A Quick Guide to
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Horror's Great Two-Hit Director
words by Tristan Shaw
When we think of the best horror filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s, the Spanish director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador isn’t a name usually mentioned.
His movies The House That Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child? are classics of the genre. In the first, a chilling proto-slasher, a teenage girl ends up in a sadistic boarding school where students are disappearing left and right, while the second concerns a Spanish island where all the children rise up and attack the adults for reasons that are never definitively clear.
Ironically, while both movies were released in English to appeal to the global market, Serrador’s two stabs at big-screen horror remain obscure in the English-speaking world of horror fandom. In fact, aside from a few mentions here and there, Serrador’s death last summer sadly went unnoticed around this side of the world. If there’s a greater travesty that this pioneer never made more than two movies, it’s that Serrador’s work is all too often forgotten and underappreciated in discussions about the heights of European horror.
The man known as “Chicho” to fans spent most of his career in television. Born in Uruguay in 1935, Serrador’s childhood consisted of touring around Latin America with his theatrical parents. His father, Narciso Ibáñez Menta, was famed for bringing adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe and other notable horror authors to the stage. In 1959, the two Narcisos came up with a hit anthology for Argentine TV, Masterpieces of Horror. The young Serrador wrote the program’s scripts, with episodes adapted from staples including The Phantom of the Opera and The Tell-Tale Heart. As a writer only in his twenties, Serrador had a project in his hands that was so successful that it spawned a movie spin-off, a sister sci-fi series, and interest from TV executives in Spain.
After a few years working in the Spanish TV industry, Serrador created another milestone, Stories to Keep You Awake in 1966. A horror anthology reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, Serrador’s new series was a candle that exposed a wonderfully dark, novel world for Spanish audiences. Traditionally, Spanish cinema and television didn’t have much in terms of strictly bloody and spooky fare. The country didn’t even produce its first horror movie until 1962 when up-and-coming schlockmeister Jess Franco released The Awful Dr. Orloff, a fittingly-named spin on Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Before Serrador entered the scene, horror on the Spanish screen was either non-existent or uninspired.
Stories to Keep You Awake was different. Its first episode begins with an opening on a gothic house (or castle) full of cliches. Cobwebs infest the barred windows, a stormy night rages outside, and a candle on top of a skull sits on a dusty bookcase. A glance at the tomes on the shelf reveals volumes by the likes of Guy de Maupassant and Henry James, literary writers who weren’t afraid to explore the supernatural or morbid. From the get-go, Serrador wanted to emphasize to sceptical viewers that horror could be well-written, intelligent, and even respectable.
To that end, Serrador again drew on old standards, especially from his beloved Poe. But the show also featured adaptations from Ray Bradbury, some Spanish writers, and his own original material under his pseudonym Luis Peñafiel. Like Rod Serling, Serrador was the face of his creation. He directed, wrote, and introduced the episodes, becoming synonymous with the show.
In introducing more polished horror, Serrador showed viewers that the genre could have a sociopolitical edge, such as in The Asphalt. In this Peñafiel-penned episode, a handicapped man slowly sinks into concrete in an Expressionist-style city where people drive cardboard cars Flintstones-style. His pleas are ignored by authority figures and fellow citizens, and by the end, the man’s hat and cane are the only things left on the asphalt. In a country like 1960s Spain, the bizarre, surreal situation spoke to the carelessness and dehumanization that ordinary people put up with by dictator Francisco Franco’s government.
With episodes like these, Stories to Keep You Awake was a cultural phenomenon. It would receive a second season the next year, some specials in the ‘70s, and a full-coloured, third season in 1982. For his next step, Serrador decided to transition to film with The House That Screamed in 1969. Made at a time when Spain was desperate to tap into the international movie market, Serrador amazingly received government funding to film a story with strong anti-authoritarian themes.
The plot follows Teresa, a teenage delinquent sent to a boarding school in 19th century France. The school is ruled by the sadistic Headmistress Forneau, who beats and whips students for the slightest transgressions. When Teresa arrives, a number of girls have disappeared, supposed to have escaped. During her time there, Teresa is bullied by other girls, spied on by a mysterious figure, and smitten with Luis, the headmistress’s weird son. As the mystery unravels, The House That Screamed builds up to a climactic chase that results in a horrifying ending.
Sporting the look of a Hammer period piece, with some obvious Hitchcockian elements to boot, Serrador’s first movie is a chilling, slow-burn exercise in the subtler side of terror. It’s only occasional explicit; the bloodletting is sparse, and even when characters are nude, the camera is never able to see body parts that would have sent government censors howling. The eerie, creaky school calls to mind classic haunted house movies, but with a focus on the cruelty and indifference of humans, not the supernatural. The House That Screamed, partially filmed in English and later overdubbed in English completely, failed to make an impression abroad. It was, however, a revelation in Spain, ending up as the highest-grossing movie of the year.
Despite critics finger-wagging over its costs and morbid content, The House That Screamed and the previous year’s The Mark of the Wolfman opened the floodgates for a boom in Spanish horror. In a country where the genre was nearly unknown a decade ago, moviegoers were now eager to catch the latest thrill, with some enthusiasts even crossing the border and watching screenings in France to see uncensored movies. Viewers welcomed ghosts, werewolves, serial killers, and all sorts of other weird and gruesome characters. Tombs of the Blind Dead recast the Knights Templar as a bunch of blind, flesh-eating ghouls, whose bites turn victims into zombies. The Blood Spattered Bride features a man digging up a naked lady buried in sand who turns out to be a vampire. These flicks were often cheap and silly, but they fed a bloodlust that apparently couldn’t be satiated.
Very few of these movies could compare to The House That Screamed, although Serrador’s next work would be a fine contender itself. His second and final picture, Who Can Kill a Child?, is both the peak and the beginning of the end of the boom in 1976. A mix between The Birds and Village of the Damned, Serrador’s adaptation of a Juan José Plans novel provoked even more controversy than last time, due to its scenes of adults and children killing one another.
It stars an English couple, Tom and his pregnant wife Evelyn, who head to Almanzora, a beautiful Spanish village hidden on an island that’s a 14-hour boat ride from the mainland. Immediately on arriving, the tourists realize there’s something strange going on. Most of the adults are missing, the buildings are empty, and the children roam around free and hostile.
When they witness an old man being beaten to death with his cane, it slowly dawns on the couple about the fate of the local grown-ups. Before they fall victim to the horde of little murderers, Tom and Evelyn make an intense, gory break to escape the island.
Like its predecessor, Who Can Kill a Child? is a slow ride, a further reflection on the themes of human cruelty and the dehumanizing effects of authority. While bloodier and certainly more disturbing, the movie swaps a dark, gothic school for a sunny Mediterranean paradise, a setting that is refreshingly creepy. The children themselves are otherworldly, silently moving, attacking, and smiling as a hivemind. It’s never explained why the kids have run amok, although the characters come up with a few theories. Are they instinctively defending themselves? Or could the cause be a supernatural disease? The question, never answered, adds to the allure of this classic, downright bizarre mystery.
In the years after the release of Who Can Kill a Child?, Spanish horror cinema fell into decline. Local moviegoers preferred other genres, and with Spain’s transition to democracy, became more interested in political and historical subjects. Serrador remained a TV icon, creating other horror and non-horror hits, including a game show and sex education series. While he never made another film, his brief career, with its focus on intelligent, well-crafted horror movies, laid the groundwork for the miraculous revival of Spanish horror in the late ‘90s and 2000s. Álex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast), Alejandro Amenábar (Thesis & The Others) and Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) have all cited Chicho as an influence. Most recently, his son Alejandro Ibáñez will be paying homage to his father’s work with Urubú, which will play at this year’s Grimmfest Film Festival. On the basis of just two films, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador redefined a genre, a feat most of us couldn’t manage even given the chance to make a dozen movies.