Alex de la Iglesia's The Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango Helped Define a Director with Mid-'90s Madness

Movies Features Alex de la Iglesia
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Alex de la Iglesia's <i>The Day of the Beast</i> and <i>Perdita Durango</i> Helped Define a Director with Mid-'90s Madness

There’s a reasonable chance that for many American genre hounds, Álex de la Iglesia was an unknown name until 2010, the year he released his 10th film, The Last Circus (or Balada triste de trompeta in Spanish, which frankly sounds way cooler). Why wouldn’t a movie about two clowns vying for the affection of a woman possessed of goddess-level beauty (Carolina Bang, de la Iglesia’s longtime collaborator and wife as of 2014) grab that audience’s attention? It helps, too, that it opens with a clown going on a rampage during the Spanish Civil War: After hiding behind Republican militia troops while dodging bullets, his mind snaps, and a-slashing he goes through the Nationalist ranks with a machete. He doesn’t win the day, but he does send about a dozen men to the afterlife in the worst way possible. No one wants the last thing they see to be a clown cackling.

The Last Circus grows increasingly deranged from there, arguably culminating in a scene where the protagonist, gentle Javier (Carlos Areces), washes his face with sodium hydroxide, press his cheeks and lips with an iron, and scars his forehead, fixing his visage as a clown’s forevermore in service to his love. But for viewers uninitiated in de la Iglesia’s cinema, the joke’s on them: Nothing that happens in this film is half as deranged as what happens in his second and third efforts, The Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango, given comfy new homes on Blu-ray courtesy of Severin. Perdita Durango benefits especially from the release, which comprises de la Iglesia’s full cut: When he showed the film to Trimark Pictures, his U.S. distributor, they apparently lost their nerve and trimmed 10 minutes of sex, violence and Vera Cruz homage.

Even de la Iglesia connoisseurs may feel like they’re watching Perdita Durango for the first time all over again thanks to Severin’s work here. (Snyder Cut, eat your heart out.) But taken together, Perdita Durango and The Day of the Beast function as foreshadowing of where de la Iglesia’s career would take him from the early to mid 1990s to now. They provide a blueprint for his traits as an artist, his tongue-in-cheek humor and fondness for matching gags with gore, his interpretation of and faculty with genre, and his love for Santiago Segura, that hackin’ and slashin’ Funny Clown actor who appears in just about every movie de la Iglesia has made to date, including Perdita Durango and The Day of the Beast.

Segura plays a more central role in the latter compared to the former, where he mostly shows up for Javier Bardem to betray in flashback and stab in the film’s present. In The Day of the Beast, he’s José María: Satanist, metalhead, theology student. He’s having a normal Christmas Eve until Father Ángel Berriartúa (the late Álex Angulo) barges into his record shop looking for the heaviest heavy metal, metal that’s heavier than a heavy thing, for the purpose of summoning Satan. This is not what one expects from a priest. Naturally, José tags along on Berriartúa’s quest as his sidekick. Berriartúa wants to sell his soul to the Devil as his ticket into the room where the Antichrist will be born so he can assassinate it—and the birth is set to happen at midnight, at least per Berriartúa’s decryption and deciphering of old religious texts.

Is doing evil really evil if you’re doing it just so you can save the world? The Day of the Beast wrestles with that tension right up to its final scene, and in between that scene and the first, de la Iglesia takes great pleasure in casual blasphemy and workaday sins. After its introductory two minutes, in which Berriartúa’s superior is crushed by the altar crucifix at church in a joke structure masterclass, the good father strolls through Madrid’s streets robbing the homeless, shoving a mime off of a banister and hissing “I hope you rot in Hell” to a dying man instead of administering last rites. (He pockets the poor bastard’s wallet for good measure, too. Preventing the end times isn’t cheap.) This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film as Berriartúa continues doing crime for the sake of mankind, solidly pushing The Day of the Beast into profane territory and somehow pushing it even further with each passing moment. People are beaten, people are roofied, people are gunned down by the cops and when they aren’t, Berriartúa does very unfatherly things like take LSD.

De la Iglesia determinedly outdoes these various displays of sacrilege for about an hour and 40 minutes, like he’s in competition with himself to cross the finish line in a profane 5K. (The winner gets damned for eternity!) But there’s substance to his shock. What Berriartúa does, he does with a knowing look in his eyes that he’s tainting his immortal soul. Maybe God will forgive him, but if not, it doesn’t matter. He betrays his character as a moral imperative. De la Iglesia’s filmmaking revels in impiousness, but the fondness he feels for Berriartúa, for José, the coarse but kindhearted Satanist, and for Cavan (Armando De Razza), occult TV personality and handsome charlatan, can’t be overlooked, either. The Day of the Beast is all about humans acting against their natures, whether it’s José joining Berriartúa to fight the Devil, Berriartúa beseeching the Devil or Cavan turning from amoral to zealot as he finds faith on the cusp of Armageddon. A front row seat to the world’s demise would lead anyone toward a fundamental change of heart. That’s The Day of the Beast’s reason for being.

The stark contrast Perdita Durango strikes against The Day of the Beast is cinematic whiplash. De la Iglesia’s protagonists, Perdita (Rosie Perez as you have literally never seen her before) and Romeo (Javier Bardem, same), indulge their worst appetites with one another and inflict them on innocent folks—and as with The Day of the Beast, those appetites gain in intensity as the film unfolds. Swindling paying audiences into thinking he’s a real-deal Santeria priest and huffing mounds of blow is one thing. Participating in a trafficking operation involving refrigerated human fetuses across the U.S.-Mexico border is one more thing. Raping a young woman and her boyfriend is in a whole other league from both. Blame the blow. Romeo’s religious delusions are a hell of a drug, too.

Perdita Durango holds a portion of sympathy for Perdita, whom de la Iglesia sees as apathetic to Romeo’s barbarism: She isn’t in it for the carnage as much as she’s in it for intimacy, for affection and for passionate, rough sex—in the bedroom or on desert sands, whichever’s more convenient—with her psychotic hot-blooded lover. It’s Romeo she wants. The film never questions why, which feels surprisingly progressive. Perdita loves Romeo because she loves him. De la Iglesia refuses to rationalize that love. He simply allows it. He allows for consequences, too, whether for Perdita, for Romeo, for their relationship or for hapless Duane (Harley Cross) and his girlfriend, Estelle (Aimee Graham), selected at random as the meal for Romeo’s planned human sacrifice ritual-cum-scam. Perdita Durango is a deep study of the id. Romeo does Romeo. If there’s a bright side here it’s that Romeo is charming, and despite the sexual assault he manages to win over Duane…somewhat anyway. The kid still tries to escape with Estelle, but the admiration he feels for Romeo by the end is undeniable.

It’s twisted—that’s de la Iglesia’s bread and butter. The filmmaker can’t make movies without squashing cultural mores. But when your cinema revolves around experiments with genre, then that’s the point of the exercise. “Genre” is so often synonymized with transgressions against social codes of conduct that watching de la Iglesia defy them over the course of his ‘90s output and beyond reveals a filmmaker whose goal is not simply pushing the envelope for its own sake, but for proving that genre’s excesses don’t come at the expense of meaning. Making this case for Perdita Durango is by far the greater challenge compared to The Day of the Beast, one of Guillermo del Toro’s Twitter recommendations. The latter perfectly walks the line where genre’s core entertainment is met with genre’s capacity for revealing unseen human truths. What it is to be good is subjective, a matter decided in the eye of the beholder, and who qualifies as “good” comes down to action and not appearance.

But even Perdita Durango argues that the worst of us deserve companionship, though some will choke on that pill if they bother swallowing it at all. Such is the intent of de la Iglesia’s filmmaking. From his first picture, Mutant Action, a Mad Max-style black action comedy pitting disaffected people with disabilities against the beautiful ruling class (and which also stars Angulo and Segura), he’s used genre as a vehicle for pranking his viewers at worst and testing them at best. How much transgression can you take before you’re blinded to the buttressing material beneath it? How deranged is too deranged? Recently, de la Iglesia has grown considerably more tame compared to the days of his youth, but consider Perdita Durango and The Day of the Beast twin opportunities to recall his wilder self—and to find the nuances and messages he scattered throughout his earliest efforts.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.