Ever since I saw the fun 80s slasher Edge of the Axe, I’ve had a special affinity for the work of Spanish director José Ramón Larraz. Also the man behind the wonderfully weird Rest In Pieces, Larraz is probably best known to you from the erotic lesbian bloodsucker movie Vampyres. I became aware recently that there was a 2011 documentary on his work, called On Vampyres and Other Symptoms, done by Celia Novis, and while I haven’t seen it yet, I thought we should make July’s Month of Mondays focus on José Ramón Larraz since there obviously is a fanbase. I’m delighted to see this guy get some recognition for his quirky contributions to the horror genre, and I want to increase awareness, in hopes of getting all his out of print or hard to find movies properly released.
One of his films that is easily found is 1980’s Stigma, also known by its Spanish title Estigma. Stigma is what is known in Spain as Fanta Terror (I love that term), or horror mixed with fantastic elements. The film opens with the death of our protagonist’s father. Sebastian (Christian Borromeo), the main character, has been causing trouble for his mother (Helga Liné) and older brother (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) for a long time, but things seem to get worse with the father’s passing. Sebastian is jealous of his mother’s new sexual relationship which obviously must have been going on while his father was alive. He is jealous in spite of having hated his father. He also resents his brother’s relationship with a woman who is sometimes called Angie and sometimes Anna.
Besides the sexual jealousy, Sebastian has troubles at school, mostly stemming from the fact that he psychically pushed a female classmate (Berta Cabré) off of a tower to her death. Oh yes, he did. I saw him. So, his other classmates are mad at him, which is understandable. But this is a strange film, in that we know that Sebastian is evil because he can kill people by wishing them dead, including his brother and probably their father, but we also are asked by the film to try to sympathize with him as well.
For, as we find out from Angie/Anna’s psychic sister, Olga (Irene Gutiérrez Caba), Sebastian’s troubles may come from something that happened to him in a previous life. And although he knows he can hurt people, he is also frightened and confused. Why does he see himself committing suicide in an old mansion when Olga hypnotizes him? How is Angie, who befriends her lover’s kid brother out of pity, connected to all this, and should she too be afraid of Sebastian?
Although Stigma moves very slowly, there is a lot to like here for fans of Euro horror. Sebastian has strange hallucinations all throughout the film which may be ghosts or past-life memories. These visions include a long scene in the mansion starring Italian genre vet Massimo Serato as an imposing man who may have been Sebastian’s father in his former life. One female spirit/hallucination recurs most often, although I was never sure if she was the girl he “pushed” or his sister from his last life.
Besides what he sees, which does make the viewer pity him somewhat, he is plenty creepy himself. He secretly tapes his mother and listens to the tapes later when he is alone; also, Borromeo, who created a likable character as Gianni in Argento’s Tenebre, plays Sebastian as totally dead around the eyes, which is extra creepy because he looks so young and somewhat fragile. And then there are Olga’s visions of Sebastian, which are disturbing as well. Even she, who realizes most clearly who and what he probably is, also pites him, making for an emotionally complex story.
Horror is filled with adolescents like Sebastian who we dread and yet feel sympathy for, probably because this is the way many people feel about actual adolescents. They won’t all try to kill you, of course, but it can be disconcerting to see a sweet child turn into an angry young person, as so often happens with puberty. It’s a subgenre that is evergreen, particularly when you toss in psychic phenomena, which many people also feel can surround adolescents in real life. The title of Stigma even refers to such a phenomenon, both the Christian wounds known as stigmata, but also to the blood that drips from Sebastian’s lip whenever his powers take effect.
Stigma succeeds in its darkness and moodiness, which more than make up for the pace. This is a somewhat unfairly overlooked entry into the Euro horror canon. Seek it out if you think you’ve seen everything from the time period.
By the way, could the other die-hard Euro horror fans out there do me a favor? Please watch this clip and listen for an alarm that sounds between 4:59 and 5:06. It’s a sound I’ve heard before in films like this one, and I’m not sure exactly what it is or in which films I heard it, but due to the association it never fails to disturb me. If someone could identify it, or even point out other films the same sound has been in, I’d be most appreciative. I don’t know if it’s intentionally creepy, or if it’s just a typical European urban ambient sound.