The Weird Worlds of Alex de la Iglesia

moviefanfare on Alex de la IglesiaAlex de la Iglesia is out of control. Again, thank goodness.

The Spanish director with a small but devoted cult in the States is back to his old tricks in his latest film The Last Circus. Set in Spain throughout the reign of Generalissimo Franco—and even featuring a cameo by the dictator—the wacko film is the saga of a happy clown with a nasty vicious streak and a well-meaning sad clown at war over the affections of a beautiful aerialist. The film is grotesquely beautiful and filled with bursts of kinky sexuality and disturbing violence. You truly never know where it is going. Although it is strikingly original in its execution, it remains reminiscent of the works of David Lynch, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, the Coen Brothers and Guillermo del Toro.

Probably best known for the topsy-turvy 1998 road movie Dance with the Devil (aka Perdita Durango) with Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini, and a young Javier Bardem, de la Iglesia helmed The Last Circus after his more staid 2008 English language thriller, The Oxford Murders starring Ethan Hawke and John Hurt, received negative reviews and scant distribution. Meanwhile, French financing for The Yellow M, his adaptation of a Belgian comic book to star Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland, was put on hold.

So, it was back to the drawing board for De la Iglesia. And it was back to his homeland for The Last Circus (available Oct. 18 on DVD and Blu-ray), a film saturated with troubling images, wicked black humor and, well, tidbits of history.

But those familiar with the filmmaker’s past work shouldn’t be too surprised by what’s on screen here.  After all, de la Iglesia has been shocking and awing audiences since 1992 when he made his first film, Accion Mutante, produced by Pedro Almodovar. Working with soon-to-be-longtime screenwriting (and sometimes Almodovar) collaborator Jose Guerricaechevarria, De la Iglesia’s Accion Mutante is a superhero film the likes had never been seen before—or since.

The film tells of a post-apocalyptic world where a group of handicapped and badly disfigured people conspire to defeat the good looking and well toned ruling class. The misfits crash an elaborate wedding where they kidnap a beautiful aristocratic bread heiress; their facially deformed leader eventually gets overwhelmed by power and begins disposing of his fellow mutants by way of a cat in a spaceship.

While Accion Mutante never got a solid theatrical release in the U.S., its in-your-face approach and the Almodovar connection certainly help spread the word of de la Iglesia’s warped cinematic world, as some likened the picture to Peter Jackson’s early output (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles).

The director, who had a stint as a comic book artist and production designer before entering filmmaking, followed with 1996’s The Day of the Beast, which may be his best film. It centers on a Roman Catholic priest (regular collaborator Alex Argulo) who believes that if he commits petty crimes, he can get the attention of the Antichrist. In fact, the good padre discovers through his studies that Satan’s spawn himself will appear in Madrid on Christmas Day. The priest heads there, soon joined by a heavy metal-loving record store owner and a phony TV psychic. If The Three Stooges spoke Spanish and were in a horror film directed by Sam Raimi, it would probably play something like the amazing Day of the Beast.

Even though the effort got limited exposure here, it went on to capture eight Goya Awards (Spain’s movie trophies), including one for de la Iglesia as Best Director. This paved the way for his first English-language project, Dance with the Devil. Based on a book by Barry Gifford (who also worked in the screenplay), Dance uses some characters from the author’s Wild at Heart to tell the off-kilter story of Perdita Durango (Perez), a thrill-seeking woman dressed in black who teams with Jesus (Bardem), a Santeria-practicing crook, to kidnap a teenage couple with plans to ritually sacrifice them and hijack a truck filled with human fetuses.

The plotline alone is off-the-charts in terms of weirdness, with extreme violence, hot pursuits across Mexico and the American Southwest, and supporting bits by Gandolfini, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Aimee Graham, Don Stroud and Repo Man director Alex Cox.

The film proved too strong for America, and had several minutes of nudity and violence sheared.  Even with the Wild at Heart pedigree—Perez played the part originated by Isabella Rossellini in Lynch’s movie—popular success eluded de la Iglesia once again. Rumors abounded, however, that the director was going to make another film in English, a new version of Charlie Chan with Antonio Banderas in the lead. But it never came to fruition.

Back in Spain, De la Iglesia worked on a quartet of films in quick succession. Dying of Laughter (1999) looked at the dark side of the relationship between an entertainment team bearing a passing resemblance to Martin and Lewis. Their rise and fall is chronicled here, with the pair hating each throughout their partnership. Slapstick humor and a deep nihilistic streak bring the characters to life, as does de la Iglesia’s making the most of tacky period details such as dress and hairstyles. In retrospect, Atom Egoyan’s 2005 film Where the Truth Lies, with Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth as Dean and Jerry-esque nightclub entertainers, owes a lot to Dying of Laughter.

For Common Wealth (La Communidad) (2000), de la Iglesia took a lower-keyed approach to his material. Almodovar regular Carmen Maura plays a Madrid rental agent who discovers a fortune hidden inside an apartment building. The problem is that all of her kooky neighbors want to get their paws on the loot, too. Hitchcockian suspense mixes with Delicatessen-like eccentricities and pitch-black farce for one intriguing stew, with Maura wonderful as the quick-talking lead in a film with pop culture references that range from popular cleaning products to Star Wars.

Pop culture references also played a role in de la Iglesia’s next film, 800 Bullets (2003), a salute to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The director again casts Maura as a realtor –and the mother of spoiled ‘tween Carlos (Luis Castro). The kid skips school to see his estranged grandfather (Sancho Gracia), a hard-drinking supervisor of the stuntmen and cowboys at a dilapidated western theme park where sagebrush sagas used to be shot. The kid gets a quick lesson in the ways of the west, and becomes part of a nasty siege between Maura’s clients, who are intent on tearing down the park for redevelopment, and the aging performers (played by various veterans of spaghetti westerns).

At first, 800 Bullets seems to be taking de la Iglesia in a new, sentimental direction, offering a gushy homage to old movies and cinematic tradition. Could this be his children’s movie? It doesn’t take long before the director’s true trouble-making traits become visible, as bloody shoot-outs, prostitutes and the tension-filled standoff between the old days and contemporary times blow the sentimentality away. A critic likened it to “Chris Columbus remaking El Topo.”

It was a screening of 2004’s The Perfect Crime (El Crimen Perfecto) that brought de la Iglesia and Guerricaechevarria to The Philadelphia Film Festival. Wearing glasses, sporting a beard and looking like he could use a few weeks of sleep, the gregarious, heavy-set de la Iglesia played Oliver Hardy to lanky, soft-spoken Guerricaechevarria’s Stan Laurel. He answered questions in broken English with hysterical, self-effacing answers, and appeared genuinely touched by the audience’s warm response to him, his partner, and their work.

As for the film (originally and slyly titled The Ferpect Crime or El Crimen Ferpecto), this fast-moving, often hilarious comedy of errors tells of an handsome, slick department store salesman (Guillermo Toledo) who seeks to commit a crime that will further his career, and gets caught in the act by a homely salesgirl (Monica Cervera). She blackmails him into a deal: she won’t turn him in if he becomes her boyfriend. He agrees. Soon, he becomes a slave to her in every respect.

The film plays like a deranged blend of 1940s American screwball comedy and the Italian sex farces of the 1960s like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. As in most of the director’s work, the story is chockfull of surprises and oddball twists and turns, as well as a strong sense of irony and a depiction of an intense battle between two individuals as well as the sexes.

After The Oxford Murders, a film whose U.S. release was marred with problems from troubled distributor ThinkFilm, de la Iglesia turned his attention to television with Pluton B.R.B Nero, a satirical 2008-2009 science fiction series set in the year 2530. References to such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Star Trek were commonplace; the series features a president of the United States named Macaulay Culkin III. The director himself served as narrator of the series, which to date has not been made available in America.

His next credit is already completed: The Spark of Life (La Chispa de la Vida), a dark comedy penned by American screenwriter Randy Feldman (Tango and Cash, The Negotiator). The film focuses on an out-of-work publicist who gets horribly injured in a freak accident in a Roman ampitheater, and chooses to milk the ensuing whirlwind of media attention for all it’s worth. Salma Hayek, Spanish TV star Jose Mota and The Last Circus’ Carolina Bang star in the film, which sounds like Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) in reverse.

Whether his new film will catch on with audiences internationally is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: Alex de la Iglesia is sure to deliver something that may at first appear familiar to audiences, but they’ll soon discover they’ve never seen anything quite like it before.