Day of the Beast (1995)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: March 30th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Apocalyptic hysteria is a hell of a thing. It’s come in fits and starts throughout human history: not only do many religions have an armageddon baked into their mythologies, but the past has also been full of end-times freakouts. From ancient civilizations (Assyria, Rome) to modern culture (Y2K, 2012), people have been utterly convinced of the precipice of doom at various points, only to see the prophesied dates come and go mostly without incident. Such fits are natural, I think—just like we often see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, some feel the need to go a step further and be prophets of an apocalypse. What I don’t know is if it provides a measure of comfort, like some kind of strange coping mechanism to reckon with the perceived horrors swirling around the folks that get caught up in it. From the outside, it all looks like a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and arguably no filmmaker better captured this sensation better than Álex de la Iglesia in Day of the Beast. Horror movies and the apocalypse have often been natural bedfellows, and the pictures have often dwelled on the dread of it all, which tracks—the armageddon probably will be some scary shit, and I hope never to witness it. Pardon the obvious turn of phrase, but de la Iglesia took a devil-may-care approach with Day of the Beast, a screwball, splatstick riff on the theme that exposes the absurdity of it all.
After poring over the Book of Revelations, Father Cura (Álex Angulo) is convinced he’s cracked a cryptic code that reveals that the Antichrist will be born in Madrid on Christmas Day. Armed with this knowledge, he sets out on a quest to sin as much as possible in the hopes of attracting the devil’s attention. His assumption—and it’s quite a leap, to be sure—is that he’ll curry favor with Satan himself in order to discover the time and place of the Antichrist’s birth. With no other course of action, he barrels through Madrid, where he forms an unlikely alliance with a record store metalhead (Santiago Segura) and a charlatan TV host (Armando De Razza). Together, the trio indulge in blasphemy, performing unholy rituals and seek the devil in all of the obvious places: rock concerts, Nostradamus conferences, and, of course, television.
Day of the Beast thrives on pure provocation—its very premise involving a sin-stained man of the cloth is inherently blasphemous, and de la Iglesia indulges it early and often, inundating viewers with offbeat black comedy. When a huge stone cross falls and crushes Father Cura’s fellow priest to death in his own sanctuary, it’s practically a starting gun that sends the frenzied priest on an unholy marathon where he steals from beggars and shoves street performers. It’s a masterful bit of screwball comedy, with Angulo throwing himself into unrepentance, taking a put-on, faux-delight in the proceedings. The glimmer of desperation underpinning his madcap antics maintains the apocalyptic fervor though: there’s something genuinely unhinged lurking in this provocation, almost as if de la Iglesia harnessed the most fevered hysteria and imprinted it on celluloid.
But that hysteria quickly becomes hysterical as de la Iglesia mounts a chaotic comedy of errors. It turns out that Cura and his new associates are pretty bad at this, mostly because the priest only has a half-assed idea of what he’s doing. His feeble attempts to show his work and explain the equation of the Armageddon looks and sound like the stuff of a rambling lunatic, and much of the humor derives from his steadfast belief in it all. Even when the phony TV host insists that his own occult books and prophecies are bullshit, Cura doesn’t waver. He summons the goddamn devil anyway in a scene that feels like the Coens reimagining The Devil Rides Out. Day of the Beast is episodic in this respect, with each new sequence proving to be more disastrous than the last as they procure a virgin’s blood and scale skyscrapers during their frenzied quest.
However, Day of the Beast never feels jagged or uneven because de la Iglesia’s direction is so assured. Blending the macabre with the comedic is often a tricky proposition, but he masterfully intertwines them here, with the former often punctuating the latter as a demented punchline. The macabre adds a menace in its own right, too, grounding the film just enough that the outlandish plot never descends into outright farce. In the margins of the film, a roving gang terrorizes the city, leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. The sight is so commonplace that at one point a customer patronizes a convenience store littered with corpses, dropping his money on the counter without so much as reacting to the horror. Moments like that create the sensation that de la Iglesia is yanking you down a truly horrific rabbit hole, where Cura isn’t just tilting crosses at demonic windmills. They suggest Day of the Beast does depict a genuine apocalypse, with the expected Christmas merriment providing an ironic undercurrent to a grim reality.
De la Iglesia doesn’t succumb to that grimness, though, nor does he dwell on the existential nature of Cura’s dogged but ridiculous quest. He provides an answer to the looming question of the apocalypse’s reality but does so in admittedly banal fashion. Just as Day of the Beast looks to be working up to a fever pitch, it climaxes with a simmer that never quite boils over; instead, it yields to a relatively restrained resolution, which I suppose might be for the best considering it involves a newborn child and its family falling victim to a shootout. Still, it’s an odd climax that doesn’t quite fit with what comes before, and it should be noted that de la Iglesia didn’t settle on it until the end of production. Day of the Beast very much feels like a movie driven by provocation that has a little trouble figuring out exactly what to do with that provocation.
Of course, maybe that’s the point in and of itself: Day of the Beast is a reminder that sometimes sheer provocation can be substantive, perhaps even sublime, especially when it’s in the hands of a master like de la Iglesia. His manic style gives this blasphemy distinct, vivid quality by weaving a gothic fantasy imagery through a gritty, realistic mise en scène. It really feels like he unleashes hell on earth: the gore is sloppy and ample, splattering grimy interiors when the characters aren’t bolting through the neon-splashed streets of Madrid. Despite the mania, de la Iglesia crafts it with precision, capturing the madness with dynamic angles to match the story’s unhinged verve. Day of the Beast is the type of movie that doesn’t grab you by the collar so much as it sinks claws into your flesh and expects you to hold on as it drags you along, purposefully bludgeoning you on its rough edges. It’s a riotous melding of the sacred and the profane, best exemplified by its principal characters—a priest, a bogus occultist, and a metalhead—joining together to vanquish evil. Each of the leads is instrumental to making this wild enterprise work: not only do they have great, comedic chemistry, but each one is utterly committed to their roles and play it as straight as possible.
This might be the film’s most crucial gamble: daring to imagine the apocalypse as a black comedy driven by utterly sincere, infectious performances. The very proposition feels like pure chaos and speaks to the alchemic nature of this kind of filmmaking. Day of the Beast feels like black magic, an impossible charm summoned from the nether reaches of fringe, lunatic filmmaking, a movie so anarchic that it qualifies as one of the most indelible Christmas movies and apocalypse movies all at once.
Despite garnering critical acclaim and ushering in a new era of Spanish cinema, Day of the Beast has been remarkably obscure Stateside, as cult enthusiasts have had to import DVD releases from other regions. Severin Films has righted this in a very big way, though, by making it a part of its inaugural batch of 4K UHD releases (alongside de la Iglesia’s Perdita Durango). With the 4k upgrade comes the usual uptick in resolution and color replication, though I will say that some of the effects-heavy sequences (Day of the Beast was among the first Spanish films to use CGI) look a little rough, if not downright video-like. It’s a minor (and likely unavoidable) quibble, though, especially when we’re talking about a film that hasn’t even been made available in standard HD up until this point. The DTS-HD MA audio doesn’t disappoint, either: it’s a boisterous, thumping soundtrack with nice channel separation and teeth-rattling LFE.
The supplements are also the best kind of extras: substantial, informative, and entertaining. Headlining the extras is Heirs to the Beast, a feature-length 2016 documentary about the film’s production. It begins by setting the table and describing the landscape of Spanish film heading into the 90s: a scene dominated by political and prestige features, where genre fare was often considered disreputable and unprofitable. However, an entire generation of movie brats like de la Iglasia were raised on the work of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, which inspired them to forge their own schlocky paths. Heirs to the Beast eventually settles on charting de la Iglesia’s career starting with his 1990 short film “Mirindas Asesinas” and feature debut Acción mutante. Many of the key cast and crew members of Day of the Beast feature prominently as the doc explores every nook and cranny of the film’s production, from its conception (where we learn that Pedro Almodóvar was too spooked to produce it) to its eventual release. It offers a little bit of everything, from on-set dirt (it turns out that De Razza did not get along with his director) to some nice nuts-and-bolts peeks behind-the-scenes. Vintage, on-set footage provides some nice insight into some of the more elaborate scenes sprawling with extras and a manic de la Iglesia directing them.
But what I appreciated the most was the critical insight to Day of the Beast, where various commenters place the film within the socio-political context of 90s Spain. This is admittedly not an area of expertise for me, so this commentary illuminated a dimension of the movie I didn’t initially pick up on. De la Iglesia admits that the film was an act of impish provocation, but it was a calculated provocation aimed at deliberately upsetting the well-mannered apple cart of his native cinema. What’s more, the film thumbs its nose at the crypto-fascist and capitalist elements haunting Spanish society. Heirs to the Beast isn’t just a mere retrospective; it’s also an insightful work of criticism that does what all great criticism should do by providing an angle and a lens to help enlighten the audience.
Providing this documentary would have been thorough enough, but Severin has gone the extra mile and produced four new interviews with de la Iglesia, de Razza, actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, and DP Flavio Martinez Labiano. They clock in at just over an hour in total, with the director’s being a substantial 30-minute interview to the DP’s amounting to little more than a 2-minute soundbyte. Severin has also included trailers and presents “Mirindas Asesinas” in full, making this quite a crucial release. Just finally providing access to Day of the Beast is a major coup, but Severin has rarely been content to just unearth these kinds of films without lavising them with the proper attention they deserve. This is no exception, and we can only hope it’s the beginning of a long foray into the realm of 4K UHD. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel like I absolutely need to see how Malabimba’s black magic works in the highest possible resolution.
comments powered by Disqus Ratings: