With solemn music, steady angles and serious lighting, The Day of the Beast opens with a pair of priests in conference. One confesses that he is going to sin, become a Satanist, and send his own soul to hell. The other priest, his elder, protests, of course… Until the younger, Father Angel Berriartua, tells him precisely why. The elder understands. They stand up, walk through the church, the elder priest saying that however difficult this task will be, they will see it through together.
At which time an enormous cross falls off its stand, completely crushing the elder priest beneath.
Alex de la Iglesia’s The Day of the Beast (1995) is not always so broad in its comedy, but its close. This story of either a priest damning himself for all eternity in order to save the entire world or, who is only convinced he is, and has actually gone mad, veers between comedy, horror, surrealism, and even action while keeping a remarkably even tone. That tone is just this side of crazy, but it’s consistent. Alex Angulo’s performance as Father Angel is filled with an almost incongruously calm and quiet confidence, whether the little priest is stealing from a beggar or shoving a mime off a sidewalk. He performs every action with solemn religious duty.
After visiting a heavy metal shop to find appropriate music to invoke the devil with, he becomes friends with the cashier, Jose Maria, and moves into his mother’s hostel. From there, the two collaborate on the most likely plan to find help in Angel’s scheme. That is, of course, to kidnap a television psychic and force him to explain the ritual to summon the devil. The psychic, Cavan, might actually know what he’s talking about, but doesn’t believe a word of it.
But Angel does. When Cavan says they need virgin blood, Angel’s sure he can find some. Whether or not he murders a girl to get it and Jose Maria’s mother in the process, he’s determined. He’s saving the world. Whatever it takes, he’ll do it. Through his determination, it appears his plan works… and despite all sanity Cavan and Jose Maria begin to believe they’re helping save the world, too. All they have to do is find out where the anti-Christ is being born that night, and kill the baby.
It’s a horrible idea, because it doesn’t matter if a baby is the anti-Christ, you’re not supposed to kill one. You’re not supposed to do any of the things that Angel does to get where he’s going, but the film is with him every step of the way, and somehow his actions never seem as outrageous as they actually are. The conviction of the performance and the momentum of the film make it difficult to question the little priest, even as a second’s reflection shows that nothing he does makes any sense in the real world.
The Day of the Beast has a fun sense of the strange and surreal, and populates the film with interesting side characters. Its off-kilter look makes them seem a little like the sort of extreme Spanish faces that populate Goya’s paintings. They seem to be caricatures of themselves, without going so over the top as to make the movie farcical.
There’s three big action set pieces in the film, including a long sequence of the priest being alternately shot at and beaten by a shotgun that Jose’s mother wields which is clearly inspired by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead cinematography. The film is beautifully shot, mixing real Madrid locations with creative set work for most of the interiors. On the 4K release, the film footage looks incredibly clear and film-like. This unfortunately makes some of the film’s many special effects sequence stick out rather to their detriment. The Day of the Beast is one of the first Spanish films to use digital effects, and it looks like the sequences that use them were rendered at 1995-quality resolutions. The effects aren’t badly made, but they practically like VHS dubs.
Which is a shame because Iglesias has a clear, and striking vision. He knows how to compose his shots to create striking visual impact. He knows when to move the camera and when to leave it still and let the action evolve in the frame. It’s a shame when a great visual is marred by technical limitations.
What is less clear is the story. Angel’s goal might make its own sense, and he eventually describes why he believe he is on this quest (to a mall cop who has arrested him for stealing Cavan’s book) but the steps he takes to get from one place to the next are somewhat random, undirected. The climax of the film also makes little sense in a specific way that could only be discussed in spoilers that would give the entire thing away, so I won’t do that. But even that might be the point, a self-refuting film that shows that even if Angel is not crazy, his path is still madness.
The Day of the Beast is itself an odd beast. Remarkably well received in its native Spain (it was nominated for a Goya award, the top Spanish film award, for best film and Iglesia did take home the award for best director), it definitely looks and feels nothing like a Hollywood production. Frequently hilarious, always outrageous, it has a remarkably consistent (if not always pleasant) tone that is only marred by a confused climax. Bizarre, violent, and just on the right side of trashy, The Day of the Beast is for a pretty specific audience, but they will not be disappointed.
The Day of the Beast has been released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray by Severin Films. The package includes two discs: the 4K UHD disc with just the film, and a Blu-ray which includes the film and all of the attendant extras. The largest extra is the inclusion of a feature length documentary on the film, “Heirs of the Beast” (81 min). Made in 2016, this interesting doc goes into the background of Spanish fantasy film as well as the making of The Day of the Beast. There are four video extras included: “Antichrist Superstar” (29 min) with director Alex de la Iglesia, “The Man Who Saved the World” (20 min) with actor Armando de Razza, “Beauty and the Beast” (17 min) with Actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, “Shooting the Beast”(3 min) with director of photography Flavio Martínez Labiano. There’s also an early Alex de le Iglesia short film “Mirindas Asesinas” (13 min).