Imported from Spain, where it was one of 1995’s highest homegrown grossers, The Day of the Beast is an unexpectedly wry and fresh little horror flick. Opening on the well-trod turf of a Catholic priest’s battle against forces secular and demonic, Beast follows the darkly comic misadventures of Father Ángel (Álex Angulo), a bookish theologian who discovers that Saint John’s Revelation is actually a code containing the coming birth date of the Antichrist. Wise in the ways of the Word but not the world, Father Ángel sallies forth from his academic cocoon into the violent underbelly of Madrid, where he desperately tries to join the ranks of the damned (as a double agent, of course) before the beginning of the end of the world.
Despite a thick veneer of solemn, biblical exegesis, Beast has a distinct, uptempo charm thanks to the slapstick-like distance director and coscreenwriter Álex de la Iglesia keeps from his apocalyptic premise. Father Ángel’s vague plan to cozy up to Satan by learning “to do evil” unfolds with a wacky but sinister earnestness that’s as comfortable with the possibility that he’s a fruitcake as with the more standard proposition that he’s a legit, albeit overmatched, seer. From his early, baby-step crimes (the padre pushes a mime down a flight of stairs) to his haphazard pursuit of virgin’s blood (it’s needed to invoke the devil), Ángel is more sympathetic bumbler than hardcore spiritual warrior, theoretically astute but lacking in practical know-how. He does get help, first in the form of a burly, gun-toting record store clerk, then in the incredulous company of a fraudulent TV psychic, but it’s a typical with-friends-like-these setup, with the trio adding up to less than half a Hollywood exorcist. Beast is laden with wisecracks and concisely drawn, comic bit players, but you’re never sure exactly who the joke is on. Even the money shot that should push the proceedings firmly into the camp of the supernatural thriller has a jokily ambiguous quality—the unexpected appearance of a low-budget goat-devil sends Father Ángel and his assistants screaming like Stooges, but only after they’ve dropped a few tabs of acid.
On the F/X front Beast lacks digital polish, but that’s no loss; the kitschy stop-motion demons manage to come off as thematic choices as opposed to financial necessities. Reminiscent of the nasty fun of Evil Dead–era Sam Raimi, Beast is hardly a genre buster but de la Iglesia clearly understood the particular strengths of his story, working overtime to make his various aesthetic ends meet while serving up familiar yuks and frights in consistently inventive ways.