Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Álex de la Iglesia in 4K: Perdita Durango & The Day of the Beast

I jest in the review of The Day of the Beast that Severin probably got a nice boost for these 4K disc releases from HBO showing a pretty damn great horror series from Álex de la Iglesia early in the year, but the two discs with the same release date that I ordered at the same time shipped separately, with Day arriving a few days after Perdita Durango, and it doesn't seem to be too much of a stretch to suppose that the TV show about a rogue priest trying to thwart an evil plot with biblical roots might get some interested in looking up the film that has the same description (in very broad strokes).

It's an interesting and exciting swing for those of us who have liked de la Iglesia for a long time and noticed that he's kind of disappeared from American screens in recent years - I didn't realize that The Bar existed until it showed up on Blu-ray in Hong Kong (I gather it's a Netflix exclusive in the USA), and his remake of Perfect Strangers hasn't made it to the USA at all (the Spanish-language version available here is the Mexican version). One of the fun things to happen in early 2021 was having 30 Coins sprung upon us and then having it be really great, then having these two UltraHD versions of his early movies drop. It's a nice, splashy return to visibility for a cult filmmaker whose slide into the mainstream has not always actually made his stuff easier to find for either old or new fans.

The discs in question are kind of pricey - $50 SRP down to $35 on Amazon, although I saw them for $30 at Hamilton Book when looking for some other things there - but a lot of these 4K UltraHD releases are niche items, and there's not a whole lot of 4K replication now that physical media is on the wane. They are, however, pretty terrific-looking, although I suspect I may struggle to explain the extent of how great they are. Less so than usual - watching a lot of streaming over the past year, I've become painfully aware of what compression does to even HD-quality video, and you just don't see that here, with terrific detail and great color - but I've noted before that a lot of people didn't quite see the jump in quality between DVD and BD. From the first shot of The Day of the Beast, I saw that it looked great, and pointing out bitrates and the like doesn't help if you aren't impressed on a "just look at this!" level.

I was impressed, and liked the movies quite a bit too. I hadn't seen either, despite having sought out de la Iglesia's stuff in the wake of them playing the Brattle, both on their own and as a series, so this was more about going back to the beginning than seeing them with new eyes, but it made for a fun couple of evenings.

Perdita Durango (aka Dance with the Devil)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I thought I'd seen Perdita Durango as part of an Álex de la Iglesia series at the Brattle Theatre (or possibly their all-too-brief Boston Fantastic Film Festival), possibly under the title "Dance with the Devil", but I must have been up to something else that evening, because I surely would have remembered this bit of madness, right? Maybe not; it's well-made stream-of-consciousness madness, but maybe not quite haunting or horrifying in the way that the best movies of that variety can be.

Perdita (Rosie Perez) is already not one to mess around with at the start, scaring off the men trying to pick her up as she hangs around the border until she meets up with Romeo (Javier Bardem), who has recently robbed both a bank and a grave and knows he's less likely to get searched with a partner in the passenger seat. He's got a lucrative job coming up, driving a semi full of human embryos to a cosmetics lab, but figures he should boost his power beforehand with a Santeria ritual sacrifice; Perdita picks out lily-white American couple Duance (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) as likely candidates. And while FBI agent Dumas (James Gandolfini) is already on their tail, they're just as likely to get caught up in their own combustibility as run afoul of the law.

Though the film takes its name from its female lead (as does Barry Gifford's original novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango), it's not unfair to say that, story-wise, she's passing through Romeo's narrative - the plan comes to him, most of the supporting characters come from his backstory, much happens on his ranch, etc. It's a tribute to how strong Rosie Perez's work is that she never seems like a supporting character, even before the film tilts a bit more in her direction during the later stretches; she gives a forceful performance that suggests a fully-defined character with only the bare minimum of description of what got her to this point. This could be either a movie about her as a force of chaos that pushes Romeo to new depths or how her being a mess at this moment has her being pulled into his orbit, but it's built so that she can be both and neither.

So much of the story running through Romeo nevertheless makes the movie a feast for Javier Bardem as well, and he's a blast, the sort of charismatic monster who has given a fair amount of thought to the symbolism of his rituals but absolutely wings an armed robbery. You can see he's fallen hard for Perdita and is generally romantic about his outlaw nature without ever softening how psychopathic he is in other areas. In some ways, Romeo is Perdita's counterpart, an apparent protagonist that's actually a supporting character. There's a deep bench around them, too, with James Gandolfini playing some absurdity straight and appearing fully-formed as Dumas, Aimee Graham & Harley Cross making a hostage arc work much better than it usually does, and Demian Bichir a treat in his one scene.

The thing about having such a good cast so completely invested is that one can wind up with the sort of movie that is so into its own weird, nasty world that it's hard to tell right away whether it will linger or just not be able to form any connections with other synapses at all. It certainly establishes right away that de la Iglesia is a natural at this sort of nasty pulp; he jumps right in, and keeps heaping more on even though he started pretty much over the top, and is able to cruise for a couple hours without exhausting the viewer by getting too far out or triumphantly linking back to something familiar. It's a tricky balance to manage; the story is built around nihilism and envelope-pushing, but the filmmakers never seem self-satisfied about how cruel they're being. De la Iglesia and his co-writers (including original novelist Gifford and regular collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría) inject a certain amount of pop-cultural self-awareness into the film, but there's usually a clear point to the references, not just a list of favorites. It's nifty-looking without ever seeming too slick or too deliberately shaggy.

The new 4K disc of the original cut, BTW, looks terrific without being ostentatious about it, as is fitting - it's weird but surprisingly digestible for how twisted parts are. It makes for an entertaining movie that sometimes feels like it should be more unsettling - no bad thing, but not exactly the cult classic that the film is sometimes presented as.

Also at eFilmCritic

El día de la bestia (The Day of the Beast)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, 4K Blu-ray)

I don't know how many extra sales of their new 4K The Day of the Beast disc Severin got from folks who just discovered Alex de la Iglesia with 30 Coins and wanted more in the same vein, but it's the sort of happy coincidence that many labels re-releasing cult cult classics must dream of, even if it does make it hard to view the movie from 1995 outside the context of the recent TV series. It's a very different thing, of course, and not just because it's the work of someone young and rebellious as opposed to a seasoned veteran.

As it opens on 23 December 1995, Jesuit theology professor Cura (Álex Angulo) has made a horrifying discovery - the hidden numerology in Revelations that the Antichrist will be born on Christmas Eve, in Madrid. He sees only one way to forestall the Apocalypse - renounce God, commit enough sins to be accepted by the area's Satanists, and prevent the rise of evil from within. How to do so? Maybe José María (Santiago Segura), the metalhead he meets at a record store, can provide some leads; there's also "Professor Cavan" (Armando De Razza), a bestselling author and television personality who is the area's foremost expert on the occult.

De la Iglesia and writing partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría start the film with dark slapstick, and while they seem to figure that material wouldn't be able to actually sustain an entire movie and move on, there's something almost wholesome in the way the opening scenes play out, because despite his deciding that sin is the only way to greater salvation, Cura doesn't come by cruelty naturally, and it highlights the absurdity of his quest while giving Álex Angulo a chance to establish his lower-key personality before bringing the broader characters and performers in. There's something both very funny and slyly satirical about this un-worldly man comically trying to transgress and how he goes looking for sin in heavy metal music because the idea is only theoretical to him and that's what he's heard is evil.

Eventually, there's got to be some sort of story, and it's the sort that can feel kind of like a mess 25 years later and an ocean away - I found myself wondering if the building that plays a large part in the last act was considered noteworthy or controversial at the time - with the satire often seeming scattershot, especially when combined with some misdirection and ambiguity. What to make of how José María only seems to take the blasphemous imagery in his "heavy" music seriously when Cura validates it, or the irony of how the film seems to revel in this transgression while also mocking the media that sees it as merely "something different". There's sometimes a sense that they've hedged their bets - the spree-killers who are coded as monsters with money attacking the lower classes are probably more horrifying if they're just selfishly evil as opposed to being in league with the devil, and de la Iglesia seems aware of that, playing much of the movie's back half as if it could be genuinely supernatural or a delusion brought on by the psychedelics used in a ritual. The filmmakers seem to have some strong ideas about how violence and selfishness have become mainstreamed but sometimes struggle making a story out of it that involves Cura searching for the literal devil.

That the writing gets messy often highlights that there's more to a movie than just the script, because de la Iglesia and company get things to move, mixing stone-faced absurdity with amusing slapstick, making hard turns into and out of darker material as the central trio is pulled in deeper. In addition to Angulo's good work, Armando De Razza and Santiago Segura have entertaining and complementary comic personae here (though it's a bit of a shame that out of the three main women in the cast, only Terele Pávez gets to be active, and that's as a fairly stock pushy-landlord character). The film manages to make its class distinctions sharp enough to be important but also able to bounce between them without a stop to resent, and de la Iglesia's team does a nice job when the time comes to shift into bigger and more elaborate action.

There's a scene or two at the end where the new 4K transfer winds up highlighting the messiness of the original effects work, but that's fitting - it reveals the film's age and rough edges, but also how well it's put together despite that. It's otherwise a very nice package, and an interesting one to catch after 30 Coins (though more flippant in their younger days, the team always took the idea of the battle between Heaven and Hell seriously); 25 years on, it's still got the ability to shock, thrill, and even surprise.

Also at eFilmCritic

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