Clubhouse: An Obscure Franco Era Spanish Horror Film

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Here is a review of a film which I saw on its first (and only) release in a theatre when I was about 15 years old. Thought it was a reasonably good attempt at a horror movie, albeit burdened with too much dialogue. Considered it a minor European “art” film. In hindsight, watching it more than half a century later, I realise it is a far more interesting film than I originally noticed.

 

(1964) – THE SOUND OF HORROR – (released in North America in 1966).

Probably what would attract modern horror film buffs to this movie today is the fact that it stars Ingrid Pitt, who is famous for her roles in the hammer film THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and the Amicus productions COUNTESS DRACULA (1971) and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971). Doesn’t hurt that she was also in WHERE EAGLES DARE (1969) and THE WICKER MAN (1973). However, she does NOT star in THE SOUND OF HORROR. It was only her first film. The major actress starring in the film was Soledad Miranda. Who?

THE SOUND OF HORROR was not only filmed in Spain, it was a Spanish production, and Soledad was an up and coming star in Spanish cinema. Further, typical of European films at this time, a major American star was included, James Philbrook. Who? Well, a character actor who appeared in TV shows like Bonanza, Maverick, The Loretta Young show and Alfred Hitchcock presents. All they needed was a manly American to play a tough guy. He did his best.

Actually, Ingrid Pitt is on screen at least as much as any of the other actors. The film has an unusually large ensemble cast, no less than eight people. This makes for a lot of dialogue. It is almost like watching a filmed stage play. Fortunately, people flee in terror a lot to stir things up. I figure there was a need for such a large cast in order to get the political themes across.

You see, most interesting of all, the movie was made under the Franco regime and reflects the viewpoint of that regime as it attempted to grapple with outside liberal influences seeping in and threatening to undermine its cherished values of family, obedience, and authority. What complicated matters for everybody (in Spain at least) is that Franco had recently permitted the country to try a free market economy (you can work and scheme to get rich if you want, finally) but had clamped down hard on any sort of “progressive” behaviour. As always, life under Franco was a conundrum, and the movie captures the essence of a particularly difficult period.

For one thing, the movie takes place in Greece and is basically a Maltese Falcon-like hunt for a lost treasure conducted by three, hardened ex-soldiers (and/or mercenaries). This is a clever way to discuss the lingering effects and influence of the Spanish civil war on contemporary middle-aged men by disguising it as Greek war-time experience fighting the Nazis or maybe on their behalf. It is not at all clear which side these guys were on. Then again, their attitudes and recollections may refer to the Greek civil war which followed liberation. They seem conflicted, both proud and bitter. Probably as good a description of Spanish civil war veterans as any, methinks. In short, the characters resonate with a Spanish audience.

The film begins with Professor Andre (one of the three war veterans) and archaeologist Stavros delicately using a typical archaeological tool, namely dynamite, to blast apart a cave in their search for the treasure. Maria (Soledad Miranda), who is Andre’s niece, is with them so she can tell them how scary explosions are. Stavros tries to comfort her, but uncle Andre cuts him off with the comment “She’s only an amateur, AND a woman.” Well, there you go. No wonder she’s useless. Can you detect the Francoist influence on the screenwriters?

The explosion reveals a football with warts, which is to say, a petrified egg. Stavros suggests it might not be petrified inside, and this leads to a series of not especially funny jokes about having Calliope, their cook, make something of it. Comments like “If the devil comes out of that we’ll invite him into the house.” The intrepid trio leave, with the egg, to get some lunch. They exit the cave to stroll down a meadow ringed by jagged cliffs to a cute adobe villa. You know it is a Greek venue because of the Doric pillars supporting the veranda roof and the fake ruin by the nearby well.

Cut to another “stone” egg on the floor of the cave. It jiggles, cracks open, and a small muddy blob wriggles out then appears to disappear into thin air. Aha! Cue the monster!

Calliope would have been better named Cassandra. She’s always prophesying doom. She constantly says things like “Could be cursed” and “The cave is full of evil spirits.” Yet, since the classical Calliope was the muse of eloquence, perhaps her name is appropriate after all, in that she comes across as the voice of wisdom compared to the frequent utterances of the treasure seekers along the lines of “Must find the treasure at any cost no matter who dies.”

The men wash up in the kitchen till shooed out by Maria, saying “Out of the kitchen, now. In here YOU are the amateur.” Ah, the perfect Francoist woman. She knows her place. How amusing that she dares to assert herself in her little (state approved) domain.

While setting the table Calliope pauses to stare at the egg resting on the mantlepiece above a roaring fire (on a hot summer day). Little bit of foreshadowing there. We know what’s going to happen, don’t we?

After the lunch the trio return to the cave to blow up more things. They discover a coffin standing on end. The cover crumbles and a mummy, or at least a body in a tarp wrapped with ropes, falls forward to the ground. Stavros turns it over, revealing a mask-like face with cleft chin and wide, staring eyes. “Homo Sapien Neanderthal” pronounces the professor. Right.

For some reason this reminds Stavros how superstitious the locals are. Anyway, Andre is disappointed. This isn’t the treasure he’s looking for. “I don’t care how long it may take. I know the treasure will be mine!”

Later, while eating dinner Stavros confesses “I am like you, Calliope. I, too, believe in our ancient customs from the past. To a point, that is.”

To which she replies, “You either believe or you don’t.” Good point.

A land rover pulls up outside. Out jumps male love interest Pete the driver, ex-soldier Dorman, head ex-soldier Dr. Pete Asilov (played by James Philbrook) and his busty girl friend Sofia (Ingrid Pitt).

Naturally we cut to a prolonged scene of blond-haired Sofia, in tight, dark shirt covering a bullet bra, and wearing a tight and very short form-fitting dark skirt, twisting away to some spritely pop music on the radio. Here we have the dreaded modern influence, not evil exactly, but shallow, mindless, and devoid of value. Easy on the eyes, though. All the men are staring. Of course they are, for they are the proper sort of men. Manly men.

Uncle Andre comments “Only the young can be so frivolous.”

Adds Asilov “It’s good to see young people happy like that. We were at war when we were that young.”

Dorman enthusiastically elaborates, saying “And we enjoyed that, the excitement. We three danced to bullets the way they dance to music.”

An odd thing to say. He sounds nostalgic for the kill or be killed thrill of the war (the Spanish civil war is meant?) as if life was much better when it was good guys versus bad guys with none of this silly new generation stuff ignoring the old generation’s sacrifice. I sense disapproval of Sofia’s dancing.

As if ashamed, perhaps because too young to have participated in the glorious war, Pete switches the radio station and asks Maria to dance to “traditional” music. Raven-haired, with strong black eyebrows, a serious, set expression, and wearing all white clothing, the “good girl” slowly twirls her slim, near Twiggy-like form to slow Greek music. All the men sluggishly clap along unenthusiastically. But at least it’s a “proper” girl doing a “proper” dance. The censors approve.

Then the men get down to business. Andre has been working with half a map. Asilov has the other half. Putting them together, Andre realises he’s been searching the wrong part of the cave. They argue over shares but finally agree each of the three get an equal share. It comes out in the conversation that 15 men had originally been involved, but now only these three are still alive. There’s a subtle implication that the slain had died at the hands of these three men. Not exactly saints, it seems. Did what they had to do.

Apparently the treasure is worth millions. They fantasize about what they will do with their shares. Asilov dreamily states “A beautiful villa. Fine clothes. And plenty to eat.” The latter probably reflects the food shortages during and after the civil war, only now beginning to improve with Franco’s recent economic reforms.

“Yes, riches. It will be good,” says uncle Andre.

“It can be, though I’ll be a fatalist about it,” comments Dorman with a wry smile. He’s quite the sceptic. Too much life experience, perhaps.

 

Cut to the cave with everyone except Calliope staring down at the dried-out corpse.

“This mummy dates back to the siege of Troy,” states uncle Andre. How curious that Homer never mentioned the Greeks assaulting Troy were a bunch of Neanderthals. The Professor is filling in the blanks I guess.

“The past doesn’t matter,” declares Dorman.

Eager to join the philosophical discussion, Stavros blurts out “The present will be the past.”

“It reminds me of an old girl friend,” says Pete. Maria laughs nervously, as well she might since the implication seems to be that he murdered her.

“Let us dig,” suggests Asilov.

“Might as well,” replies Professor Andre. After all, nothing else to do.

Sofia sighs. I think she’s bored. “It is cold and damp in here. I’m going sunbathing.” Pete brightens up, as does the audience. Imminent nudity! About bloody time! Maria wants to go too, but first asks her uncle’s permission. Of course she does. She’s a good girl.

While Stavros pulls away the mummy’s shroud to reveal it is wearing an ancient linen armour corset (such as Alexander preferred over bronze; lightweight and even better at stopping arrows—quite a well-dressed Neanderthal the mummy is), the three ex-soldiers set about digging individual holes in the floor of the cave.

Meanwhile, back at the land rover the two girls recline on some rocks to catch some rays. They remove not a stitch of clothing. Apparently they are content to tan their shins, lower arms and hands, their faces and their throats. Disappointing. In Francoist terms I suppose the mere fact they are reclining is provocative enough. Pete has Calliope fetch a single pail of water so he can wash his vehicle one drop at a time (seems like).

Pete is one sexy talker. “Diana is my car. When I was a chauffeur driving other people’s cars I always cursed and battered them, but not Diana. I pamper her. She’s mine.” Ah, treated his girl friends like dirt, or worse, but any girl lucky enough to marry him and become his property is in for a treat. What a come-on! No wonder Maria has fallen in love with him.

Maria shyly (and slyly?) reveals her parents died when she was young (killed in the civil war?) and her uncle brought her up. She is completely subservient to him. She clings to the fact that “my uncle promised to give me a dowry one day.” A very broad hint indeed that it would benefit Pete financially to marry her. She seems eager to replace one dominant male with another.

If this romantic patter seems oddly formalistic it all has to do with the law under the Franco regime. Women were the property of their father (or father-substitute) literally up to the moment of marriage when they became their husband’s property. For a grown woman to have a bank account it was necessary that either her father or her husband be a co-signer. Women were hemmed in by all kinds of restrictions designed to protect them from their inherently silly, thoughtless nature. Of course, if you really wanted to earn the respect of the authorities, it was best to become a mother as young as possible. Then you had proved your worth to the state. Best to do that repeatedly. Isn’t Fascism fun?

This is not your typical B horror movie. Doesn’t seem to be pitched at teenage audiences at all (except to convince them to conform) so much as to offer reassurance to middle-aged Spanish civil war veterans that the values they fought for, Francoist values, will be honoured forever and society will NEVER change. I can’t see such men flocking to the theatres on the strength of the movie’s poster, but who knows, maybe it reminded them of their wartime experiences. Like most civil wars, it had been spectacularly vicious. Further, the amorality of the soldier characters, pursuing their self-interest no matter what, may have hit home as an admirable trait rather evocative of the regime.

All this blew right over the heads of western teenage audiences. It certainly missed me by a mile. Now, having acquired a bit of knowledge over the years about the Franco era, the propaganda aspects of the film are so obvious it’s like a slap in the face. “Wake up and pay attention,” it seems to be saying. “Live a proper life. Obey!” In the context of modern times the message is a horror in itself, far more than it was to us kids at the beginning of the naively optimistic Hippie era. Disturbing.

Finally, the film begins to take on the character of a B horror movie, a surprisingly effective horror movie. The monster is all grown up now, and quite hungry. It is also invisible. It can only be tracked by the sound of its clawed feet shuffling along, by its own screams of frustration, or by the screams of its victims. The plot slides into “Ten Little Indians” territory, with the cast being picked off one by one.

It occurs to me this film is so obscure most monster movie buffs have never seen it. This is the main reason I chose to concentrate on the underlying sub-themes rather than reveal what happens. Despite the fact the film finally lurches into action at this point, rest assured there is much dialogue to come discussing the ignorance of peasants, the proper place of the non-elite, the value of self-sacrifice in the name of honour, and the best practical way to handle fear. You can watch this on You Tube. Go for it. Despite all the talk subtly glorifying Francoist ideology THE SOUND OF HORROR turns out to be entertainingly scary.

And don’t forget the egg on the mantlepiece!

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