Not so long ago, Paul Naschy and Jess Franco alone, all but defined Spanish cult cinema. Their idiosyncratic celluloid dalliances were the result of many years spent tenaciously plowing their particular lonely furrows -- regardless of respectable opinion or mainstream tastes -- until they eventually acquired a small group of admirers from among those who value energy, originality and individuality above received ideas about film making competence. Balaguero, though, is a young filmmaker who has obviously been reared on the mainstream horror greats of the last thirty years, and who's film "language" would be easily understandable to most cinema audiences. Strangely, the director doesn't seem to have made much of an impression as a horror auteur in North American and U.K. territories as of yet ("Darkness," his collaboration with Brian Yuzna's Film Factory, recently failed to secure a U.S. theatrical release after being taken up by Miramax) and none of his films are even available on DVD in either country. But with his latest movie, "Fragile," now in production (starring, of all people, Calista Flockhart), this seems like as good a time as any to examine the brooding occult-thriller which initiated that recent Spanish horror mini-boom. Obviously greatly influenced by Fincher's "Se7en" in its uber-stylish visual aesthetic and downbeat moodiness, "Los Sin Nombre" nevertheless, occasionally manages to hint at the thoroughly nasty form of Lynch-ian surrealism evident in Balaguero's early short films (more on them later); this, ultimately, saves it from being just another copycat, Hollywood horror-lite and fosters hope that Jaume Balaguero could be the first great European horror auteur of the twenty-first century!
This new dawn for Spanish horror actually came about because of a British horror writer, Ramsey Campbell -- the film being an adaptation of his 1981 novel, The Nameless. It begins with the discovery of the mutilated body of a six year old girl, dumped in a vat of bulic acid in a disused factory. Despite the fact that the girl's body has been so disfigured as to make normal identification impossible, Detective Massera (Karra Elejalde) is soon convinced that the body is that of Angela Gifford: a missing child whose case he has recently been investigating. The girl's teeth have been smashed in, her skin burned off by the acid, and needles placed all over her body while she was still alive -- all part of some kind of ritualistic murder according to the pathologist! The discovery of Angela's bracelet nearby, and the fact that the body shares a shortened right femur bone with the missing girl, is enough to clinch the case. Massera faces the unhappy prospect of confronting the girl's distraught parents with the news of their daughter's unspeakably evil demise.
Five years later and Massera has made little progress in solving the crime. Having lost his wife and new-born child due to fatal complications with his wife's pregnancy, the detective is retiring -- all but a broken man! Angela's parents have split-up in the aftermath of their daughter's murder, and the mother, Claudia (Emma Vilarasau), is trying to pick up the pieces of her life by throwing herself into her work at a publishing company. Then, one day, she receives a phone call from a young girl claiming to be Angela! The girl claims her death was faked and that she has been held prisoner all these years; imploring Claudia to come and get her, the girl claims that she would be punished if her captors ever found out she had made this call!
Upset and confused, Claudia contacts Massera and the two embark on a disturbing journey into a shadowy occult underworld connecting The Thule Society (a secret Nazi occult sect that included Hitler among its members!) with a sixties para-religious group called The Nameless -- founded in Britain by an Argentinean version of Aleister Crowley, called Santini (Carlos Lasarte). They learn that he is still alive and being held in a Spanish prison on charges of molestation of minors. His sect is also still active, and dedicated to it's bizarre belief in "the synthesis of evil" -- which it believes can be brought about by the sect's (literally) nameless members committing atrocities in order to obtain a higher plane of being.
Claudia and Massera are aided in their investigations by a journalist of the paranormal called Quiroga (Tristan Ulloa) who becomes involved in the case when someone sends him a video tape of a ritual murder carried out by masked men, which also includes secretly filmed footage of Claudia! The trio uncover more and more clues, and a meeting with the deranged Santini leads to the final piece of the puzzle being slotted into place -- and a confrontation with pure evil ... at the derelict hotel where Angela was first conceived!
The opening sequence of the film -- Massera's arrival at the crime scene in driving rain and his viewing of the child's body -- immediately signposts Balaguero's modern-day influences; it's filmed in what is now the standard fashion for Hollywood thrillers ever since David Fincher's "Se7en": all de-saturated colours and sepia-tinting! Normally, I have an aversion for this kind of over-slick production, but here it proves most effective in conveying the emotional desolation of the two main protagonists, numbed by grief as they are. Director of photography, Xavi Gimenez, is allowed to take the process to such great extremes that the movie often achieves an almost expressionistic, film noir-ish, mis-en-scene thanks to some stunningly beautiful manipulation of light and shadow -- particularly in the aforementioned opening sequence where colour is almost completely bleached from the film.
Thereafter, Balaguero uses the highly unnatural, stylised photography of Gimenez in combination with the carefully conceived colour palette of his art director, Matias Tikas, to give the viewer a very immediate sense of the state of mind of Claudia and Massera. One is given the impression that Claudia has put all emotional investment in life on hold. Both her work environment and home are devoid of any vivid colour: her office is particularly stark, and one scene is lit in such a way as to make a vase of roses on her desk appear almost black! This is in stark contrast to a later scene where we see Claudia enter her daughter's bedroom: suddenly the screen appears to become impregnated with vivid colour; although we're not really talking a Suspiria-like assault on the senses here ... it's just that the viewer is so devoid of rich, natural colour for most of the film that the smallest intrusion of it soon comes to have a profound effect on the eye. (An effect Balaguero continues to exploit throughout the film.)
The next thing the viewer notices is that this room has been preserved in exactly the same state as it must have been in five years' previously upon the daughter's disappearance; we realise that Claudia is living as though her daughter were still alive and could return at any time ... when her own life would also begin again. This is a subtle and clever device by Balaguero: never at any point in the film does Claudia ever actually talk about her feelings -- simply because of the atmosphere created around her we imperceptibly come to share the character's blunted, claustrophobic feelings of emotional numbness and her quiet desperation. Massera's character is similarly tortured -- living alone in his shadowy apartment with only his memories of his departed wife. It's a good job that the aesthetic look of the film conveys the internal mood of the protagonists so well, since the screenplay certainly isn't as efficient at doing the same thing! Actors Emma Vilarasau and Karra Elejalde display great sensitivity and restraint in their roles; resisting the temptation to indulge in overwrought emotional histrionics while still creating an empathy with the viewer that draws us in to the dark world they inhabit. It is unusual to have older people in the lead roles of a successful horror movie and it proves to be a refreshing change.
Balaguero's use of sound design in the film is equally as striking as his visual style. He appears to have the same talent as David Lynch for creating a sense of unease and foreboding with the layering of sound. The design for "Los Sin Nombre" is full of low, menacing rumbles, punctuated by sudden bursts of jolting sound; the director's penchant for the occasional bout of showy, dynamic editing is combined, and works well, with this technique -- creating several effective shock moments. I found the score to be a major disappointment at times though: it relies far to much on hackneyed, emotional, piano-based music cues that would sound more at home in a cheap TV movie, and this often works against the director's attempts to build atmosphere with his sound design.
Balaguero proves to be an incredibly versatile and cinematic director then: his grasp of the more visual and audio aspects of the medium are unparalleled. The screenplay is not quite up to the same standard at times though. I'm not familiar with Ramsey Campbell's novel but I suspect that the story has been greatly simplified for the film. This is fairly standard in film adaptation of course, but the narrative seems especially linear here, and follows a rather straight investigative line. For much of the run-time the film plays more as a dark mystery thriller than a horror film (along the same lines as Polanski's excellent "The Ninth Gate," but without the subtle strain of ironic humour) and hard-core gore fans may well be disappointed.
One area where the screenplay does work though, is in creating a convincing impression of the shadowy, titular cult. We get to hear a great deal about their history and their strange and disturbing beliefs, and a paranoid feeling that the cult's tentacles are everywhere manipulating events is convincingly intimated. The small amount of violence that is depicted is often hideous and very unpleasant, thanks to Special Effects wizard, Adolfo Vila, who does a fine job of creating the acid-burned body of the small child at the beginning of the film: a gruesome construction which sets the viewer on edge waiting for the next atrocity, in much the same way as Cronenberg managed in "Scanners" after the head exploding scene at the start of that film. Balaguero builds the tension slowly but assuredly until we reach the inevitable unforgiving climax. The emotional body blow delivered by the final scene more than makes up for many of film's shortcomings!
The DVD, released in Spain by Filmax, is a bit of a mirage: from a distance it appears to be a very agreeable, two-disc Collector's Special Edition -- beautifully packaged with a stylish, embossed slipcase, and complete with a glossy booklet inside. But upon examination there are a few disappointments with this release: First of all, it's non-anamorphic -- and if you want to watch the film in its original Spanish language with English subtitles, then you can't blow up the 1.85:1 ratio image to fill a widescreen TV because the subtitles are confined to the lower black band! Luckily, I have a 1.66:1 option on my TV, so I could still watch the film with a decent sized image without losing the subtitles (only with thick black bands around the whole picture!), but many people without this option may be forced to watch the film in 4:3 mode -- which is always annoying! Secondly, although the print quality is generally good, there is far more print damage on display than you would normally expect from a recent film. Luckily, this never gets bad enough to become too distracting.
Lastly, there is a bit of a con concerning the extras. Disc one contains the film and a small amount of extras related to it, which consist of a nineteen minute "making of" featurette; information on the cast & crew and the novelist; trailers & TV spots and a music video for the hideous sub-Goth track that plays out over the film's closing credits. All of this stuff is in Spanish of course, so is of only limited use to the non-Spanish speaking foreign viewer -- but that is not the source of my complaint. That centers on the fact that the second disc of extras contains exactly the same extras as the first disc!! This must be the most shameless DVD con of all time! Even the information on the cast, crew and novelist is reproduced, word-for-word in the accompanying glossy booklet! The second disc does also include Balaguero's two early short films, but together, these only have a run-time of little-more than fifteen minutes, and could have easily fitted onto the first disc. Unfortunately, these shorts are so good that this fake Special Edition is still worth getting -- despite this dodgy trick by Filmax!
On the positive side, the film comes with three robust audio tracks. The original Spanish one is the best and comes in 5.1 DTS. As mentioned, the film has a great sound design and this DTS track will give your system a good work out! There are also English and Catalan 5.1 audio tracks. The English dub is quite poor, due to the rather unsubtle dubbing of the lead actress, but if you want to watch the film with the picture filling a widescreen TV, then this is your only option.
The real plus point of this set is the inclusion of Jaume Balaguero's two early short films: "Alicia" and "Dias Sin Luz." These prove to be way more visually extreme in their depiction of disturbing scenes than "Los Sin Nombre" and display a more Lynch-ian sense of the surreal. If you were turned off by the weird, mutant baby in "Eraserhead" then you will find both of these films to be quite hard to watch. "Alicia" features an odd, elf-like young woman, naked apart from white panties, who lies listening to "Georgia On My Mind" on an old forties-style radio. Suddenly, she has a heavy period ... and this seems to prompt the appearance of two half-fly, half-human creatures in frog-suites! They then proceed to force-feed the naked girl with a gloopy, slimy substance; drill into her neck with a power-drill; and attach her, via tubing, to a massively obese woman in a space helmet whose huge, flabby breasts she greedily suckles from!! If you think this all sounds rather weird, then you'd be right! This black and white, five minute short is the closest thing to Lynch's "Eraserhead" I've yet seen, and displays fantastic black & white photography and another great soundscape. "Diaz Sin Luz" meanwhile, is the tale of a young boy whose mother dies in childbirth and is brought up by relatives with a penchant for sadomasochistic sex! When the male relative dies during a particularly heavy bout of whipping, the boy is imprisoned and grows up as a sort of human sex toy! This ten minute short is filmed in brown sepia tint and, once again, features some extreme and surreal imagery. There are no English subtitles with these two films but this doesn't matter since the images tell the stories, particularly in the case of "Alicia" which has no dialogue at all anyway!
The inclusion of these two shorts saves this disc from being a bit of a dud when compared to the Italian edition. "Los Sin Nombre" is an assured debut from a promising new director, and one of the most interesting European horror movies to appear for some time -- it is well worth checking out.