It's not your usual Christmas movie. It's more of an Antichrist-mas.
It's the story of a mild-mannered priest (Alex Angulo) who wants to meet the Devil. This is disconcerting. He's clearly a nice guy who's not enjoying any of this, yet he's decided that he has to commit pointless crimes, listen to heavy metal and burn the soles of his feet with cigarettes. "I must learn to do evil." You see, he's cracked a code in the Book of Revelation in its original Hebrew, which proves that the Antichrist will be born in Madrid on Christmas Eve 1995. This will bring about the apocalypse. Fortunately though Angula knows it's his job to save the world, with a plan that goes as follows:
1. sell his soul to Satan
2. having thus won Satan's trust, find out where the Antichrist is being born
3. kill it
The maddest part is that he thinks this is rational. It hasn't occurred to him that anyone might question his conclusions, let alone his sanity. This makes the film unsettling, as cuddly little Angulo stamps through Madrid and you're never sure how far he'll go. It's funny in a slightly disturbing way to see him vandalising cars and shoplifting, for instance, but you know it's not going to end there. Would Angulo commit murder? He wouldn't be happy about it of course, but Satan would. I got particularly uncomfortable when his satanic ceremony turned out to need virgin's blood.
This film has a ton of personality. Angulo gives the movie electricity, both funny and frightening in a lovable way, but he's only the beginning. Santiago Segura plays a fat, hairy freak (and ex-theology student) who loves death metal and thinks Angulo is cool. If Satan's involved, he's all for it. Armando De Razza is a sleazy TV host who's built his career around the occult. Even Madrid itself is a dark, alien place where Segura's mother is openly racist and a vigilante organisation of Clean Up Madrid fascists is setting homeless people on fire.
I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of religious horror movies. For some reason they don't seem to work for me. There's something in The Exorcist and The Omen that doesn't connect with me... but this worked. I think it's that the film is playing off its own ridiculousness. The whole point of Angulo is that he's a milquetoast on a mission. He's a gentle man who thinks the fate of the world depends on him being an evil loathsome badass. For a good twenty minutes we don't even know who he is or why he's doing all this, while you'll have to wait a good deal longer than that to find out if his hypothesis is right. Will we meet Satan? Does Angulo belong in a padded cell? (This might not be an either/or question.)
Just as importantly though, religion here is largely a backdrop. You could almost call it a McGuffin. It's obviously the heart and soul of the story, but what we're actually watching most of the time is freaky people doing scary things.
The movie's quirky, though in a dark way. Segura's family includes a loudmouth gun-toting mother and a senile grandfather who walks around naked. De Razza's relationship with his TV production team later in the film is hysterical. Angulo at times hardly seems to belong in the present day. "That was the first television program I've ever seen." Oh, and it's a hoot to be reminded from time to time that this is all happening on Christmas. "It's Santa!"
The director, Alex de la Iglesia, is someone I'll definitely be seeing more of. He's made English-language movies (Perdita Durango, The Oxford Murders), but it's his Spanish work that sounds like a must-watch. I've been hearing amazing things about his The Last Circus (2010), while he's also made films like Mutant Action (outcast cripples rise up against their handsome oppressors in a post-apocalyptic future), 800 Bullets (a Spaghetti Western in which the characters are old stuntmen), Common Wealth and Ferpect Crime (black comedies). Pedro Almodovar was the producer on his debut feature and he's often mentioned alongside people like Alejandro Amenabar, Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Del Toro. He also tends to do well at the Goyas, Spain's film awards, with today's movie winning six Goyas (Best Director, Make-Up and Hairstyles, New Actor, Production Design, Sound and Special Effects) and being nominated for eight more, including the big ones. This is clearly a man to watch.
As for the actors, these include Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Tragically she never takes off her low-cut red dress, but on the upside we do see her running in it. Ooooh. I liked her. She's best known for Il Postino and as one of the Bond girls in The World Is Not Enough, incidentally. However there's also Santiago Segura, winner of that aforementioned Best New Actor Goya, who's now an actor, screenwriter, producer and director and whose work includes the highest grossing Spanish film of all time (Torrente 2: Mision en Marbella). The Torrente films are about a sleazy crime fighter and the third one's advertising campaign parodied Batman Begins
. Segura's also been in various del Toro films like Blade II and Hellboy
Anyway, this film is cool. It's silly, but also creepy as hell. It takes ridiculous stuff literally and puts it in a dark, dark world. It's violent, of course. The finale is perhaps a little disconcerting, but I think the ambiguity about whether our heroes succeeded is meant to be deliberate. It's got character coming out of its ears and weird deadpan black humour, plus of course one of the oddest protagonists you'll have seen in a while. It's one thing to want to sell your soul to Satan, but I'd never considered the practicalities of an innocent little old priest actually trying to do it. Looks like a pain in the neck (not to mention other locations). Easily the best Christmas horror film I've found yet, by such a margin that it feels slightly insulting to be making that comparison. I like Spanish cinema.