Days of Beasts and Cocaine: An Alex de la Iglesia Double-Feature
The first time I ever heard of Alex de la Iglesia might have been around the time Witching & Bitching was coming out back in 2013. Or maybe it was The Last Circus in 2010. Regardless, I remember the film sites – at least the ones for genre nerds like me – invoking The Day of the Beast (not quite Iglesia’s debut, but near enough) in tones that were ironically reverential, given the gleefully blasphemous tone of the film itself.
I never got around to watching it, though. Or, indeed, any of those other films I named off, so that, prior to getting this pair of 4K discs from Severin, the only one of Iglesia’s pictures I had seen was The Oxford Murders, which I don’t actually remember very well but almost certainly isn’t the best or fairest place from which to judge the director’s oeuvre.
Lately, it’s been the HBO series 30 Coins that has been breathlessly invoked to me by all sorts of folks who think I would dig it. They may well be right. I don’t have HBO because Malignant isn’t on there yet, so maybe I’ll check it out when that happens. In the meantime, though, anyone who is coming to Iglesia’s work via 30 Coins has a nice opportunity to view a painstaking restoration of two of the films that put the director on the map thanks to Severin’s 4K releases of Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango.
That’s what I did; two-fisting this particular double-feature with a shot of Day of the Beast and a chaser of Perdita Durango. It’s probably a fair way to approach the material, even if it’s also a pretty guaranteed recipe for a hangover the next morning. There’s a scene in Day of the Beast where our protagonist is attempting to conjure Satan. He drops a bunch of tabs of acid into a bowl, then squirts in some virgin blood from a syringe and mixes it all up. It gives a pretty good idea of what you’re in for.
“I intend to commit all the evil I can.” – The Day of the Beast (1995)
There’s a reason why Day of the Beast is spoken of in such reverential tones by those who speak of it. As horror comedies go, it is very much its own, well, beast. Let’s start with its unforgettable logline: A priest who has spent the last 25 years studying what he believes is a cipher hidden in the Bible thinks that he has uncovered the date of the Antichrist’s birth. Not so unique yet; indeed, there are countless movies that depart from a similar jumping-off point. No, it is in his methodology that Day of the Beast begins to show its true colors.
He knows the date and the city where the Antichrist will be born, but not the specific place. To learn that, he plans to summon up the devil, sell his soul, and, from his new place by the devil’s side, strike at the newborn Antichrist before it can bring about the end of the world. Except that he doesn’t know how to summon the devil and, even if he does, he has to convince the Prince of Lies that he has renounced all good. To this end, he goes about committing “all the evil I can.”
To say that Day of the Beast never really gets any better than its opening moments, watching our priest as he “learns to sin,” is maybe to do it a disservice, but it’s also true. Those opening moments are an absolute delight, especially as his motives haven’t yet been spelled out. The whole thing is something pretty special, though, right up until an ending that, sadly, kind of peters out.
The way they shuffle in the images of the leaning towers; the way our entitled fraud of a psychic TV show host reacts to seeing the supernatural proven real; pretty much everything involving Santiago Segura’s metalhead character. The whole thing is profane and stylish and wacky without ever feeling like it is either stylish or wacky just for the sake of being stylish and wacky – a balancing act that is difficult to pull off at the best of times.
“You can’t always be in control.” – Perdita Durango (1997)
Read up on Perdita Durango much online and you’ll find endless reams of people talking about its “magic trick” of making the absolutely irredeemable protagonists likable or sympathetic or whatever. But in my experience, it is actually casually easy to make unrepentant predators palatable to the public so long as you present them with a sheen of “cool,” which Perdita Durango certainly does. It’s been done a frankly probably irresponsible number of times in movies, and one need not look far to find folks venerating real-life serial killers, pretty much none of whom had any actual “cool” about them.
While Perdita Durango is clearly part of the ‘90s boom of these kinds of neo-noir pictures, following on the success of Quentin Tarantino’s early films, several people online have rightly pointed out that, before all is said and done, it more closely resembles Rob Zombie’s trilogy of flicks following the murderous Firefly clan (themselves borrowing heavily from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) than Elmore Leonard. Also, Tarantino only wishes that he’d shot that scene at the end where the movie morphs into 1954’s Vera Cruz for a minute.
The resulting melange may be tamer than its reputation suggests, but it’s still wild to imagine that this fable of Santeria, kidnapping, rape, murder, child molestation, savagery, and a truckload of human fetuses was ever going to be De la Iglesia’s English-language debut. And it’s easy to see why the film sat on the shelf for a couple of years, and why some sequences got trimmed in releases all around the globe, resulting in a wide variety of running times.
The version on 4K from Severin is uncut and unexpurgated, meaning that it clocks in at nearly 130 minutes and, frankly, outstays its welcome before it gets there, even if you have patience for its shock jock cocktail of sexual assault and general depravity. It also means that the movie’s pacing problems are preserved for posterity. Perdita Durango is a fairly intense ride, but also one that feels like it should be over nearly a full hour before it stops.
One of the interesting things about Perdita Durango is the cast. Besides Rosie Perez in the title role, beating the shit out of people, making tourists uncomfortable, watching Urotsukidoji II, and suggesting cannibalism, there’s an entirely out-of-control Javier Bardem, fully a decade before Anton Chigurh. James Gandolfini shows up to drop F-bombs, make dead baby jokes, and get hit by cars. A young Demian Bichir plays a gangster. Santiago Segura reappears. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is delightfully Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for no terribly good reason. (Also, the two teenage hostages both show up in Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth, of all places.)
Perdita Durango is also interesting for its pedigree. It’s based on a novel by Barry Gifford, who also wrote Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. In fact, the characters of Perdita and the crime boss Marcello Santos both previously appeared in Wild at Heart, where they are played by Isabella Rossellini and J. E. Freeman, respectively. Also interesting is that, when Perdita Durango finally did get released stateside, it took the title Dance with the Devil, which comes from a throwaway line Bardem’s Romeo shouts, when he is expressly quoting the Tim Burton Batman.
I’ve seen Iglesia’s work compared to Guillermo del Toro, which is maybe inevitable because they’re both predominantly known as Spanish-language genre filmmakers and, let’s be honest, people are kinda racist like that. While it’s not the most obvious or enlightening comparison to make, though, it isn’t like there’s nothing there. The two share a similar sense of humor, even if Del Toro has never made anything nearly so frank as either of these pictures, and, of course, both stars of Day of the Beast went on to appear in GdT films.
There’s something else they both share too, though. Something much more important. A genuine affection for characters whose (often very deep) flaws are also what makes them so warmly human. That’s more true in Day of the Beast than Perdita Durango, where the predators get the most development and the innocent victims are little more than caricatures, but it’s there in unexpected places, nonetheless.