurring on Christmas day in Madrid. He tries in vain to contact Satan by going to a record store and buying death metal music. He befriends Jose Maria (Santiago Segura), a record store clerk and together they try to stop the world from ending. The basic idea for the movie came from a simple premise: place a helpless person right in the middle of the biggest event in human history. Think H.P. Lovecraft, soundtrack by Ministry.

de la Iglesia said that this film is influenced by The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976), which blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is not, and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), where the protagonist is insane but the audience identifies with him anyway. The more obvious influences come from low budget splatter-stick horror films like Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985), Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987), and Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992), movies that blend physical humour with large amounts of blood and gore.

El Dia de la bestia is a refreshing antidote to Hollywood's self-importantly serious 'end of the world' movie formula--End of Days (Peter Hyams, 1999), Stigmata (Rupert Wainwright, 1999) and Lost Souls (Janusz Kaminski, 1999)--because it has a lot of fun with the genre. The film's opening montage has Padre Angel trying to summon Satan: he pushes a street mime down a flight of stairs and steals a dying man's wallet instead of giving him last rites. These scenes are funny in their absurdity; a righteous, religious man purposely trying to sin is just one example of how de la Iglesia juxtaposes contrasting ideas for humourous effect.

El Dia de la bestia was a huge hit in its native country, earning six Goya Awards (Spain's equivalent of the Academy Awards), and breaking box office records. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez saw the movie and wanted de la Iglesia to direct Perdita Durango, an adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel, 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango. Gomez felt that de la Iglesia's sensibilities were better suited for the project than the current director, Bigas Luna. With pre-production already underway, de la Iglesia came aboard and molded the material to fit his preoccupations.

Perdita Durango is a cross between the crime and horror genres. Perdita (Rosie Perez) is a tough, no-nonsense lady clad in a Tura Satana-style black outfit. She meets Romeo (Javier Bardem), a maniacal criminal who also happens to be an even more maniacal witch doctor. The couple cross the border into Mexico, become lovers and partners in crime as they kidnap a white-bread couple of teens. Along the way they also hijack a truckload of human fetuses and try to evade a determined Drug Enforcement Agency officer (James Gandolfini).

The film is at its most horrific in the scenes where Romeo practices voodoo. In one ritualistic scene, he drenches himself in blood and smothers his face in a bag of cocaine. He then hacks limbs off of a corpse, tears out its heart and writhes around on the ground, channeling multitudes of demons. There is an unpredictable energy to the scene that makes it scary and thrilling. de la Iglesia contrasts these scenes with gallows humour. Romeo may be a vicious killer but he also loves the music of Herb Albert. There is a hilarious moment where he and Perdita happily groove to the strains of The Dating Game theme. Gandolfini's character speaks with a weasely lisp and has the misfortune of being repeatedly hit by fast moving vehicles, not unlike a live-action Wile E. Coyote.

Perdita Durango is a curious oddity in de la Iglesia's oeuvre. It is his most overt attempt to crack the North American market (where he has only a small but dedicated following) with his first English-speaking film and a cast of recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. This alienated his Spanish fans who probably felt he had sold out, while his penchant for graphic sex and violence scared off potential distributors and mainstream audiences in North America, sending the movie direct to video. This reaction is unfortunate because Perdita Durango is de la Iglesia's most successful effort: a perfect mix of the ridiculous and the epic, with the right blend of genres (crime, horror, comedy, road trip) and a wonderfully eclectic cast that features his regular favourites (Santiago Segura) and colourful character actors (Screamin' Jay Hawkins).

Since Perdita Durango, the influence of the horror genre has diminished gradually over de la Iglesia's next three films. Muertos de risa (1999) is a War of the Roses (1989)-style black comedy that charts the relationship between two comedians who become huge TV celebrities and end up hating each other. La Comunidad (2000) is a Hitchcockian thriller that features a middle-aged woman who finds a large sum of money hidden in a dead man's house and then must deal with his greedy, unscrupulous neighbours. Finally, 800 balas (2002) is a spaghetti western homage that pits an over-the-hill group of stuntmen against miserly developers. de la Iglesia has stated in interviews his desire to resurrect and update the Fu Manchu character, with Antonio Banderas and Alan Rickman starring, and a proposed budget of $20 million. One hopes that this will be his return to the horror genre.

Issue 17, November 2003


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