Review Date: September 24, 2006
Released by: Criterion Collection
Release date: 9/19/2006
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
Some of the best horror films have paradoxically come from directors who typically work outside of the genre. Masterworks like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist
, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face
and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter
all contain a horror from a dimension other than the usual trappings of the genre. They contain horror from the directors’ own collective fears, rather than the ones that come part and parcel with your typical genre films.
Additionally, some of the other great works in the horror canon are born out of a context of political struggle. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left
and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
would likely not exist were it not for the respective wars like Vietnam or World War I that inspired them. Victor Erice’s haunting and still The Spirit of the Beehive
is one that approaches horror both from the perspective of a director unfamiliar with the horror genre, and one deeply affected by the traumas of the Spanish civil war. It may not seem horror on the exterior, but in its inclusion and subversion of scenes from James Whale’s Frankenstein
, it is certainly indebted to the genre. The film is over 30 years old, and although esteemed as one of Spain’s greatest films, it has remained cooped up in obscurity on home video. Join me as I sift through Criterion’s new release of this serene masterpiece.
The film begins as a cargo truck arrives into the small town of Hoyuelos with film reels of Universal’s Frankenstein. The children are enthralled, hanging from the truck as it brings in reels from another place and another time that Spaniards were unable to view during Franco’s harsh regime. The citizens setup a makeshift theater in a rundown community hall, pulling together benches for the children to sit in front and high chairs for the adults in the back. Among the crowd are two sisters, Ana (Ana Torrent
) and Isabel (Isabel Talleria
), daughters of a lamenting housewife and a silent beekeeper father. The girls sit enthralled as Karloff’s monster comes to vivid life, although Ana becomes particularly disturbed when The Monster meets and eventually drowns the small girl who gave him flowers. “Did Frankenstein really kill that little girl?” Ana asks her sister, but regardless of Isabel’s response, Ana’s enchanted eyes remain forever opened by the incident.
That night, while Ana and Isabel lie in bed, Isabel finally gives Ana an answer. “Nobody died,” she assures Ana, “everything in the movies is fake”. Yet, that fictional meeting of Frankenstein and the little girl takes on a real quality when Ana runs into a fugitive freedom fighter stowed away in an abandoned farmhouse. Although initially seeming a menace, with blood dripping down his leg and a gun cocked in his hand, the fugitive takes on a friendly quality not dissimilar from Karloff’s Monster. Ana befriends the muted fighter, bringing him her lunch and helping to care for his wound. When he is found and shot by the Spanish police though, Ana’s blurring between the fictional film world and reality becomes even more confused.
Ana runs away from home in search of the real Frankenstein, who she believes is embodied by a spirit that anyone can conjure. Her sister once told her that Frankenstein could be summoned if you believed in him enough, needing only to close your eyes and state your name in order to get his attention. Ana embarks on a journey where she questions the qualities of life and death as she gets lost in the night, at first in the darkness and then in the chambers of her own imagination. She comes along a poisonous mushroom that she feigns with questionable intrigue, but perhaps more deadly is her own run in with Frankenstein himself. Her waterside encounter with The Monster changes her life forever.
Although dismissed by mainstream audiences at the time as slow and ambiguous, The Spirit of the Beehive
has since gone on to embody a truly poetic quality. Like the films of Terrence Malick, Erice’s films (which have been just as few and far between) bask in the stillness of landscapes and the contemplative interiors of innocents. Beehive remains unwaveringly grounded in Ana Torrent’s petite protagonist as she struggles to understand the reality of Spanish life. On one hand, she is enchanted by the images of a foreign land by the movies, lost in the mystical wonder of their characters and the roaming freedom they possess. Yet, on the other hand she remains a prisoner of war, like the other townspeople, bound inside their desolate houses and tarnished dreams like bees in a hive. She escapes her constricting home on a search for enlightenment via a rendezvous with her fictional Frankenstein, but it is a journey that threatens to destroy her like the sadness of political loss has destroyed her parents.
The film starts out slow and almost documentary-like as it follows the characters as they deal with aspects of their lives as Whale’s Frankenstein
plays on. The reality of the story is enhanced by Enrice’s choice to name all the characters after the actors that play them and by shooting the scenes of the children watching Frankenstein as they actually watched the film for the first time. The takes are long but always beautiful, forcing the audience to soak in the sun-drenched images of a 1940’s Castilian landscape. Yet, as the film progresses, the documentary quality makes way for a more free form decent into subjective madness. Elements of light and shadow, dream and reality, which are common tropes of the horror genre, begin to take precedence over conventional narrative. Erice’s initial documenting of Spanish life in the 1940’s enchantingly becomes a reworking of Frankenstein
in a much scarier time of authoritarian rule.
The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that speaks little but says too much, as its metaphoric and haunting visuals often contain too much to handle upon first viewing. Yet, even if the film remains tough to understand upon first viewing, the weight and power of its images remain impossible to shake. Ana Torrent’s heartbreakingly innocent and dedicated performance remains one of the most moving descents into madness achieved by a young actor. It is said that Torrent never recovered from the perils she had to endure as a child making the film, but neither was Victor Erice ever able to shake the demons of Franco’s 35 year reign of terror. “The road leads to nowhere,” as David Hess once said, but in Ana’s journey, perhaps she is able to build a new road able to help her come to terms with a life lived in political repression. Quiet and powerful, The Spirit of the Beehive remains a true original to both the horror genre and to cinema as a whole.
Criterion presents the film in a beautiful 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that breathes new life into Luis Cuadrado’s honey-colored cinematography. The film is a feast for the eyes, with the orange glow cast through the stained house windows and the brown stillness of the Castilian landscape resonating with incredible warmness on this transfer. The dust and scratches that hampered previous releases of the film in other regions are almost completely removed here, save for two bad instances that come up later in the film. The search for Ana during twilight is still in poor shape, as scratch lines combine with a light leak of blue to obstruct the frame. Save for that short scene and another short city one before it, the transfer is beautifully cleaned though, and the colors corrected to perfection. There is a tad more grain than one would hope for, but this is still by far the cleanest this classic has ever looked.
As per usual Criterion, the film is presented in its original Spanish mono track only, with optional (and much improved) English subtitles. Even if there are little frills to be observed, the sound still sounds nicely cleaned, with a good range of high pitched sounds (those solemn piano strokes played by the mother) and the deep footsteps that the girls hear while dreaming in their beds. For a film as quiet and personal as this, such a track is all it requires.
As if the film itself were not good enough, Criterion has elected to include a second disc filled with some incredibly educational and insightful bonus material. The main extra is arguably the most moving, thoughtful and professional featurette I’ve ever seen. Entitled “The Footprints of a Spirit”, this 48-minute documentary does more than just assemble cast and crew to reflect on the film – it brings the makers back to their original locations and demands they face off with the demons they faced while making the film. Most moving is seeing Ana Torrent returning to the village and the homes that she lost herself in while making the film. When she returns to the old cinema where she first watched Frankenstein, the stillness of her face speaks more powerfully than any interview ever could. The power of those big eyes hasn’t dulled a bit. Victor Erice, producer Elias Querejeta and writer Angel Fernandez Santos all add in words what Torrent does in emotion. They speak with heartfelt emotion what it was like making a film in such a repressive time, and how they had to deal with censors. Erice goes on to talk broader about the cinema in general, and how horror films contain a power stronger than any other. The participants are all interviewed in actual locations from the film, and they are lit in such a beautiful and artistic manner that the featurette images more than hold their weight as art themselves.
Film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich is able to offer an outside pespective unattainable in the documentary with her own little interview included on this disc. She dissects the ambiguity of the film, and tries to relate its metaphors to Francoist Spain and Mary Shelley’s original classic. Less pompous than most Criterion scholars, she speaks in an accessible vocabulary and a down-to-earth tone that makes dissecting the film less an assignment and more a pleasure. Her new interview is followed by a new one with the famous Spanish actor Fernando Fernan Gomez, who played the beekeeper in the film. He is honest in telling that he never understood the plot and took the film merely because of a lack of work, but expresses his heartfelt thanks in being a part of one of Spain’s greatest filmic achievements.
Lastly there is a lengthy interview with Victor Erice done by filmmaker Hideyuki Miyaoka that runs another 48-mintues. In it Erice reflects again more broadly on cinema as a whole, on topics like the difference between documentary and fiction and on why the master filmmakers are unable to tell stories the way they once were. He is an incredibly insightful man (no surprise considering the weight of his three feature films) and this documentary comes off as ground roots as its title, “Victor Erice in Madrid”. It’s a dinnertime conversation with an artist too important to ever eat a meal while listening to.
The Spirit of the Beehive
is a quiet, cerebral and haunting picture that updates James Whale’s Frankenstein
for a war-torn Spain. It is as artful and allegorical as a Terrence Malick picture, but the way it foregrounds itself in the insanity of an innocent little girl gives it an unshakably horrific undertone. The complex power of the film is heightened immeasurably by Criterion’s supplements on this release, which help put the film in perspective in the time and conditions in which the film was made. In addition, Criterion’s beautiful transfer breathes new life into the film’s unforgettable images, and the sound preserves the film’s lingering quiet and stillness without upset. While for most October will be a time of revisiting the classics of the genre, those with an appreciation for the cerebral should take a risk with this unforgettable Spanish import. Criterion may have a new logo, but the top quality of their releases remains unchanged.
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - A
- Running time - 1 hour 39 minutes
- Not Rated
- 2 Discs
- Chapter stops
- Spanish mono
- English subtitles
- "The Footprints of a Spirit" documentary
- Linda C. Ehrlich interview
- Fernando Fernan Gomez interview
- "Victor Erice in Madrid" interview
- Essay by film scholar Paul Julian Smith