Monday, February 23, 2009

THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (El Espiritu de la Colmena, 1973)

A whole little genre of Spanish-language horror cinema begins with this unusually eerie movie which has practically no supernatural content whatsoever. But it has the setting -- Spain in the aftermath of Franco's victory in the Civil War -- and the key figure of a small child -- that we've seen often since, especially in Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Having seen Victor Erice's debut feature, I can understand how profound its influence must have been. It's creepier than many of the Paul Naschy vehicles and Blind Dead films that represent the Spanish horror genre of the time.

It opens over children's drawings and with the classic words "Erase una vez" -- Once upon a time. The time is the early 1940s, and the movies are coming to a small Castillian town. Is it a horror movie? A cowboy movie? Right the first time: it's James Whale's Frankenstein, as announced by a female town crier. But before the show, we're introduced to a beekeeper, Fernando, and his wife Teresa, who we find writing a letter to someone close whom she left behind because of the war.

Frankenstein plays at City Hall, on a bring your own chair basis. Edward Van Sloan makes his customary introduction in dubbed Spanish, which when re-translated into English comes out rather different from the text I remember. The kids in the audience are held rapt by the Monster, especially his encounter with Little Maria by the lake. Recall that this is almost certainly the censored version of Frankenstein, so that the children don't see Karloff dump the girl into the water. But they do see Maria's father carry the dead girl into the middle of the wedding festivities, and this sight disturbs one little girl in particular. This is Ana (Ana Torrent), and she and her slightly older sister Isabel are Fernando and Teresa's children.

Heading home from the show, Ana asks Isabel, "Why did he kill her?" Isabel promises to explain later, after she chases Ana home with the cry, "It's Frankenstein!" In their bedroom that night, accused of being a liar if she doesn't tell, Isabel explains that "Everything in the movies is fake," but that she has seen the Monster in person. He is a spirit that can put on a disguise and travel about at night as if he has a human body. It might be possible for Ana to meet and talk to him.

Ana now has the Monster on the brain. It doesn't help that the next day's schoolwork involves attaching cutout body parts to "Don Jose" as part of an anatomy lesson. Ana gets to give him his eyes. After school, Isabel shows her sister where "Frankenstein" lives. It's an abandoned barn across a vast stretch of farmland. In a beautifully composed long shot, the tiny figures make their way across the field to the barn, where they inspect the barn and a well without results. Later, Isabel explains that Ana won't be able to see the Monster until he gets to know her. Isabel is plainly making it up as she goes along, but Ana doesn't understand this.

What does Mom know about spirits? "With the very good girls they're always good," Teresa tells Ana, "but with bad girls they're bad." But Ana is a good girl, isn't she? She visits the barn regularly, hoping for a glimpse of the Monster, while Isabel looks on. Later, while playing with her dad's typewriter, Ana hears a crash and a scream. She finds Isabel laid out on the floor beside a broken flower pot and a swaying rocking chair. Ana can't rouse her. She leaves the room, then peeps back in. Isabel's still laying on the floor. Now Ana's worried. She runs out to summon Milagro the maid, but can't find her. She comes back to the room to find Isabel gone. Then gloved hands grab her from behind. Isabel has pranked her again.

Later yet, we see a man jump off a moving train. He limps across a familiar field to the familiar barn. Inevitably, Ana discovers him. He points a gun at her, but she offers him an apple. Later, she fetches him more things: a coat that has a musical pocket watch in it, and more food. We've seen the watch before: it's Fernando's.

An apple a day keeps a monster at bay? Ana tests the premise in THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE.

One night, the air around the barn crackles with gunfire. The next morning, Fernando is summoned by the police. They want to know why the dead fugitive has his coat and watch. At the family table later, Fernando's suspicions grow. On her next visit to the barn, Ana is stunned to discover that her new friend is gone. When she sees bloodstains on the ground, and discovers that her father had followed her, she draws a terrible conclusion and flees. There follows a torchlit search through the woods out of a movie while Ana seeks shelter by a stream. In the moonlit water she sees a familiar face. In the dark of night rather than daylight, the Monster meets another little girl....

It takes a little while for The Spirit of the Beehive to define itself, but once it adopts Ana's perspective, it becomes a powerfully evocative story. It acquires a patient pace to accommodate her struggles to understand what's going on. This pays off in the scene in which Isabel plays dead. We ought to anticipate that she's pranking her sister, but Erice plays the scene out at such length that we, like Ana, begin to worry about what we're seeing. The director also has a strong sense of proportion, best illustrated in the walk across the field, where we're able to appreciate the vastness of the field compared to the tiny figures of the girls, who we can still see distinctly from a great distance walking across. Erice has an impressive sense of depth and distance. Throughout the film, Ana is the focus and balance of composed images that reinforce her vulnerable smallness and the potentially threatening bigness of everything around her. The result is a constant sense of anxiety that the world might swallow her up. The actress, seven year old Ana Torrent (who grew up to be a fairly attractive woman and award-winning actress who still works in movies, including last year's The Other Boleyn Girl) is one of the best child performers I've ever seen. She's not precocious in any way or inordinately charming, but quite convincing as a confused little girl under the spell of a great movie.

The "spirit of the beehive" is explained in something Fernando has been writing, in which he predicts that anyone who examines the glass beehive he's built and the "mysterious maddened commotion" inside will feel "indescribable sadness and horror." The honeycomb pattern on the door panes in Fernando's house invite an analogy with a large beehive, and Ana has seen both commotion and horror, some fake, some fraudulent, some all too real. A doctor says she'll "begin to forget" her experiences, but the final scene suggests that they'll leave their imprint just as Frankenstein did -- that they'll be superimposed together for a long time yet. The Spirit of the Beehive may leave a similar imprint with people who watch it in the right spirit. The trailer will tell you what to make of it, but you should be able to draw your own conclusions.

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