Keep their Heads Ringin’
On The Bell from Hell, a one-off wonder of Fantaterror.
The series Fantaterror Español plays at Metrograph in theater and At Home through June 18.
On Friday the 16th, 1973, on one of the last days of shooting on his second feature, La campana del infierno (The Bell from Hell), its 34-year-old director Claudio Guerín, sometimes credited as Claudio Guerín Hill, fell 60 feet to the square below from a catwalk that led from the actual belfry of Noia’s Church of San Martiño to another papier-mâché belfry that had been constructed for the production. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital in Santiago de Compostela, and laid to rest in Almudena Cemetery in Madrid. When news of his death came over the airwaves, the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía (EOC) in Madrid, where Guerín had been a classmate of Victor Erice, Josefina Molina, and Pilar Miró—the last a former girlfriend—closed its doors for the day. There is little to give credence to the pervasive rumor that Guerín’s death was in fact a suicide save for the film itself, which is a mighty nasty piece of work.
All of this imbues The Bell from Hell, which was eventually brought to completion by Juan Antonio Bardem, with a morbid appeal, but wouldn’t necessarily be worth bringing up almost 50 years later if the finished film, one of the lesser-known great works of the Spanish “Fantaterror” cinema, didn’t already have quite a bit of morbid appeal.
The Fantaterror phenomenon—the portmanteau word refers to fantasy/horror films—is generally regarded to have begun with Jesús “Jess” Franco’s 1962 Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orloff), though it actually got into full swing at the end of the 1960s. Not only did Franco revive a tradition of Spanish horror cinema that had gone moribund following Edgar Neville’s 1944 La torre de los siete jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks) and Antonio de Lara’s 1947 Canción de medianoche (Midnight Song), but in doing so he discovered a way to circumvent the strict censorship of caudillo Francisco Franco’s Falangist dictatorship, in power from 1939 to 1975. Jess Franco was deep in pre-production on a film to be called Los colgados—an adaptation of a 1936 novel by the mysterious writer B. Traven, The Rebellion of the Hanged, which described a workers’ revolt at a Mexican mahogany plantation—when the project was shut down mere days before the shoot was to begin by government censors who objected, presumably, to the proposed film’s radical politics. Back against the wall, Franco took his two producers (Sergio Newman of Hispamer Film, and Marius Lesoeur of Paris-based Eurociné) to a screening of Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), another hit for Britain’s Hammer Film Productions, and proposed that they might make a horror film instead.
Franco still faced problems with the censors, but his discovery—that they were less inclined to place fantasy films under the same level of scrutiny that they did films in a “realist” vein—would be put to good use in the coming years by a host of Spanish filmmakers working at home and abroad, as the country, long a pariah in Western Europe, began to open up. The modest proposal ventured by the narrator of Michel Houellebecq’s 2019 novel Seratonin—that Francisco Franco, “regardless of other—sometimes questionable—aspects of his political activities, could be considered the genuine inventor, on a global scale, of gracious tourism”—is not, it needs be said, entirely a baseless provocation. He goes on to propose that
the caudillo—sensing that Spain would never catch up with the train of the industrial revolution (which, let’s face it, it had completely missed)—had boldly decided to burn its bridges and invest in the third and final phase of the European economy, the tertiary sector: tourism and services, giving its country a crucial advantage at a time when salaried workers in newly industrialized countries, having achieved greater purchasing power, wanted to spend their money in Europe on gracious or mass tourism, in accordance with their status.
The fraught border crossing from France to Spain by Yves Montand’s Communist agitator in Alain Resnais’s 1966 La Guerre est Finie would have been an unusual event by the mid-’60s, by which point Spain was very much open for business. Following an inflation crisis and economic slump lasting through the late ’50s, the long-isolated, semi-feudal country had begun a mad scramble to adapt to the changing times, not only petitioning for foreign tourism—and Europeans came to the beaches in droves—but opening up to the free market. With this came a revalued peseta, but also an influx of leisure-class decadence from the rest of Europe that the Catholic dictatorship had worked so hard to tamp down at home. Devout matrons en route to church in black mantillas lowered their heads at bra-less hedonists and adult male traveling companions from London, Paris, Amsterdam, and the Cantons of Switzerland, while some of those matrons’ male children had begun to wear their hair past their collar. Lefty Kenneth Tynan sang the praises of bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez and the Feria de Sevilla in prose, and Michelangelo Antonioni shot his Professione: reporter (The Passenger) unmolested around the country’s southwest in ’73. Steve Bent’s “I’m Going to Spain” didn’t hit the charts until ’76, the year after the caudillo’s death, but the phenomenon it referred to—namely, the average Briton’s vision of Spain as a land of fun, sun, and relaxing rejuvenation—was already a well-established fact.
What does any of this have to do with Fantaterror generally, and Guerín’s The Bell from Hell specifically? Quite a lot, in fact. Firstly, Spanish cinema was very much intended to act as part of the country’s “soft power” outreach, as indicated by the passage in 1964 of the Nuevas Normas para el Desarrollo de la Cinematografía (New Standards for Film Development), an order intended to encourage international co-productions and, consequently, give Spanish films an increasing presence abroad. Another key development leading to the Fantaterror boom was the “Matesa Case,” a 1969 political corruption scandal surrounding the Banco de Crédito Industrial, which resulted in credit from the bank, much relied-upon by Spanish producers, being frozen indefinitely. In search for a low-investment, high-yield product with export potential, producers began to go big in the Fantaterror business, which enjoyed some notable successes that year with Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La residencia (The House That Screamed) and Amando de Ossorio’s Malenka, La sobrina del vampiro (Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece), building on the breakthrough of Enrique López Eguiluz’s 1968 La marca del hombre lobo (The Mark of the Wolfman), the first in a series of films starring Fantaterror icon Paul Naschy as werewolf Count Waldemar Daninsky.
If the lure of Fantaterror for producers was a reliable return on investment, the attraction for Spanish filmmakers was likely the loophole that Franco had found with Dr. Orloff—a way to put off their scent the Falangist censors, now senescent but still given to an occasional stirring, giving them the freedom to prod at topics considered taboo in “serious” films. Guerín, who had worked for Telévision Española after graduating EOC, had finished his solo feature debut in 1971 with the drama La casa de las polomas (The House of the Dove), only then to watch censors in both Spain and Portugal, then under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, go to work on its boudoir scenes. This was an experience he presumably wasn’t eager to revisit, and may have helped to push him into Fantaterror’s open, waiting arms.
Among the prickly subjects that seemed to keep being smuggled into Fantaterror films is the confusion born of the confrontation between a “controlling” traditional culture (that of Franco’s Catholic Spain) and a “liberated” consumer culture (such as that of the tourists flocking to the Spanish beaches), happening across the country during the years these movies were being turned out in scores—by one count, more than 100 between 1969 and 1973. Where industrialized Western countries had lived through antecedents to ’60s counterculture, and consequent acclimation periods, when Spain opened its gates, the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll came crashing in all at once. If Fantaterror has sometimes been regarded as a kissing cousin to the Italian giallo, this is not only because of the strong ties between the two countries’ film industries, cemented with the dawn of the Spaghetti Western, but because both genres seem at times to embody the neurosis and hysteria of deeply Catholic nations caught in the throes of cultural revolution.
Reflecting the Iberian Peninsula’s new role as Europe’s favorite playground, vacations gone awry were a Fantaterror staple. In Eugenio Martin’s 1973 Una vela para el diablo (It Happened at Nightmare Inn), visitors at an Andalucian posada run by spinster sisters Marta and Verónica (Aurora Bautista and Esperanza Roy) are knocked off one by one upon outraging Marta’s prudish sense of propriety, beginning with an English girl who has the indecency to sunbathe nude on the terrace. It’s open season on the Brits again in Serrador’s 1976 ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?), in which travelers Lewis Flander and Prunella Ransome arrive on a remote island off the Spanish coast to get some rest and relaxation before the imminent birth of their child, only to discover the adult population of the fishing community have all disappeared, while the giggling children who remain seem to share some sinister secret. De Ossorio’s 1972 La noche del terror ciego (Tombs of the Blind Dead) begins with Spanish sun-worshippers lazing poolside at a resort in Portugal, then, following a falling out between two former boarding school roommates and ex-lesbian lovers over the same man, leads to the discovery of a ruined village on the Spain-Portugal border ruled over by revenant Knights Templar who’ve been terrorizing the countryside by night on horseback since the 14th century. Per Nigel J. Burrell, de Ossorio’s film attracted an audience of Francoists who read it as an allegory for “the rising of Old Spain against the permissive generation, the repressive fascism of the Franco regime versus the youth of the day”—though given that it concerns a sect of Catholic Crusaders turned to heresy in order to buy eternal life as desiccant, eyeless bloodsuckers, one could be forgiven for questioning their interpretation of the film.
Fantaterror in total is an unwelcome return (or revenge) of the repressed Id on Spanish screens—quite literally in The Bell from Hell, which begins with the release of its troublemaker central character, the twentysomething Juan (Renaud Verley, the only French element in this Franco-Spanish co-production), from a psychiatric facility where he’s been kept on ice for three years. Slowly doling out information about Juan—first seen making a cast of his face for reasons that remain unclear until the film’s final moments—Guerín invites speculation on exactly what manner of menace has just been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Back on the cobblestone streets of Noia, Juan takes a boyish delight in committing elaborate pranks that sometimes take a turn for the ugly. He stuns a married female neighbor into a dead faint by pretending to rip out his own eyes, using Tom Savini-grade prosthetics, then arranges her unconscious body in such a way as to make her believe she’s been molested or worse, all the while going through the motions with a sweet smile and no visible trace of malice. But if Juan is a basically-harmless-if-sociopathic practical joker, then what are we to make of the scene that follows him through one day on the job at an abattoir where, having learned the essential strokes on the killing floor, he promptly puts in his notice with the ominous statement “I’ve learned enough”?
Juan returns to the home he once shared with his late mother, a black sheep libertine who died by her own hand. The hotchpotch, cluttered décor suggests bohemian taste and plenty of money thrown after fads and passing enthusiasms: mid-century modern furniture, eclectic artworks that might be the remnants of various longhaired lovers, and a menagerie of animals who’ve somehow been kept fed after the death of Juan’s mother and throughout his long confinement. His long time-out in the rubber room, it transpires, was underwritten at unusual cost by a wheelchair-bound aunt, Marta (Viveca Lindfors), who barely disguises the fact that she regards Juan, like his mother, as a blight on the family tree. Appalled by his former footloose shenanigans backpacking across Europe and consorting with demimonde types in London and Hamburg, Marta installed herself as Juan’s guardian and warder, first by exercising her influence to have him tossed into the nuthouse, now by holding his passport to keep him close at hand. She lives not far from her sister’s old place with three daughters—Esther, María, and Teresa (Maribel Martín, Christina von Blanc, and Nuria Gimeno)—all of whom Juan, on his first visit after being released to freedom, displays a more-than-cousinly intimacy towards. Before heading out to pick up his duties as the local nuisance, Juan invites the relations over for tea, then, once home, sets to preparing for their arrival as though baiting a booby trap.
There’s no doubt that Juan is a bit cracked, but as The Bell from Hell proceeds he looks less like the film’s villain, and more like the victim of those who cracked him—namely, the community that raised him, and that despises his disturbing presence. His grotesque “joke” on his unconscious neighbor is bracketed by contrasting scenes in which a hunting party led by local gentryman Don Pedro (Alfredo Mayo)—the well-heeled husband of that same neighbor—waylays an adolescent girl walking through the woods and threatens her with rape. She holds them at bay only by retreating into the middle of a nearby pond in an oarless rowboat, but when they convince her to throw a line to shore only to pick up where they left off, who should it be but Juan, white knight on a motorbike, who—despite taking a nasty spill while dodging bullets—cuts in and spoils their fun, squiring the innocent away. In the following scene, Juan, ever the rascal, shows up at the local club frequented by Don Pedro and his cronies wearing an elaborate plaster traction splint that suggests he was injured in the fall, revealing the get-up as a contrivance only after he convinces a contrite and anxious Don Pedro to help him out at the urinal by holding his cock. Admittedly, this is a pretty good one.
Juan’s masterpiece, however, is his Tuesday tea party with the family. It begins with cocktails, then becomes a desperate plea. Juan offers his Aunt his inheritance in exchange for his independence, and is greeted with a firm “no.” Rebuffed, he suddenly goes back into jolly master of ceremonies form, and as he sets a 16mm projector of childhood home movies rolling, his intricate ambush is put into motion. This is the big performance that Juan’s been waiting for—and that Guerín has been teasing at—since the apprenticeship at the abattoir: payback for a life sentence of involuntary imprisonment, by way of quadruple homicide. The only factor Juan has overlooked in his scrupulous preparations is stage fright—that, and Marta’s unexpected resilience. Juan begins by getting his auntie out of the way, leaving her napping next to a cluster of beehives on the property after spraying her with some kind of sting-enticing nectar, then proceeds to truss up the cousins one by one, stringing them side-by-side in his private basement slaughterhouse as though they were cattle being prepared for processing.
It’s here that Juan finds that he can’t kill by his own hand—and after freeing the girls and trudging into a downpour to locate Aunt Marta, discovers his honeybees didn’t quite finish the job either. He’s tackled by a wailing Marta, her face now swollen into a gruesome, hydrocephalic mask, then brained by Don Pedro, alerted by her screams, finally coming to as Aunt Marta watches Don Pedro lay the last bricks that will seal him inside the walls of the church basement, where he’ll be treated to an ingenious Rube Goldberg execution of his enemies’ own devising. A new two-ton bell has been installed, due to ring for the first time during Sunday’s service, and Juan, wearing a noose around his neck, has been arranged to swing as one of its counterweights. Like Juan with his little beehive operation—and like most despots—the village’s leading citizens prefer to keep their hands clean when they kill. Unlike Juan, if there’s a hiccup in the operation, such as when the altar boys struggle with the pull rope the next day, Don Pedro doesn’t hesitate to step in and finish the job with the help of his faithful hunting buddies. It takes a village, as they say.
The bell, first sighted arriving to town on the back of a truck that the newly freed Juan overpasses on his motorcycle under the film’s opening credits, finally tolls his demise. These tidily enclosing bookends are appropriate to the closed-circuit, parochial, terrarium world of The Bell from Hell, and in keeping with its propensity for mysteriously doling out bits of information only to make their significance clear in time. Bad begets bad in this stifling, sluggish, incestuous place, where even the seemingly benign local priest is complicit in evil through his reliance on the tithing of a creep like Don Pedro—a “typical” village that might be taken as Guerín’s version of Spain in microcosm. But even amidst total iniquity degrees of distinction can still exist, and between Juan’s honest instability and the calculated, businesslike cruelty of the community’s leading citizens, there can be no question which Guerín finds the worse. The difference may be likened to that between a murder committed in a fit of fury by an individual—abhorrent, but accountable to human frailty—and an execution committed by the state, passionlessly following the letter of the law.
Was Guerín’s on-set “fall” in fact the most exquisitely rehearsed marriage of creation and self-slaughter this side of Yukio Mishima’s?
After seeming at first to implicate Juan, the film slowly tilts the balance towards empathizing with him. The Bell from Hell’s deft sleight-of-hand in matters “audience identification” is evident in a distinctive bit of handheld camerawork that accompanies Juan’s return to the house—and his waiting cousins—after leaving Aunt Marta to the bees’ stingers. At first the shot, which runs for a little more than two minutes, approximates Juan’s point of view as he approaches the porch, greeted by the bubbliest and most sympathetic of the girls, Martin’s Esther, who lends him her ear as he speaks in a dazed, faraway voice of the asylum, of dreams of wanderlust, and of her sister, Maria, who refused to run away with him. Then, at a chipper interjection from Esther (“I would have”), Juan suddenly steps into frame, drawn out of his reverie and back into the world. The conversation continues a moment in a different, intimate tenor, until Juan—perhaps realizing he’s gone too far to back out on his plans now, perhaps daring himself to be as mad as he’s been told that he is—proceeds to tie her up with some rope he’s squirreled away for the occasion. As her initial giggling compliance turns to fear, the camera seems to return to Juan’s perspective.
The cousins, neatly coded by a single defining trait—the sweet Esther, the sensual Maria, and the bitchy brunette Teresa—aren’t particularly nuanced creations, but then the screenplay, by the playwright Santiago Moncada, is largely concerned with small-town archetypes: the Rich Bastard, the Kindly Priest, and even the Local Hermit, a thatch-bearded character who appears early in the film, silently observing Juan from a knotty tree that he seems almost to be growing out of, then disappears until curtain call. While Juan and Marta may be the film’s only characters fleshed out to something beyond stock “types,” The Bell from Hell uses shopworn goods in strikingly original ways. Subjecting no scene to a template treatment, Guerín finds the unique texture of each, and the frequently unorthodox decisions that he makes with framing and camera movement seem never like showboating, but in the service of expressing something distinct to the scene—as in the shot described above—or contributing to the film’s total visual architecture. That he reportedly slipped from the church tower—and let’s just say that he fell—on his way to personally tinker with the location of a positioned camera speaks of a certain level of dedication, if not an overabundance of caution.
For rather obvious reasons, Guerín wasn’t available to supervise the editing of The Bell from Hell, and by all reports left no instructions for its assemblage—not precisely the gesture of a man preparing to leave his last will and testament on film, though one never knows. (Per a Variety report on his death, he was slated to start another film for Mercurio Films, Beatriz, in April.) The picture completed in his absence, the only one we’ll ever get, is a clean, even elegantly structured thing absent of extraneous elements, drawing the viewer to its climax according to a strange internal logic, much as the lines in a cathedral draw the eye upwards, towards the belfry and to eternity beyond.
And there is something beyond The Bell from Hell’s belfry, the structure that sounded the death knell for both the film’s director and its star. The symbolic import of Juan’s devious demise aside, that scene impressively manages to combine two allusions to the work of Edgar Allan Poe: both the death-by-immurement of “The Cask of Amontillado” and the darkening latter sections of his clangorous poem “The Bells” (“They are neither man nor woman—/They are neither brute nor human—/They are Ghouls:/And their king it is who tolls.”) To these we can add Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” whose same spirit of vengeance from beyond the grave wrought upon guilty Ghouls is at work in the film’s final scene, which might be called its epitaph. While preparing for bed, Don Pedro sees lights flicking on and off in the windows of his late neighbor’s house; disconcerted, he sets out to investigate. Entering the house Don Pedro discovers, in panicked terror, that rapscallion Juan, escaped from his tomb, none the worse for the wear, and plinking away at his harpsichord. Or so it seems. In fact, the Don has blundered into Juan’s final posthumous prank, in which two threads that the movie has left dangling—the role of the doppelganger mannequin that Juan is seen making in the film’s opening, and that of the village hermit—come together to form a garrote.
When an artist dies young there’s always a temptation to speculate on what they might have gone on to do, even if this can only be speculation, particularly in the case of a figure like Guerín, whose short film career leaves fewer points to chart a future trajectory from than even that of the tragic Michael Reeves, the Witchfinder General (1968) director who might be considered a parallel figure in the annals of UK horror. And in the case of an artist dying young, under circumstances as unusual as those that Guerín did, and while working on a bleak, excoriating film whose murdered antihero—a figure, with his own painstaking preparation of staged scenes and Machiavellian manipulations, is also something of a metteur en scene—returns in a final mock-resurrection? The temptation is almost irresistible. What’s certain is that Guerín made The Bell from Hell, and that’s not nothing. Are their clues buried in The Bell from Hell? Does it mean something that Poe’s “The Bells” was only published shortly after its author was scraped out of a Baltimore gutter to die in an emergency ward? Was Guerín’s on-set “fall” in fact the most exquisitely rehearsed marriage of creation and self-slaughter this side of Yukio Mishima’s? Seems far-fetched, but who knows? What’s certain is: Ars longa, vita brevis.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Decadent Editions), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).