Masters of Horror was a TV show whose concept was better than the final result. I loved the idea of renowned horror directors getting one hour to do whatever they pleased, even though most of their on-air efforts were sub-par at best. Not to be outdone by us Americans, Spain has offered up a similar slew of flicks, collectively titled 6 Films to Keep You Awake. Inspired by a horror anthology series from the '60s, these films feature various Spanish filmmakers, some with more horror experience than others, taking center stage and unleashing their own macabre tales upon viewers at home. Some of the movies are better than others, but these films are all unique, even the worst warranting a watch for seasoned genre buffs.
The Baby's Room – A first-time father (Javier Gutierrez) scrambles to unravel the mystery behind the spirits inhabiting his new home. There's a definite war of the genres taking place within The Baby's Room. Director Alex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast) never seems to make up his mind over whether he wants his film to be a stark psychological thriller or a dark comedy crammed with "Gotcha!"-style scares. This indecision results in a rather schizophrenic atmosphere, reasonable considering most of the story consists of Gutierrez's character going bonkers. The problem is that there's no sense of progression to the guy's madness; he's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs from the word go and only gets worse from there. He's also not a very sympathetic guy, making one amazingly stupid decision after another instead of taking the time to survey his situation. I won't deny that de la Iglesia has crafted a creepy film, as the first handful of scenes are nice and spooky. But the guy does end up sacrificing reason in the name of building up a twist ending that a blind man could see coming from a mile away. The Baby's Room has its share of effective moments, but too often does it pass up one opportunity after another to be even better.
Blame – While staying with a doctor friend (Nieve de Medina), a single nurse (Montse Mostaza) struggles with the creepy consequences of choosing to abort her unborn child. Blame is one of the few recent horror films to recognize the difference between building up tension and just plain not having anything happen. Them and The Strangers suffered from this absence of action, but Blame stays on the viewer's good side by teasing them with the shape of things to come. The audience is always kept in a sense of unease here, never knowing for sure what's going on or what will happen next. The filmmakers do this by introducing several factors in the plot, from some creepy next-door neighbors to the doctor's not-so-subtle crush on her gal pal, that always keep you guessing. Such suspense is maintained even when the story starts to drift into some bizarre territory that, unfortunately, is never really resolved. If there's anything worth complaining about here, it's the ending, which feels way too rushed and leaves viewers with more than a few questions. But with an elegant feel and convincing performances, Blame has no problem replicating the sort of psychologically-based horror that fans of The Orphanage will definitely dig.
A Christmas Tale – After stumbling upon a female fugitive (Maru Valdivieslo) stuck in a pit, a group of kids try to extort the location of her stolen loot. Initially a throwback to family movies of the 1980s, A Christmas Tale proceeds to veer off in a morally ambiguous direction. [Rec] co-director Paco Plaza goes against the grain by actually depicting the kids as villains moreso than the would-be thief. After finding the crook stuck in a hole, the children devise a plot to deprive her of food to get her to give up the cash, a treatment that, no matter what her crime, she might not deserve. Plaza has a lot of fun playing the ideas of what it means to be good and bad against one another, heading into some thoughtful ethical territory when a couple of the kids start to doubt their actions. It's unfortunate that the third act, without spoiling anything, degenerates into your average stalk-and-slash scenario expecting viewers to root for the little punks they've spent so much time despising. Also, the final twist just doesn't jibe with the rest of the flick, coming across as a pretty convoluted way of giving the film a "true" horror angle. But for a good two-thirds of the running time, A Christmas Tale is a thematic success, an offbeat chiller with a decent head on its shoulders.
A Real Friend – Having watching one too many scary movies, schoolgirl Estrella (Nerea Inchausti) takes on some imaginary friends — one of whom may be a real-life menace. Like Spectre and Blame, A Real Friend draws most of its suspense from the blurring of fantasy and reality. It's easy to tell what sequences are taking place in Estrella's imagination, but it's when the two areas intermingle that things get really interesting. The film's climax consists of some especially great material, incorporating a twist that will leave even the most hardened horror buffs breathless throughout its duration. It's too bad the story caps off with a crummy attempt at shock value, but for the most part, A Real Friend works wonders. Not only do viewers get an offbeat coming-of-age tale, with Estrella making pals with figures inspired by Leatherface and Count Orlock, they also get a loving nod to the slasher film by way of a "realistic" take on the formula. A Real Friend stumbles a bit as it comes in for a landing, but other than that, this short but sweet journey is nothing but smooth, demented sailing.
Spectre – An old man (Jordi Dauder) recalls his teenage romance with a woman (Natalia Millán) rumored to be a witch. If there's one film amongst these six that confirms the whole bunch's status as more than your average horror flicks, it's Spectre. Those expecting to get the pants scared off of them here will emerge from the experience fully clothed. Instead, Spectre is more of a moody supernatural drama in the vein of Dark Water, and even then the supernatural aspect is up for grabs. Even though you'll have a pretty good idea of where the story is going to go, director Mateo Gil (frequent collaborator of Alejandro Amenabar) never allows the plot to get insultingly simplistic. He's rather adept at handling multiple ideas here, juggling themes of religion, budding sexuality, guilt, and betrayal with a prowess that never makes it seem as if he's overloading himself. Gil also nimbly plays around with the idea of whether Millán is a conniving witch or a lonesome soul, with a solid performance given by the actress to match. Spectre isn't an impenetrable film, but it is an unusually strong one, a movie of true class with the ability to affect you more than you might think.
To Let – A couple (Macarena Gómez and Adrià Collado) find themselves trapped in a rundown apartment building by a deranged landlady (Nuria González). Out of the six features in this set, To Let is easily the one that will appeal most to mainstream American moviegoers. It's a slasher film at heart, albeit one that cuts to the chase a lot faster. Running at just a little over an hour's length, To Let packs a lot of intensity in a short amount of time, not to mention a healthy dose of the red stuff to give gorehounds a quick fix. There's no pretention here, just a straightforward game of cat-and-mouse between the lead couple and the demented she-devil who refuses to let them leave. I appreciate director Jaume Balaguero (Darkness) for keeping his priorities simple, but even still, To Let seemed a little too routine for me. From the landlady's motivations to the characters' more head-slappingly dumb moves, there's hardly a moment here that viewers won't see coming, these more stale moments slowing the film down just when it's getting warmed up. But all in all, To Let isn't a bad way to kill an hour, a fairly swift and suspenseful ride that's not perfect but could've been a lot worse.Powered by Sidelines