Like his mentor Pedro Almodóvar, 37-year-old Basque director Alex de la Iglesia creates crowd-friendly, candy-colored pastiches steeped in transatlantic pop. But unlike the flouncy melodramas of his better-known elder, Iglesia’s bodacious, badass cinema fits squarely in the straight-camp tradition of alpha-nerd genre-slingers like Russ Meyer, Sam Raimi, and Robert Rodriguez.
Iglesia turns his dark comedies a bittersweet pitch black, tempering drive-in-style blood, guts, and sex with melancholy reflections on human mortality. His first feature, the sci-fi spoof Mutant Action (1993), concerns a band of genetically deformed antiheroes. In his breakthrough horror film, The Day of the Beast (1995), a pious padre joins forces with a death-metal satanist in order to stop the apocalypse. As a maniacally ruthless Mexican cultist in American co-production Perdita Durango (1997), the usually perky Rosie Perez drags two white-bread hostages south of the border to pursue “the two greatest pleasures in life: fucking and killing.”
If his two-fisted tales play like graphic novels blown up to megaplex proportions, it’s partly due to Iglesia’s impeccable geek pedigree. In youth, he weaned his sick fix on comic books, sci-fi novels, and Dungeons & Dragons, cut with somber Continentalism. “My brain is like a grinder of ideas,” he says. “On one side there is my religious education. I studied philosophy in a Catholic university: Saint Augustine and Wittgenstein. On the other side, I love American culture: Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Poe and Lovecraft, Noam Chomsky, and Billy Wilder. All at once, in an eclectic manner. The transcendent and the comic, the ridiculous and the epic. Dreyer and Hellzapoppin’.” He also cites George Lucas as an influence, though not for typical fanboy reasons. “I admire the illusion that’s represented in Star Wars. The second one is magnificent, a film in which evil wins, corrupting the hero. Something never seen, from a moral point of view. The rest of them I find totally disposable.”
Since garnering commercial success in Spain (Day of the Beast earned six Goya Awards and broke box office records), Iglesia has crafted some less otherworldly fare. Dying of Laugher (1999) mines early-’70s television for a faux biopic about a burned-out slapstick comedy team. Common Wealth (2000) places Carmen Maura in a fast-paced Ruthless People-style money-snatching plot. His latest, 800 Bullets (2002), takes on the Almería-set spaghetti westerns of decades past. But Iglesia’s love for “bitter laughter” remains. “I find the mean sense of humor fascinating,” he says. “I am sick of and offended by the recent and growing infantilism in film that absorbs us and surrounds us. I am the hardest defender of entertainment, but I don’t believe that all of us are eight years old. If there is no way out of this hypocritical and cruel world of ours, at least allow me to laugh at it all before we get eaten by the lions.”
Though he aims to marry blockbusters with Buñuel, Iglesia waxes cynical even about his own shock effects. “Offending people is no longer an option. Everyone gets used to everything, which I consider hell, a hell of zombies. The world is like a huge dentist’s waiting room, everyone very formally accepting and waiting for pain, bored to death until suffering wakes them up. The only way to fight,” he says, is “to transform your pain into a poisonous liquid, entertaining and refreshing.”
He may enjoy serving audiences sugarcoated poison, but Iglesia doesn’t see his work as necessarily subversive. “No, I don’t believe I am a transgressive person at all, but I do think my films try to be liberating. If you laugh at what you are not supposed to, if you enjoy situations that are contradictory and unexpected, if you enjoy seeing the world in a different way for a few hours, that’s not transgressive. It’s the essence of cinema.”