Film, Gothic, Portfolio

The Man Who Kept Spain Awake

(First published in FT383, September 2019)

On the evening of Friday, the 4th of February, 1966, television screens in Spain went dark for a second. A flash of lightning revealed a set unusual in Franco’s era: a Gothic window, a cobwebbed shelf with a skull serving as a bookend. A soft masculine voice pronounced the names embossed on the book spines: “Maupassant, Gaston Leroux, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Stevenson. They all wrote immortal tales. Stories where horror, madness, and fear intertwine. Stories that often robbed of sleep those who read them.” It was the beginning of Historias Para No Dormir, or “Stories To Keep You Awake”, the wildly popular series that ran for just three seasons, but that defined the horror genre in Spain. Its creator and director, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, affectionately known as Chicho, passed away aged 83 this June, four months after having received an honorary Goya Award for a lifetime achievement from the Spanish Film Academy. At the ceremony, an internationally successful new generation of Spanish horror film makers (Alejandro Amenábar, Juan Antonio Bayona, Rodrigo Cortés, and Álex de la Iglesia, among others) paid tribute to a man whose work was adored by the masses, but whose influence is often understated.

Historias para no dormir
Historias Para No Dormir

Ibáñez Serrador was born in Uruguay, the only child to an actor couple. After his parents split up, he stayed in South America with his mother, who was often touring. He was a sickly child who enjoyed reading horror classics, but he’d also been bitten by the acting bug, so when he and his mother moved to Spain he appeared in several theatre plays. He cut his directing teeth in Argentina, where he helmed Obras Maestras del Terror (1959), a TV adaptation of short stories by Poe –whom he called his god—, Stevenson, or Ray Bradbury.

In Franco’s Spain, however, horror (that of the fictional kind) was a rarity. It had seldom been shown on screen: aside from Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961), there were traces of it in the silent films of Segundo de Chomón and in Edgar Neville’s Expressionist mystery La Torre de los Siete Jorobados (1943). When Chicho returned to Spain in 1963, he knew he had to use a different calling card. Sci-fi was an internationally popular genre, so he showed the executive directors of TVE an episode of Mañana Puede Ser Verdad, the sci-fi anthology series he’d co-directed with his father, Narciso Ibáñez Menta, in Argentina. They agreed to broadcast it. Since the response from the audience was positive, he was offered to direct a Spanish version of the series.

Historias Para No Dormir came later, capitalising on the success of the former. It was conceived as an anthology of horror and suspense, with adaptations of classic stories (La Pata was based on W.W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw”, El Pacto on Poe’s “The Facts in The Case Of M. Valdemar”) along with new stories written by Ibáñez Serrador himself under the alias of Luis Peñafiel. In the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, he introduced each episode, using a different tone for each tale, and often resorting to black humour. In his first introduction he revealed his intentions to the audience: here, he said, they wouldn’t find “suspicious-looking butlers”, “old manor houses”, or thunder and lightning. He made it very clear: he wanted to strip the genre off its conventions –and so he did.  

The first episode, El Cumpleaños, was based on “Nightmare in yellow”, a short story by American mystery writer Fredric Brown. As jazz music played in the background, two diamonds branded the top right corner of the screen–the infamous “dos rombos” qualification, the censor’s warning that the content was only suitable for over 18s. Indeed, Ibáñez Serrador intended to shock the spectators: the use of internal monologue forced them to identify with the main character, a man with a pencil moustache who would have looked at ease in Franco’s cabinet, but who, on his 50th birthday, plans on murdering his wife and robbing the bank where he works.

Many of the episodes starred his father, the wiry, charismatic Narciso Ibáñez Menta, blessed with dark, soulful eyes and an unforgettable booming voice. El Asfalto, based on a short story by Carlos Buiza, was one of those. Its climax, where the protagonist is swallowed by the tarmac after all the other characters ignore his pleas for help, sticks in the mind. Its themes—social isolation, the loneliness of the individual in an increasingly fragmented environment—resonated, and it received the Golden Nymph Award at the Festival of Montecarlo in 1967, putting Spain on the map as a producer of quality television content. The TV executives were elated.

1968 would turn out to be a landmark in Spanish horror, due to the unexpected success of La Marca del Hombre Lobo (aka Hell’s Creatures), the unlikely monster film that almost starred Lon Chaney, Jr., but that instead launched the career of Paul Naschy as the Spanish “Man of the Thousand Faces”.

Suddenly, the long neglected genre was seen as profitable, able to seduce the international market. By then, Ibáñez Serrador’s persona had become synonymous with horror, so who better than him to deliver the next commercial success? La Residencia, known in English as The House That Screamed, was his first film and remained his personal favourite, a lavishly Gothic slasher set in a girls boarding school in 19th century France. Shot entirely in English, with an international cast fronted by the German Lilli Palmer, it became the most expensive Spanish film ever made at the time, and the highest-grossing film of 1969 in its country of origin.

Even though censorship policies had relaxed over time, Ibáñez Serrador still had to comply with the code. The censors were more worried about obvious displays of flesh than with any questionable content that remained merely hinted at, so he delivered a piece brimming with psychosexual tension: repressed lesbianism, sadomasochism, incest. The film is by no means standard Gothic fare: the embroidery sequence is a fine example of his directing skills, and the oddly melancholic murder scenes made history, since slow-motion had never been used in Spanish cinema to depict such an act of violence. The censors labelled the film with a 4, the qualification reserved to “seriously dangerous” films. Months after its release, people were queueing outside film theatres to see it.

Almost a decade later, he completed his masterpiece, the bleak cult classic Who can kill a child? (1976). Long before Children Of The Corn, Ibáñez Serrador presented a crowd of sinister children who take over the streets of an idyllic village in an island off the coast of Spain. The first part of the film, where an unsuspecting British couple–a loving husband and a pregnant wife—arrive at the sunny holiday resort and encounter a slightly off-kilter scenario that soon descends into a maelstrom of violence, is almost unbearably tense. The unthinkable moral dilemma of the title delivers a punch in the guts whose effects linger long after its viewing.

Both of his feature films—he only directed these two—left a clear mark in Spanish cinema, but they were only part of Chicho’s legacy. In 1981 he sat in front of the camera again, this time for Mis Terrores Favoritos, where he introduced his favourite horror films: classics such as The Innocents and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? along with more recent productions, like Horror Express, Let The Sleeping Corpses Die, or 10 Rillington Place. At a time when films weren’t easily available, he educated a whole generation in scares.

Aside from the horror genre, his biggest hit was probably the game show Un, Dos, Tres, which premiered in 1972 and was exported to several other countries (its English version was 3-2-1, shown on ITV between 1978 and 1988). But, even though he produced many family-friendly entertainment programmes, his public image remained associated with the horror genre until his death.

Historias Para No Dormir was revived in 2005 as Películas Para No Dormir, or “Films to Keep You Awake”. For this new series of TV movies, Ibáñez Serrador recruited Jaume Balagueró, Alex de la Iglesia, and several other acclaimed genre directors. He even directed one of the films himself: La Culpa, his last directing credit. But the revival didn’t sit well with the audiences. Recently, EL PAÍS asked him why Historias Para No Dormir resonated in Franco’s Spain. “Maybe because the fear that the film instilled in you was larger than the one you felt in your everyday life,” he replied. “Fear on screen is always a refuge. Feeling that there are worse things is a comfort.”

This entry was posted in: Film, Gothic, Portfolio

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Maria is a freelance writer, editor, and communications manager based in Bristol, UK. She specialises in history, art, myth, and mystery.