Latino/Hispanic Contributions to the Horror Genre
Banner Photo Courtesy of “The Orphanage” (2007) J.A. Bayona
By: J. Carlos Menjivar
My journey in mapping the successes and influences of Latino (and/or Hispanic) filmmakers in the United States proved to be a bit difficult, even more so, when confined to the paradigm of a single genre, in this case, horror. Latinos love horror films, we devour them with a voracious and insatiable appetite. According to NPR, Latino’s make-up about half of box office receipts when it comes to the horror genre, an almost 25% jump from general Latino movie viewership. This task of extrapolating the most influential Latino horror filmmakers would turn out to be a laborious endeavour that would ultimately lead me to a few conclusions. First, most successful Spanish speaking filmmakers are imported from countries such as Mexico and Spain. Very few homegrown, meaning those Latinos born in the U.S. with Latin American heritage, actually make horror films in the U.S.
Yet despite the lack of homegrown filmmakers, the influence of Latino perspectives is not absent, whether implicit or explicit. There have been a few Spanish language horror films that have been remade into American features, while other Spanish language films have found success in their native language as foreign imports.
Nevertheless, Latino filmmakers have made way and cracked into the horror genre and influenced the genre in more ways than one. Below is my journey through an abridged history of Latino and Spanish language horror films. By no means is this comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. I can guarantee that I left out your favorite Latino filmmakers and films from home and abroad, just be aware that I’m aware. I aim to promote those homegrown Latino filmmakers that have worked in the genre as well as those imported voices and minds that prove that horror is a universal language of film understood by all. When it comes down to it, horror is the most unifying and palpable genre of them all. The western is wholly American; comedy is too broad; drama is specific to a culture. Horror explores our preoccupation with the tenuous and vulnerable idea we call life, in constant threat by things both real and imagined, by monsters and men, alike.
Of course we could start by taking it back to perhaps one of the first, and most important films in Spanish language horror and the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931), a nearly identical replica of the American version made so famous by its start Bela Lugosi (the Spanish version is actually a half-hour longer). The Spanish version was shot at the same time as the English version, except, director George Melford (who did not understand Spanish) shot at night with his cast and crew, but used the same sets as the English version. Featuring Spanish speaking actors from Mexico, Spain, and Central and South America, the Spanish version (written by B. Fernandez Cue) is arguably the better of the two, exuding an atmosphere and lingering darkness absent in the Hollywood gloss of the Lugosi film.
But let’s flash forward now to late 1960s Pittsburgh and one of the most prolific and influential directors of all time. I’m talking about the grandaddy of low-budget films, and father, and king, of the zombie film: George A. Romero and his seminal film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero, born to a Lithuanian-American mother and Cuban father, is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and influential horror filmmakers in the world. With such films as the aforementioned, and revolutionary Night of the Living, Romero’s cadre also included the rest of his zombie films– Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005)— as well as the revisionist vampire film Martin (1977); the socially conscious The Crazies (1973); and the EC Comics tribute anthology feature Creepshow (1982), just to name a few.
Apart from being an influence to low-budget filmmakers everywhere it’s worth noting that Romero’s films, especially his earlier works, proved that beyond the violence and gore of the horror genre there sometimes exists a thematic core. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero manages to implicitly explore race relations, an unintentionally bold move at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Although Romero himself has dismissed his choice in casting African American actor Duane Jones as mere coincidence, it is a testament to his vision as a progressive filmmaker in making his lead, the heroic Ben, black. Romero’s dismissive attitude is rendered moot once the full film unfolds and our protagonist is hunted down by a trigger happy posse of white men. Aided by its cinema verite style, the final moments elevate the film as a testament of violence against black men, who are seen and portrayed as threatening, in a chilling denouement that eerily resembles a documentary.
In Dawn of the Dead, the director depicts a culture ravenously overtaken by commercialism. Not only do the undead rampage towards the malls that traverse our American landscape, but our protagonists, in an attempt for survival, head to the mecca of capitalism for safe haven and the comfort of materialism. In Day of the Dead, the filmmaker focuses on militarism, smack in the middle of 1980s Conservatism, and post-Vietnam anxiety. Even his later effort Land of the Dead, features the theme of elitism, big business, and class dichotomy, and just like all his other films, set to the backdrop of blood and guts.
To keep this piece as short as possible, and in an effort to not sound so didactic, we will flash forward to the 1990s. But before that it is worth mentioning the extensive filmography of Spanish filmmaker Jesus Franco, whom you may know by his almost limitless pseudonyms, like Jess Franco or Franco Manero. But whatever name you know him by, horror fans have at least seen one of his films. It’s not very hard to come across one of Franco’s films as the director dons an enviable directorial filmography of 200 films. Maybe you’re familiar with Oasis of the Zombies (1982), or Venus in Furs (1969), or even, perhaps his most famous film, Vampyros Lesbos (1971). Franco is the unsung hero of schlock, low-budget cinema, and this short paragraph dedicated to the filmmaker does very little justice to the cadre of work he has provided indie horror.
The 1990s would spawn filmmakers like maverick jack-of-all-trades Robert Rodriguez, the Mexican-American Texas based filmmaker who has made a living out of being a true independent DIY filmmaker whose action films, like his ultra low budget debut El Mariachi (1992), made for a mere $7, 000, would go on to inspire future filmmakers. Although, mostly an action director, Rodriguez is no stranger to horror as his one half of the Grindhouse (2007) double-feature, Planet Terror would illustrate. The quasi-zombie film is a send-up of classic schlock from the 70s and 80s, it’s all blood and gore, and pure adrenaline fun. But a decade before that the filmmaker would burst onto the Hollywood scene with such films as the vampire tale From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and the Carpenter-esque The Faculty (1998).
Although Rodriguez has found success in Hollywood, while working outside the system from his home state of Texas through his Troublemaker Studios, his influence in independent cinema is paramount, and one that spawned a primer on DIY filmmaking, his book Rebel Without a Crew. The book and Rodriguez’s story has gone on to inspire filmmakers in a multitude of genres and he still remains one of Hollywood’s most elusive and inspirational mavericks of film. Furthermore, Rodriguez is an important figure in Latino cinema as one of the few homegrown Latino filmmakers who’s dabbled in the horror genre. Filmmakers like Luiz Valdez and Gregory Nava have made names for themselves in the U.S. working almost exclusively in dramatic films.
Nevertheless, beginning in the 90s, and just below the border, Hollywood began importing talented Mexican directors to work on big budget productions. Perhaps the most iconic and visionary of those directors is Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro who has gone on to become somewhat of a household name with such films as Hellboy (2004), Blade II (2002), and Pacific Rim (2013). Del Toro‘s first feature film, a Spanish language Mexican production, Cronos (1993), is a stunning and imaginative revisionist vampire flick, about ancient relics and curses, a modern gothic piece of meditative horror.
Del Toro would go on to make his American debut with the sci-fi horror film Mimic (1997) and return once again to his Spanish language roots with his film Mexican-Spanish production of The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Much like his critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Devil’s Backbone is set to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The film is an eerie ghost story set in an orphanage, and one that deals with memory and tormenting pasts, as well as serving as a subtle indictment of war and its detrimental effects on humanity.
The Del Toro visual style has become a staple in his films and is one that is immediately apparent in any of his work. Perhaps his knack for visuals is what attracts audiences to his complex films like his dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, which is set to a war torn Spain and deals with the inhumanity of war and loss of innocence. Moreover, his creature creations have become inoculating mainstays that continue to attract American and international audiences alike.
As we move on, it’s worthy to mention the horror film at the end of the 20th century that would go on to inspire a whole generation of low-budget filmmakers for years to come. This film changed the game, and shock audiences in the pre-information age, and made us wonder: what we just saw, was it real? The film of course, which would garner fame and recognition for its verisimilitude, is The Blair Witch Project (1999), co-directed and co-written by Cuban born Eduardo Sanchez (along with Daniel Myrick).
The film has been labeled as the precursor to the prominence of the found footage subgenre. Although, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) precedes the film by two decades, that film was more shocking than it was influential, with the former film inspiring a whole subgenre that has cropped up in abundant numbers within the last decade. Since the success of the low-budget film, Sanchez has gone on to work on films like Altered (2006), V/H/S 2, the segment “A Ride in the Park” (2013), and episodes of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.
There is no denying the impact of The Blair Witch Project on the horror genre, and to this day, we’re still witnessing the effect of that film and how filmmakers approach low-budget filmmaking as less an obstacle, and more as an opportunity for intuitive creativity. The film proved that less is more in the horror genre taking the adage of Poe’s The Raven, that what is not seen is much more terrifying than what is.
In the new millennium a slew of imports would find success behind the camera (and on paper) at the helm of some of Hollywood’s most successful films, and ones that would strike a chord with audiences and critics alike. Of the following Spanish speaking filmmakers many found monetary success within the Hollywood system, proving to be inventive and proficient filmmakers with differing perspectives.
The critically acclaimed and twisty ghost story The Others (2001), from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenebar, director of the fantastic horror/mystery/thriller Tesis [Thesis] (1996)— about a film student and her thesis paper on violence in movies which leads her to a brutal snuff film– found major success at the box office. The import trend would continue with such filmmakers as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, from Spain, with 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Intruders (2011). Another Spanish born filmmaker, Jaume Collet-Serra would helm films such as the remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax (2005) and would go on to direct Orphan (2009) and this year’s sleeper hit The Shallows (2016).
After the critical acclaim of the Del Toro produced The Orphanage, an eerie and effective ghost story similar to The Devil’s Backbone, director J.A. Bayona would go onto succeed as a director on the short-lived horror TV show Penny Dreadful. Bayona has proved to be a master behind the camera with such Oscar-Buzzy films as The Impossible (2012), and the upcoming A Monster Calls (2016), a visually stunning fantasy drama.
Besides Mexico and Spain we’ve had a few imports from South America. From Venezuela, writer Sebastian Gutierrez has a made a name for himself with such films as Gothika (2003) the Halle Berry led thriller; The Eye (2008), remake of a Japanese film of the same name; and Snakes on a Plane (2006), the outlandish tongue-in-cheek Samuel L. Jackson film. Even more recently, Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez made his feature debut with the gruesome The Evil Dead (2012) remake, which brought back the franchise from the dead in bloody and gritty fashion. This year’s critically acclaimed Don’t Breathe, considered one of the best horror films of the year, was also the brainchild of Alvarez (and collaborator Rodo Sayagues).
The influence of Spanish language horror has made its presence known in the U.S. with films like [REC] (2007), by Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balaguero (Sleep Tight ), whose film was remade into an American version, shot in the same faux-documentary style, called Quarantine (2008). In 2011 Silent House was remade from a Uruguayan film La Casa Muda [The Silent House] (2010), in which Elizabeth Olsen starred in the remake.
The few American born Latino filmmakers that I came across include Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from Corpus Christi, Texas. Gomez-Rejon is the man behind the remake of the 1970s classic The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014), written by Nicaraguan-American Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also wrote the remake of Carrie (2013).
From the multitude of Spanish speaking nations, diverse filmmakers from diverse backgrounds have brought over a cache of work that is both influential and important to the history of horror film, while at the same time adding new perspectives to their American work. Latino/Hispanic filmmakers have proved to be proficient and talented when it comes to the horror genre and hopefully this is a trend that continues to grow with time. As we have seen, horror is a language Latinos/Hispanics understand very well, and I hope to see more of us out there expanding and perpetuating that legacy.
Keep the Fear Alive!