Friday, 20 May 2016

LA CABINA (1972)

Late one night, over thirty years ago, possibly on the fledgling Channel 4 in the UK, I saw a short horror suspense film that in its frightening simplicity and shock ending burned into my brain unforgettably. I discovered when I went to school the next day that I wasn’t alone. Back then, before the multiplication of stations fractured audiences and recording them was in its infancy, water-cooler moments of shared communal viewing were possible, indeed delightful. “Did you see that film last night? The one about the guy trapped in the ‘phone box? It was brilliant!” we gibbered in wild teenage enthusiasm. If you were a British teen in the early ‘80s, maybe you saw it too? Never the coolest of kids, I felt here at least was a TV moment that only the real in-crowd of horror fans were in on. Looking back, it was the closest I’ll ever come to  the feel of a cathode-ray urban myth or Max Renn’s experience in Videodrome of stumbling upon an unidentified, unsettling piece of entertainment and being wondrously plagued by it. Unless my memory fails me, it might even have been a last-minute replacement for a scheduled programme, which makes its mysterious appearance even more tantalising.

That film was the 1972 Spanish TV film La Cabina (‘the Telephone Box’), a 35-minute gem of perfectly-paced, developing terror conceived by Antonio Mercero and José Luis Garci and directed by Mercero. It has a simple premise but weaves in layers of themes and effects that lift it above the norm. 

The opening depicts a flat-bed truck pulling up in a modern concretised Spanish city to the accompaniment of jaunty lift ‘muzak’. Four workmen get out and carry between them a new red ‘phone box which they screw into the ground in the middle of a precinct. Filmed in a long shot, the men are nondescript drones. Along comes a respectable businessman and doting father (the excellent José Luis López Vázquez) who sees his son onto the school-bus. He decides to make a call from inside the box, not seeing the door slide silently closed behind him. The line is dead. Suddenly he realises he is stuck inside. A crowd begins to form around him, uselessly gawping at him like a caged zoo animal, the comparison compounded by jeering kids. One by one, a succession of self-styled experts try to free him as the music shifts to a mournful clarinet: a macho chap who fancies himself as a strongman but whose shoulder-barging only shames him, a uniformed workman whose toolkit is no use, the police and even the fire brigade. He cannot call out or be able to receive anything inside the sealed booth. Eventually, a similar faceless team to the one at the start appears, unscrews the box and hoists it like a sedan chair onto another flat-bed truck and drives away.

Here is where the film-makers’ craft really kicks in. After treating the man’s predicament as a curiosity, they gradually work on Vázquez’s mounting unease, taking him through other profound emotional states. He falls into despondency en-route to his unknown destination as the truck pauses to allow him an ironic viewing of a funeral gathering around a glass-sided hearse. The heavy symbolism works on him morbidly as the wagon carries on. He sees burned–out cars and the equal trap of our urban, high-rise egg-box confinement. The soundtrack deftly switches to a harmonica version of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ as the truck pauses by some sad-looking circus performers who stop rehearsing to stare at him. A clever moment that throws us off-balance shows a fellow city type leaving a duplicate box without any trouble. Maybe Vázquez simply had the bad luck to get a defective one.

The last act sees him driven through winding hair-pin turns into the countryside overlooking what looks like a barren quarry before heading into a tunnel where we glimpse other booths being tended to by workmen. Again the music score superbly telegraphs Vázquez’s sense of isolation morphing into increasing fear, jangling our nerves likewise with a church choir reminiscent of The Omen’s eerie vocal fore-shadowing (and four years before that film rendered such singing forever sinister). Another male occupant of the same demographic goes by trapped in the same kind of box on a truck. Finally, the vehicle arrives in a silo-style building that echoes Blofeld’s lair in You Only Live Twice. Our man’s box is plucked up by a magnetic crane and placed on a conveyor belt that takes him to an area that presents us with the darkest image of all - littered with booths containing men literally entombed as if in vertical glass coffins. By now Vázques has descended into utter panic – he hammers ineffectually on the glass until his heart gives out and he slumps dead to the floor.

Back in town, business as usual as another booth is set up and prepared for the public…

La Cabina is a piece of hypnotically gripping, brilliant storytelling with a gnomic ending that leaves the audience wonderfully puzzled and disturbed. Who is behind this and why? Is it a macabre ‘population control by stealth’ measure from the authorities?  Whatever it could mean, it deservedly won 1973’s International Emmy for Fiction. (Lord help the Spanish if it was considered a documentary…)

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