1979, NR, 115 min. Directed by Iván Zulueta. Starring Eusebio Poncela, Cecilia Roth, Will More, Marta Fernández Muro, Carmen Giralt, Helena Fernán-Gómez.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 8, 2021
Restored and re-released after 40 years of relative ignominy, Spanish director Iván Zulueta's filmmaker horror Arrebato feels of a piece with contemporaries David Cronenberg and Andrzej Żuławski, whose Possession has also had a recent long-overdue restoration. There's the same sense of corruption, of mental and physical collapse, of the search from redemption in transgression. Yet Arrebato presages Cronenberg's grand media horror, Videodrome, by three years, and begins with what has become almost a trope in modern horror cinema: a mysterious package, delivered to a filmmaker. In this case, it's a reel of film, a key, and an audio cassette that lands in the hands of burnout horror director José Sirgado (Poncela). He's running toward catastrophe even before his invitation to madness arrives. He hates his new work-in-progress (an artsy but dated black-and-white vampire slog), his relationship with his leading lady from an earlier film (Roth) has collapsed, and his heroin habit is not exactly the healthiest coping mechanism.
The package is from another filmmaker: Pedro (More), the cousin of José's ex, a high-strung obsessive who the more experienced Pedro met exactly twice. Both incidents are recounted on the tape, and it's clear that the Pedro seen at beginning of that first encounter (shrill, petulant) is not the raspy-voiced and focused seducer in the tapes. But that Pedro may be the real one, revealed on that first meeting. Well, seduction is more the word. Pedro's intention is to drag the ostensibly more experienced José into his twisted POV. The way he intrudes on José's personal space, the way José lets him (shirtless in private) and seems ashamed in public (hands shoved deep into pockets, furtive and slumped), the trail of slime and chewed gum on bedsteads, is heavy-handedly sexual, but the subtextual queer coding is simply a gateway. It's not the sex or the drugs, it's the high, and Zulueta (himself a troubled junkie whose career collapsed after this, his second movie) transcribes that into the filmmaking obsession. Most especially, film's ability to mess with time. Pedro's fixation with time lapse, orgasms, the appearance of beloved childhood artifacts, poppers, sadism, or the strange ecstasy of the camera, it's all the same fix.
Rarely seen in the U.S., Arrebato (originally released in the States as Rapture) is best known as a favorite film of Pedro Almodóvar, who went on to work with Roth so often that she became known as his muse, as well as brief collaborations with More.
Yet even with that high praise, even if it beat Videodrome to the screen by two years, it's not quite the same level of must-see programming. It's fascinating, but less coherent, less scathing, and far more meandering. Perhaps that's an inevitable byproduct of its topic and its medium. Videodrome was a horrifying warning about our sadomasochistic relationship with media. Arrebato is more introspective, a somewhat messy metaphor for junkiedom, and it's not like grainy time lapse is that impressive (Zulueta made the film eight years after Sesame Street had completely normalized the form for kids globally with the "fast/slow" shorts). It's not until the third act that Zulueta starts letting Pedro explain what strange obsession has really dragged him into, and by that point it almost feels like an afterthought. It also separates Pedro and José, and their relationship is where the film sparks most.