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351_spirit“Spirit of the Beehive” is a fascinating Spanish movie from 1973 about how the state of mind of children can be radically altered ever so quickly.  Set during 1940, it follows two young sisters, Ana and Isabel, as they begin to grasp and deal with the concepts of death.  This cavalcade of frightening experiences is set off by something most simple, a community viewing of James Whale’s original “Frankenstein.”  The girls sit in amazed rapture as it plays, and when it’s over, their minds have been warped.  The film is a good lesson in how child psychology can be molded and shaped in ways no parent could ever prevent or imagine.  Such is the delicacy of childhood.

With thoughts of spirits and monsters running through their mind, Ana and Isabel exhibit behavior that seems as innocent as playing to them.  Isabel becomes a ghoulish prankster of sorts, while Ana becomes obsessed with the idea of the monster itself.  Everywhere she looks she feels the ghost of Karloff’s creature, which culminates in a bizarre dream sequence laced with subtle horror.  “Spirit” dwells more on Ana as her experiences seem more sympathetic than Isabel’s.  She has in essence gone form innocent child to haunted soul in one afternoon.  She is a child grasping with the concept of death but cannot truly understand it.  She only knows it is there and it is terrifying.  Played by then 6-year old actress Ana Torrent, hers is a child performance few have rivaled.  Her huge, dark, watery eyes express the uncertainty in her heart.

Directed by Victor Erice, “Spirit” invokes the kind of early 70’s aesthetic shared by director’s Malick and Weir and their early works.  His film is sparse, dreamy and methodical.  A film never meant for the impatient.  It is not a silent film but dialogue is not abundant and often not heard for long stretches.  This viewer admits that the first act felt tepid and slow at times.  I thought that perhaps an over praised cinematic void was unfolding.  Something so subtle and emotionally distant that no real connection to it could form.  But the film becomes slowly darker and stranger with patience and its many layers unfold gradually.  Erice makes his audience work as well.  There are strands running through the movie with no clear explanations.  The enigmatic nature of these loose threads may drive some up the wall, but I think Erice plants enough information for the audience to reach its own conclusions.  They may not be concrete, but they’re enough.

By the time “Spirit” reaches its somewhat abrupt ending, one is swimming in thoughts of creepy childhood feelings.  It’s a film that inspires dread and foreboding with nary a drop of blood or jumpy editing techniques.  Unsettling in many unique ways and far outshining what passes for typical horror, “Spirit of the Beehive” is a great find from the Criterion Collection.  See it.

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