By RYAN COLEMAN
Starring Begoña Vargas, Iván Marcos, Bea Segura
Directed by Albert Pintó
Written by Ramón Campos, Gema R. Neira, David Orea, & Salvador S. Molina
Warner Bros. Pictures
32 MALASAÑA STREET is the new film from Spanish writer and director Albert Pintó. It is Pintó’s second feature following 2017’s black comedy Matar a Dios (Killing God), and his first big solo directorial outing after a long and fruitful writing/directing partnership with Caye Casas. The result? MALASAÑA is an extremely mixed bag, doing what it does well, which is almost everything, extremely well, and in the single, crucial arena where it does fumble, it fumbles utterly.
The film opens in Madrid, 1972. We are in the Malasaña neighborhood of dense, central Madrid in the last years of the Franco regime. This neighborhood has been a hotbed of revolutionary and countercultural activity since the turn of the 19th century, taking its name from Manuela Malasaña, a teenage seamstress who was executed by occupying Napoleonic forces during the Spanish War of Independence. It nurtured La Movida in the 1980s, the bawdy, post-Franco arts and culture explosion out of which Pedro Almodóvar, Spain’s most iconic cinematic export, sprung. A brief opening sequence establishes 3B, a sprawling, ornately set-designed unit in the massive apartment building at 32 Calle de Manuela Malasaña as a) creepy and b) a place where an old lady just died. Titles roll and we fast forward to 1976. Franco is dead, democracy is slowly eking its way through the country (not that Pintó works this enriching context into the film in any meaningful way; in its more threadbare moments one suspects he hoped generous viewers would supply it for themselves), and the Olmedo family has arrived at 32 Malasaña.
We enter a classic haunted house setup. The family has fled their home village for mysterious, unspoken reasons that suggest they can’t go back. They’ve sunk whatever money they brought with them into this new place, which happened to come at a great price, for reasons that are unspoken also. Reasons that have nothing to do with ghosts. There’s Candela (Bea Segura), the mother who goes immediately to work as a shop assistant, and Manolo (Iván Marcos), her rugged yet Hollywood handsome husband who we find out later is father to only the youngest of three children. Amparo (Begoña Vargas), the eldest, is our heroine, Pepe (Sergio Castellanos), the older son, flirts with a ghost the whole movie, and Rafael (Iván Renedo), the child, is the sacrificial lamb. There is also Fermín (José Luis de Madariaga), the silent, totemic grandfather who sees things. Fermín is not the last character blessed with the gift of sight we’ll meet. Pintó mercifully saves that horror (not the good kind) for the end.
For most of its runtime, 32 MALASAÑA STREET is exceptional. Shudder’s promotional campaign for the film calls it “the Spanish answer to The Conjuring,” and the likeness is immediately clear. That film, more than any other release of the past decade was responsible for laying the defibrillators down hard on a style of horror filmmaking thought all but vanished. With its elaborate, lovingly crafted set pieces, patient camera work that assumed a greater intellectual capacity of the theatergoing genre audience, and broad restraint when it came to editing, performances, VFX, and all the blood and guts, James Wan’s 2013 film proved a slowed-down craft piece more in the lineage of The Innocents (1961) than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) could still smash the box office.
MALASAÑA picks up that tempo a considerable amount. Its editing style cuts clean and keeps it moving more like Sam Raimi’s schlocky camp horror. But the gorgeous craftsmanship is everywhere to be seen. The Olmedo’s apartment is blanketed in rich, lived-in period details—woven hall runners, bounteous plants with cascading trails of leaves, stained glass picture windows that cast luminescent shadows as haunting as they are beautiful. It’s a set I’d like to crawl into the TV reverse Samara style and get cozy in.
MALASAÑA is styled in a way I’d imagine is tricky to successfully execute. Sets like Candela’s bustling city-center shop and the rickety, foreboding, apartment of a former 3B resident that Amparo visits on the outskirts of Madrid are vividly lit and composed with a painterly sense of color balance. But Pintó, along with DP Dani Sosa and production designers Sara Gonzalo and Marta Miró never verge into the treacly, over-aestheticized but substantively hollow trappings of much contemporary “elevated horror.” Like The Conjuring, 32 MALASAÑA STREET’s visual sensibility is always harnessed in service of its scares and ultimately, the enjoyment of its audience. The film does nothing if not entertain.
Beyond craft and entertainment lies the film’s “Bad Place.” The basic premise of 32 MALASAÑA STREET is that the ghost of the old woman from the opening sequence haunts 3B because she is mad that her life was so miserable. To make up for it in death, she wants a baby, so she sets her sights on Rafael. Until we find out who that woman was in life, everything’s great. The movie is scary, pretty, and fun. If you’re averse to spoilers (and I do recommend watching this movie!) read no further. Within the film’s final 30 minutes we learn that this ghost on Earth was Clara, a young trans woman so brutally repressed by her Catholic family, who so desperately wanted to experience motherhood, that her unsatisfied soul has curdled into a vengeful spirit that will stop at nothing to claim a child.
To MALASAÑA credit, when Amparo learns of Clara’s cruel fate from her unsympathetic surviving sister (the former 3B resident mentioned earlier), she lashes back: “Maybe all he needed was a little company.” “Because of him, we could never be a family,” the sister retorts venomously. “You could,” Amparo corrects, “but you refused to be.” It is a scene like this that the hegemonic Catholicism of Franco’s Spain provides crucial context for. A girl like Clara would have been treated with intolerance by likely any Catholic family under Franco. There’s deep horror in the powerlessness of a girl in Clara’s position, but MALASAÑA strains under the weight of that nuance for mere moments before the bottom falls out and fear rushes back to cover Clara’s enraged spirit in horror and shame.
Without having much room left to mention that the character who draws Clara’s spirit out of hiding and into her own body is a mute, paraplegic psychic (the other seer), suffice to say MALASAÑA vaults powerfully into the air, does a thrilling triple combo, and absolutely wrecks the landing. These marginalized characters are used like artillery and shields, fired against each other to make loud, sickening sounds for the enjoyment of a “normal” audience watching with vague pity in their titillated eyes. More care is shown toward them than the girls so used and abused on screen. I thought of the way Gore Verbinski held the contradictions within Samara’s character in 2002’s The Ring—you pity her and fear her at the same time. That kind of nuance is possible, and it’s mandatory if you decide to make your villain a member of one of the most persecuted and marginalized communities in the world. 32 MALASAÑA STREET fails to do that, and in failing in this most important way, fails utterly.