There’s something about Spain that seems to inspire filmmakers to dig deep into the darkest corners of their mind and create some hair-raising, bone-chilling, scream-inducing films.
While there are a few films dating back to 1929, the 1970s were the dawn of great horror films produced in Spain, beginning with La Noche Del Terror Ciego (Tombs of the Blind Dead), which kicked off Amando de Ossorio’s living-dead series.
Censorship from the fascist dictatorship meant that many early horror films—like La Marca del Hombre Lobo (Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror), which put Paul Naschy on the map for his wolf man performance—were co-produced with foreign countries. Filmmakers found ways around the censorship stipulations, like setting their films in non-existent, ambiguous locations in Spain.
The early 2000s brought another wave of horror-fan favorites, and it’s still going strong, with popular films like The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, and the [Rec] film series. From gore to psychological thrillers, Spain continues to export horror masterpieces.
While many Spanish-produced horror films went underappreciated when they were first released, they have become cult favorites for fans of the genre across the globe. Here, in chronological order, are Ten Terrifying Horror Films Produced in Spain.
1. La Noche del Terror Ciego / Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1972)
Cheesy 1970s music, gratuitous sex scenes, and characters making illogical decisions—this film has all the requirements of a B horror cult favorite. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw an explosion of horror films, ready to subvert the censorship established by the dictatorship. But the film credited with starting of the horror golden age is La Noche del Terror Ciego.
Virginia (Maria Elena Apron) and Roger (Cesar Burner) run into an old friend, Betty (Lone Fleming) and invite her on a trip. But when jealousy erupts, Betty jumps off the moving train and finds shelter in a creepy, old abandoned monastery. Of course, that night the corpses of Templar knights rise from the dead to drain the blood of anyone they encounter.
The special effects may include a lot of bright, gushing blood, but the iconic scene where the mummified knights raise from the dead solidified this film’s position in the horror canon. After Betty’s body is found, Roger and Virginia search for the answers behind her mysterious death and are led down a path of ancient rituals and blind Templars.
The popularity of the film brought about three sequels that never lived up to the original. It became a cult favorite among film fans for its gory effects and slightly blasphemous connotations.
2. ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? / Island of the Damned (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976)
This is one of the two films ever made by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, a household name in Spain for his Historias Para No Dormir (Stories to keep you awake) television series. While the English-language Title Island of the Damned is certainly fitting for this film, the original title— which translates to “Who can kill a child?—captures not only the moral dilemma of the protagonists, but also the social question posed in the film.
The opening credits play over newsreel-style background of man-made disasters, displaying the number of innocent children who lost their lives as collateral damage in wars and other conflicts created by adults. Then we’re introduced to our main characters, tourists Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), who are looking to relax on a vacation before their child is born.
They travel to an island that they expect to be peaceful, but when they arrive they find that only children live in this island, and they have disposed of all the adults. Something evil has taken over these children, who treat killing like a game. Their laughter resonates throughout the hot, bright, desolate landscape.
What corrupted these children’s innocence is unclear, but Tom and Evelyn are in danger, trapped in this anti-paradise, and they have to ask themselves, “can we kill a child?” You’ll have to find the answer for yourself, and don’t be surprised if you start to think about how the deaths of children are treated in society.
3. Angustia / Anguish (Bigas Luna, 1987)
At a time when American audiences were flocking to the theaters to fill their minds with serial killers and haunted house nightmares, Bigas Luna created a film that would appeal to (or terrorize) audiences worldwide. This cult favorite stands out in the history of Spanish-produced horror films for its film-within-a-film plot that brings the viewers into the paranoid world on-screen.
John (Michael Lerner) is an ophthalmologist and an eye collector, who steals the eyes of his victims in the hopes that it will cure his blindness. He acts under the influence of his Hitchcockian mother (Zelda Rubinstein), whose control over him is embodied in her hypnotic power.
But John isn’t the only one under her influence. There is an audience watching their story unfold on the big screen, in a film titled The Mommy, and strange forces seem to be at play. As two young girls, Patty (Talia Paul) and Linda (Clara Pastor), watch the film in terror, they begin to fear there is a serial killer hiding in the movie theater crowd.
Audiences who went to watch this film in the theater were caught in a paranoid frenzy, looking over their shoulders as the film achieves an atmosphere of uncertainty and discomfort. While there are a few bloody scenes—what is it with Spanish directors and eyes?—the true terror comes from the sensation that someone is lurking behind you.
4. Tesis / Thesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996)
While the evil is mostly atmospheric and ambiguous in Amenábar’s The Others—more on that later—in his first film, Tesis, it’s all about what we see right in front of our eyes.
Angela (Ana Torrent) is working on a dissertation about media violence, and it seems Amenábar is doing the exact same thing with this film. It begins with a mundane activity, commuting by train, when a horrific accident awakens Angela’s desire to see the carnage, conflicting with her aversion to what she might see.
The visual violence continues when Angela finds her thesis advisor dead after watching a snuff film. His heart couldn’t bear the horrors, but Angela’s curiosity incites her and her friend Chema (Fele Martinez), a gore and porn aficionado, to watch the film. A girl is tortured on-screen, and the viewer’s morbid curiosity is enticed when we see Angela cringe with terror and crave a glimpse of what she’s seeing on the screen.
An investigation into the perpetrator of this voyeuristic crime devolves into an intricate web of subverting genre and gender conventions, implicating the viewer in the turbulence of seduction and fear. While some critics found fault with the plot and gore, this film delves deep into the genre, exploring the psychoanalytic aspects and historic context of its story.
5. El Epinazo del Diablo / The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
“What is a ghost?” an ominous narrator asks at the beginning of this film, suggesting that the memory of something tragic can become trapped in time and space, condemned to repeat itself. This is a recurrent theme is Guillermo del Toro’s horror and fantasy films. The Mexican director is known for the eerie, magical worlds he creates in his films, many of them produced in Spain.
His main characters tend to be curious, special children who are made strong and brave by their life of suffering. One such child is Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is left in an orphanage that houses an unexploded bomb in the middle of its courtyard. Carlos immediately notices something is going on in this strange place, haunted by a young boy whose mysterious death goes unsolved.
He meets the ghost of a young boy—the orphans call him “the one who sighs”—whose mysterious death goes unsolved. While the other boys try to pretend like nothing is going on, Carlos is not afraid to approach the ghost in search of an answer for the his ominous warning, “Many of you will die.” It’s up to the orphaned boys to discern truth from superstition and fend for themselves as a war-torn country explodes around them.
As in many of del Toro’s films, the supernatural beings are never quite as scary as the humans who condemned them to a life of tragedy. He uses horror to highlight the chilling consequences of human selfishness and how war affects forgotten children. You might be surprised at who you end up rooting for in this modern classic.