Horror hub branches out

Catalan helmers go beyond the thriller genre

A man wades through snow to reach an unconscious young woman, Eva. He searches her back, finds a socket and plugs in a battery.

“Eva” is “Spain’s first robot film,” says director Kike Maillo, widening the Catalonia’s thriving genre scene one degree further.

Thanks to Filmax’s Fantastic Factory, “The Orphanage,” “REC” and the Sitges fest, Barcelona ranks among Europe’s foremost horror hubs.

Sales agents compete for titles: Wild Bunch has a first-look option on “Eva,” producer Escandalo says. Others, such as “REC” at Screen Gems, generate Stateside remakes. And some Catalan helmers even parlay their success into Hollywood gigs, such as Luiso Berdejo, who helmed Kevin Costner starrer “The New Daughter,” and siblings Alex and David Pastor, who made “Carriers” at Paramount Vantage.

Despite the explosive growth of Catalan genre production, many wonder what shape this filmmaking trend will take, especially considering how radically the sector has evolved in a few years’ time.

Local genre cinema’s current popularity dates back to 1999, when Julio Fernandez and Brian Yuzna of Filmax’s Fantastic Factory were practically its sole practitioners. Their first projects, including the Stuart Gordon-helmed “Dagon,” benefited from the worldwide DVD boom.

A few years later, however, the bottom had dropped out of the DVD market, and Filmax moved toward productions with solid, if niche, theatrical credentials, while other companies joined in. Today, a bevy of Barcelona shingles have at least one genre pic, if not more, on their slates.

Rodar y Rodar is prepping a shiver quiver, including Sergio Sanchez’s “Homecoming,” Guillem Morales’ “Julia’s Eyes” with producer Peter Fudakowski (“Tsotsi”) and a remake, “The Uncertain Guest,” with Iain Canning’s London-based See-Saw.

Sitges will host the European premiere of Mediapro’s “Sexy Killer,” a frat splat spoof. Berdejo has English-language love/redemption tale “Jennifer Can” set up at Vertice, and director Antonio Chavarrias is readying psychological chiller “Dictation” at Oberon.

With each project, new entrants are goosing production and widening the range of Catalan genre cinema from the realm of gore/chiller pics to include sci-fi, kick-butt actioners, even tales of satanic sects.

“Genre’s like a seed, growing in multiple directions,” says Rodar’s Joaquin Padro.

Maillo’s “Eva” reps a more international and mainstream production line at Escandalo, which produces first features by Barcelona Escac (film school) alums. With budgets of more than $5 million for higher-end pics, the company aims to reach mainstream circuits, says Escac director Sergi Casamitjana.

In 2009, Escandalo will shoot fantasy-laced coming-of-ager, “Animals,” from director Marcal Fores.

Another up-and-coming shingle, Edmon Roch’s Ikiru, is adding actioners to the Catalan mix.

The Jordi Gasull-scribed “Bruc” has a Catalan villager hunted by Napoleonic troops turning hunter in the majestic Catalan mountains.

Such sci-fi and period actioners don’t come cheap, by Spanish standards at least.

For Catalan genre producers, the move into more ambitious fare is only possible because the financing, from both the private and public sectors, is there, matched by potential markets at home and abroad.

Last year in Spain, “REC,” a Filmax-produced zombie bloodbath helmed by Spaniards Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, grossed €8.2 million ($12 million).

Godfathered by Guillermo del Toro, Juan Antonio Bayona’s haunted-house chiller “The Orphanage” took $36.8 million at Spanish wickets, making it the second-highest-grossing Spanish film in history. Only Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” another gothic ghost story, has done better ($40.4 million).

“People who looked towards Asian cinema are now fixating on Spanish genre,” says Bayona.

And the B.O. figures talk, rewriting the rules for how Catalan genre is produced.

As budgets and ambitions swell, genre helmers increasingly depend on players from outside the region, including such Spanish broadcasters as Telecinco Cinema and Paris-based sales companies like Wild Bunch.

“We’re now tapping more mainstream financing from outside Spain,” says Rodar’s Padro, who is developing “The Eighth Sacrament,” an ambitious thriller written by Sitges fest director Angel Sala and and Mike Hostench.

Many genre auteurs actually leave Spain once their careers take off, but genre production in Catalonia will no doubt go on.

To encourage helmers to stay, an innovative Catalan government film fund is plowing $1.5 million a pop into commercial Catalan-language films.

“Horror/fantasy is playing to ever-larger audiences, not just hardcore buffs. Characters are becoming more consistent, films aren’t just schlock fests,” says Sala.

“These days, you either make strong, talent-driven films or go straight to TV,” says Filmax’s Fernandez. On “Transsiberian,” the company looked to writer-director Brad Anderson and star Woody Harrelson, while popular Spanish helmers Balaguero and Plaza reup on “REC 2.”

Even “Sexy Killer,” a campus gore fiesta, brings more to the table, claims helmer Miguel Marti. Barbara, its fashionista psycho, “wants to show the world that women also have the balls to be serial killers,” he says.

The true test for these Catalan auteurs will be preserving their voice as international auds and ever-more-globalized film financing structures impact the area’s genre production.