The Day of the Beast

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A Christmas movie for Satanists, The Day of the Beast (El Día de la Bestia) is one of the key movies of a very 1990s style of grindhouse film-making. It’s the gonzo wild ride in which pump-action shotguns and breasty women compete for screen space with demons and SWAT teams, while rock music and satanic ritual drive the soundtrack. This genre is probably best exemplified by Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, from 1996. But Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia got there first in 1995, and he got there best.

This is a very funny movie, probably at its best in early scenes introducing its hero, Father Ángel Berriartúa, a Catholic priest who has worked out by studying the Book of Revelation that Satan, aka the Beast, is about to be reborn on Christmas Day in Madrid. The only way to stop this is to match evil with evil, the curate has realised, and so he sets off on a crime jag that includes stealing from street beggars, robbing a dying man and keying a long line of cars in an underground car park.

After more of this sort of thing, Berriartúa eventually finds himself as part of a trio setting out to find the Satanist equivalent of a stable and a manger before the Beast can be born. The three unwise men comprise himself, José María (Santiago Segura), a flabby would-be Satanist from a record shop specialising in heavy metal, and Professor Cavan (Armando De Razza), a self-satisfied TV occultist and a quack from head to toe.

Drug-taking, virgin blood, pentagrams scratched onto floors, neon lighting, a man on fire and a band called Satanicca playing in a room where babes writhe on podiums, Iglesia ticks a lot of the 1990s boxes in a film that pulls off the unusual trick of being both funny and unsettling. Frightening is perhaps a claim too far.

Maria Grazia Cucinotta tied up in a bathtub
Bound for glory: Maria Grazia Cucinotta

Álex Angulo is particularly good as the earnest, naive, enthuasiastic and driven Father Berriartúa, the man of god’s lack of worldliness generating about half the laughs. While Iglesia generally winks and nods to the audience with his jokes about the absurdity of the heavy metal genre’s association with Satanism, Angulo stays resolutely in character, resisting the urge to do something similar. He makes the film work.

De Razza, with his black hair, fastidious beard and leather trousers, is what you expect from the celebrity phoney. Segura is also funny as José María, a mother’s boy and sexually frustrated oaf with the hots for Mina (Nathalie Seseña), the young woman who works at his mother’s rooming house and incidentally a handy source of virgin’s blood. Maria Grazia Cucinotta, meanwhile, as Cavan’s girlfriend, selflessly pours her hourglass body into a slinky red dress and waggles her mammaries about fetchingly.

There were death threats from real Satanists, apparently, when the movie came out, on account of Iglesia borrowing actual ritual for some key scenes of Satanic summoning. The results of these conjurings don’t work out to be in the movie’s favour – the crappy animatronic (or whatever it is) horned beast letting the side down a bit.

It’s Iglesia’s energy that props it back up again. This has the energy of a farce as sung by Ozzy Osborne and a touch of the absurdity that powered This Is Spinal Tap.

A hit, it was meant to get an American remake, also directed by Iglesia, who was also offered Alien Resurrection off the back of this movie’s High Hollywood production values (on a fraction of the cost). Neither came to pass, but Iglesia did go to the USA, where he made Perdita Durango, a similar mix of gonzo humour and OMG excess with Rosie Peréz, Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini in a story about cannibalism, drugs, gangsters, sex and all the other things that appeal to the black T-shirt crowd. One double bill coming right up.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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