The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Like many, I was first introduced to Frankenstein (1931) through a television broadcast. Nixon was President and every friday night I eagerly awaiting the opening chords of Henry Mancini’s Experiment in Terror as WGN’s Creature Features unfolded before my gaping eyes. Those were different times. Back then horror film tikes would scour the Sunday TV guides and circle all upcoming cowboy, sci-fi, monster and jungle flicks (yes, I loved Tarzan). The first appearance of Frankenstein’s monster so traumatized me that I watched the remainder of the film through the protective but porous webbing of an afghan cover. Karloff had scared the liver out of me. Years later I shared these anecdotes with Sara Karloff. She smiled. She had heard the story before and was taking no liability for the emotional distress brought upon my shattered soul. Karloff’s Frankenstein impacted my life. This all brings us to the Spanish film El Espíritu de la Colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive (1973).
The movie has been touted as the greatest of the Spanish films of the 70’s. I’ve only seen one and it is “Beehive”. I can attest that the film is a classic and in my humble opinion a masterpiece. It’s also one of the finest films about children ever made, and also works as a benchmark film about a film.
The setting is a village in rural Spain, around 1940 and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Young impressionable Ana (Ana Torrent) lives with her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria), a housekeeper and two academic parents. Dad is a beekeeper, amateur mycologist and lover of books. Mom plays the piano. One day a beat up old truck drives into the village. The children exclaim “The movie’s coming! The movie’s coming!” A vender/projectionist tells the public about this extraordinary movie. “It’s tremendous! The best I’ve ever shown in this town. You can’t even imagine”. It is Frankenstein (1931). Ana and Isabel gather with several villagers to watch the film. The girls pay two reales each.
These scenes are special. Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado composed the shots in subdued lighting, focusing on the reactions and expressions of elderly villagers and children. Young Ana watches, mesmerized by the appearance of Karloff’s monster. She questions her sister Isabel why the monster kills the little girl. Later, Isabel tells Ana the monster is not real, “Everything in the movies is fake… It’s all a trick. Besides, I’ve seen him alive. He’s a spirit.”
Ana will have none of that and goes on a quest to confirm her suspicions. Ana is a hero in the classical sense of a person on a lengthy journey with obstacles. She could be any of the many protagonists straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. To me, Beehive is at its finest in several scenes sans dialogue. During these moments the film is poetic. It really is art.
The Spirit of the Beehive is unique, but there is an odd familiarity to it. The movie certainly influenced Guillermo del Toro, who is also a gifted director with children. I can envision young Ana being in a del Toro film. Also, the opening portions of the film remind me of Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). The Spirit of the Beehive is essentially viewing and should be rightfully discussed as a classic.