Compared to some of his contemporaries in Spanish cinema such as Jess Franco or Eloy de la Iglesia, José Ramón Larraz had a much more curious career trajectory before arriving in film. Larraz had previously pursued careers in both comics and photography. Like Jess Franco, Larraz left Spain after becoming disenfranchised with the censorship under the regime of General Francisco Franco. As a comic artist, Larraz constantly came under fire from Spanish censors. The biggest contention was Larraz’s depiction of women in his jungle adventure comics. Anything that was considered sexually suggestive, such as slightly parted lips, was removed, despite Larraz himself feeling his drawings were fairly chaste compared to American comics of a similar nature. This led to Larraz purposely drawing in a way to avoid his work being stifled. Larraz’s efforts were to no avail and he eventually moved to France, where he enjoyed a second career as a fashion photographer, although Larraz also had a desire to make films. In 1968, Larraz found himself talking with legendary director Josef von Sternberg at a bar in Brussels. Larraz would humorously recall Sternberg’s “very romantic view of the film industry” during an interview on the set of Eurotika! , a Channel 4 series dedicated to his films. Sternberg told Larraz “All he needed to make a film was a camera and actors and do the film however he wanted; Let someone else worry about it after the film was done.” As Larraz himself stated in that very same interview, he more or less followed Sternberg’s advice.
An Anglophile by way of his mother, Larraz spent most of his early directorial career in England. Here he developed his calling cards quickly, proving himself to be adept in the realm of the horror/thriller with Deviation (1971), Scream and Die (1974), and most famously, Vampyres (1974). Larraz’s early films were marked by mysterious and torrid scenarios, tormented and sexually repressed characters, and isolated countryside locations. Larraz’s work stood out from the other European horror fare of the day, due in part to Larraz’s knack for perverse, uncomfortable moods. Although not particularly fond of violence or sexuality in film, Larraz’s early works were notable for their visceral outbursts of both. Violence being the release of unbearable tension, often inflamed by said sexuality, masterfully mounted by Larraz, but more than anything else, it’s the unparalleled atmospherics that set Larraz apart. His British films often outdid works by native English directors when it came to conjuring the most character out of the British countryside. The pinnacle of this early period were his final two British films, Symptoms (1974) and Vampyres. A magnum opus of sorts, Symptoms seemed the film Larraz had steadily been working towards from his debut, Whirlpool (1970). Symptoms are thematically not only the perfect culmination of all the ideas worked out in the films that led up to it, but aesthetically as well. The film personifies the term “English gothic” but in a unique contemporary 1970’s sense. Selected to be the British entry into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, Symptoms was also unique among Larraz’s British films in that sexuality and violence were much more understated. Larraz focussed solely on what was always his main interest when it came to horror, mystery. Following Symptoms and Vampyres, Larraz returned home to Spain, beginning a new, unpredictable phase in his directorial career.
Not that Larraz would ever leave horror. His most memorable Spanish titles being Black Candles (1982), infamous for the obvious reasons, but Larraz also gave films like La muerte incierta (1977) and Estigma (1980) the same unique ambiance to Spanish horror as his British films. Larraz’s final trio of horror films, Rest in Pieces (1987), Edge of the Axe (1988) and Deadly Manor (1990) even made it Stateside. There were no doubt many video store patrons that happened upon them unaware they were from one of the genre’s masters. Larraz’s Spanish period however also saw him dabbling in other genres. He became known as much for his over-the-top comedies as horror, even merging the two in films like Polvos mágicos (1979) and La momia nacional (1981), while the Laura Gemser led …And Give Us Our Daily Sex (1979) took a more conventional sex comedy route. There was Madame Olga’s Pupils (1981), the complete opposite of Larraz’s previous, more unclassifiable erotic feature, The Coming of Sin (1978). Larraz even found himself at the helm of a female James Bond riff, The Golden Lady (1979), and perhaps most surprisingly, a six-episode mini-series Goya (1985) based on the life of Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Much like Franco, a lot of Larraz’s filmography might seem all over the place, particularly this Spanish period. However, when viewed as a whole, a much larger picture emerges. This is especially true when it comes to the series of dramas that Larraz made at the start of his return to Spain. These films carried over all the sexual tension and combustible atmosphere from Larraz’s British horror films, though were noticeably less explosive. They nevertheless bear the hallmarks of a highly identifiable filmmaker.
Larraz certainly wasn’t alone in using female neurosis, especially sexually repressed nature as a driving force in his films. Much like Franco and José Bénazéraf’s tragic heroines, Larraz’s tormented females are much more than the standard cinematic “frigid” women. While sexual repression or trauma do factor in, so many of the women at the center of Larraz’s films suffer from a deep-rooted case of separation anxiety and fear of abandonment. Angela Pleasence’s outstanding portrayal of Helen in Symptoms might be the most fully realized version of the personality traits Larraz gave his characters. Larraz had previously explored the idea earlier in Emma, puertas oscuras (1974) and it pops up in later works like Edge of the Axe and Deadly Manor. Subtracting any outright expressed murderous impulses, Larraz worked many of his favorite psychological characteristics into Charo Lopez’s Piedad, the woman at the heart of Luto riguroso (1977), wherein Larraz reworks his usual tension for the context of grieving yet feuding family. Translated to “Deep Mourning”, Luto riguroso opens with the funeral of a patriarch, after which Larraz immediately reveals the surviving family members to be at each other’s throats. The cause of the rift in the family seems to be Piedad, the eldest daughter, who is openly scornful towards her mother Doña Asunción, and younger sister Tina, who treats her youngest sister Loli more as if she were a harsh teacher than an older sister. Piedad’s initial hateful nature is revealed to be much more complex throughout the course of the film, as Larraz reveals more of the strange family structure while still keeping some family secrets ominously hidden.
Best described as “provincial gothic”, being set in the Spanish countryside, and almost every character donning black and in a bitter mood, Luto riguroso may not be one of Larraz’s horror films, yet the film does possess a gloomy horror ambiance. The specter of the recently deceased father certainly haunts Luto riguroso, though curiously any critical information about him is one of those secrets Larraz keeps obscured. What’s hinted at throughout is the nature of the relationship between Piedad and her late father, the main wedge between Piedad and Doña Asunción. Unlike in films like Whirlpool or Scream and Die, where Larraz was outright and explicit in his depiction of incest, Luto riguroso is more suggestive. Late in the film, a character memorably remarks feeling that the “sensuality oozes through the walls” of the family household. Piedad might not lash out psychically like some of the other women in Larraz’ films. However, her character arc throughout Luto riguruso makes an interesting case study when compared to some of Larraz’s other morose females. Particularly interesting is the development of a subplot involving Loli being abused by a local hermit resulting in a pregnancy, which finds Piedad becoming much softer, almost maternal, in her treatment of Loli. Piedad ultimately seems like much more of a mother figure to Loli than Doña Asunción, whom Larraz presents as being consumed with frivolous jealousy. Piedad’s disposition early on in the film eventually becomes more understandable the more Doña Asunción’s personality reveals itself. Larraz once again brilliantly subverts Piedad’s “frigidity” or sexual frustration with a fascinating character trajectory involving her sister Tina’s older boyfriend Mario. This leads to somewhat of a conclusion with a slightly lighter tone than the rest of the film. Much like in his horror films, the ambiguity Larraz is so fond of lingers as the credits scroll over the final freeze-frame.
Larraz also explored matters of conflict contained within the Spanish home with the, even more, interior El mirón, albeit with a drastically different setting and a cast of characters. Changing scenery from the provincial countryside to a middle-class Madrid apartment, El mirón, “The Voyeur”, begins with the marriage of Roman and Elena (Alexandra Bastedo in her first of two roles for Larraz, the second being Estigma), already at a crossroads stemming from Roman’s fetish of wanting to watch his wife with other men. Despite trying to fulfill her husband’s fantasies, even going so far as letting Roman bring strangers home, Elena can never fully go through with sleeping with any of them, much to Roman’s frustration. With the rift in their marriage growing wider, the two become more withdrawn from each other. Further complications arise when Elena becomes more than friendly with a young neighbor. Certainly one of the more visually stylish films from this early Spanish period, especially with its soft-focus soap opera aesthetic, El mirón is also a surprisingly subdued film given the subject and director. Rather than the exploitative peep-show the provocative poster promises, Larraz instead opts for a psychological chamber drama approach while never sacrificing the trademark tension he so effortlessly conjures. Establishing the voyeurism fetish from the very beginning, Larraz ensures an awkward distance between Ramon and Elena in each scene. In another device pulled from Luto riguroso and tweaked to fit this story, Larraz further compounds Ramon and Elena’s living situation with the presence of another disagreeable mother character, Ramon’s ailing mother living in the same apartment.
Ramon may be the titular “mirón”, but much like Charo Lopez as Piedad is the heart of Luto riguroso, it’s Bastedo’s Elena and her struggle to understand her husband that makes up the emotional anchor of El mirón. Ramon’s voyeurism takes on an entirely new dynamic later in the film when Elena meets and begins an affair with her and Ramon’s younger neighbor across the hall, which causes further friction in their marriage. While Elena’s sleeping with another man is technically fulfilling Ramon’s wish, the fact that he wasn’t present to witness it becomes an issue. What becomes clear is that Ramon’s voyeurism is in part dictated by an element of control. He wants to see his wife with other men, however, he must be the only orchestrator in each extramarital moment. Again, like in Luto riguroso, Larraz uses these later plot developments to reach a form of conclusion yet offers no true resolution, ending once again with a few potential “what if” scenarios that only offer the slightest air of optimism. Larraz himself was in complete control of the material at the time, El mirón being one of Larraz’s personal favorites. In the invaluable book Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984, Larraz spoke at length of El mirón in the chapter dedicated to his films. Here, he explains the origin of the story as well as his own thoughts on voyeurism, Larraz told authors Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill:
“I made what I wanted. It was a story I was interested in myself. A psychiatrist told me about it. I’m not interested in being a voyeur. I’m interested in voyeurism because I think that seeing everything is a fantastic gift of nature. I like to see everything, put my nose everywhere… I am very interested in people who have this aberration, even though I think the work aberration is very stupid. Nothing for me is an aberration. The world is natural because it exists. The film was about the problem of a typical bourgeois, educated, who lives with his mother in a flat in Madrid. He’s conservative, with the idea to get married to what society calls a “decent girl” and suddenly he discovers that he’s a voyeur. For him it is a terrible situation, it is against his beliefs and principles. He becomes neurotic. That’s the story. It’s problematic for a person who discovers that and he can’t get rid of it. It’s based on a true story of an Englishman who was a rich tourist, and this man saw a shoeshiner looking at the knickers and legs of his wife. At the hotel later he says to his wife “Did you see that dirty old man looking at your legs?” She said, “Oh, I was embarrassed, but what could I do?” He noticed something that night-he became more excited than other nights. Next night he’d start again with the same conversation, and the conversation became a leitmotif. Every night he became obsessed with that idea. The moment he can’t talk about this he can’t get an erection. That is authentic. Then he arrived at the point where he needed to see the shoeshiner in bed with his wife, and what happens is it finishes his marriage, his own life. It destroys him. In sex, if you start to be inclined toward something, after going ten degrees you have to go more and more and more.”(1)
Following a return to horror with La muerte incierta and erotic fantasy with The Coming of Sin, Larraz came back to the idea of marriage at somewhat of a standstill, while also bringing back some of the thriller elements from his early British films with La ocasión. Taking off from El mirón, La ocasión opens with a married couple, Pablo and Anna (Teresa Gimpera), whose relationship has certainly seen more exciting times. Returning to their beachfront property, they find the house broken into and trashed. Pablo’s suspicions immediately turn to a gang of hippies squatting at the farm next door whose presence he is determined to be rid of as he becomes more and more annoyed with their antics. While not entirely thrilled with the group herself, Anna isn’t exactly fond of Pablo’s overly antagonistic attitude either. Larraz gradually fuses the ensuing conflict with the hippies with Pablo and Anna going through their own motions until the two collide in the third act when after reporting the gang to the police, the leader pays Pablo and Anna a visit.
La ocasión certainly has the most commercial appeal of the three featured films and also features Larraz returning to his thriller roots. This somewhat gives the film its appeal to fans of his early films, Deviation being the film La ocasión most clearly recalls with both films villainous hippies resembling a Manson family type of clan. Larraz even re-stages the infamous barn sequence from Deviation with the hippies in La ocasión in a similar scenario. Though the film is noticeably lacking the distinct atmosphere featured in Larraz’s early films, his handling of the tension slowly turns the film into a genre piece on par with the best of his British films. Perhaps it was his return to the genre with La muerte incierta and The Coming of Sin that brought out Larraz’s thriller instincts, though La ocasión is a logical successor to the likes of Luto riguroso and El mirón, as like Lopez and Bastedo before her Much of the film is carried by Teresa Gimpera’s subtle performance. Again, while not accepting of their behavior, there is almost a nervous excitement to Anna when it comes to the group. Their free-loving lifestyle is the antithesis of Pablo’s hyper-conservatism and given the time the film was made, it’s difficult not to see Pablo as Larraz’s view of a Francoist still holding onto antiquated ways. The title of the film, “The Occasion”, is a reference to Anna’s questioning Pablo of his thoughts should the occasion arise for her to sleep with another man. It’s at this moment where Larraz takes the film into previously uncharted territory. The unnamed leader of the hippie gang arrives with a gun and sets his sights on Anna. Gimpera’s work here is exceptional when viewed through the hypersensitive lens of modernity, Anna’s character motivations and Larraz’s direction would surely cause a firestorm and instigates a few debates regarding a host of issues.
It was after La ocasión when Larraz moved into comedy with Polvos magicos with …And Give Us Our Daily Sex and La momia nacional following not long after. Despite the receipts of Polvos magicos and La momia nacional, two of Larraz’ most successful films at the Spanish box office, Larraz was quoted in Immoral Tales telling Tombs and Tohill “That’s all anybody thought I could direct from that point on.”(2) and “In Spain, they like crazy comedies, but in these films I always despise the stupidity of the story”(3) (Both Polvos magicos and La monia nacional were written by Larraz as well). Larraz returned to erotica and horror once more with Black Candles and remained in horror more-or-less for the remainder of his career. The lone standout return to dramatic material being the Goya mini-series and later Viento del pueblo (2002), a mini-series based on the life of Spanish poet Miguel Hernández. Ironically, in spite of his distaste for absurd comedies, Larraz’s final film before ultimately retiring would be a cop comedy, Sevilla Connection (1992). While a majority of Larraz’s key genre titles have been rescued from obscurity and given their deserved restorations and releases, it’s questionable how big the demand would be for the trio of Luto riguruso, El mirón and La ocasión, with the possible exception of the later, compared to Vampyres, Black Candles or Edge of the Axe. However, fans of Larraz’s horror films who wish to go deeper should find alongside three of the finest performances from Lopez, Bastedo and Gimpera, all the characteristics and personality in all three films that made Larraz one of the most special and individualistic European filmmakers.
1-3.Tohill, Cathal and Tombs, Pete. Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, 1956-1984. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995