by Adam Nayman
Looking back through Reverse Shot’s “Great Pumpkins” series, I was especially struck by those pieces that dealt with horror films experienced via television viewing. “How,” wondered robbiefreeling, in his appreciation of Salem’s Lot, “could something so emotionally disruptive come packaged with something so mundane as toothpaste and car ads?”
Reading that essay a year ago prompted me to scour the Internet for evidence of a television film I’d watched sometime in my tweenage years and thought back on many times since. Circa 1993/94, I was mainlining horror flicks at a rate of about five per week (mostly procured from the family-run video store around the corner from my parents’ house, whose owners had little compunction about renting R-rated titles to polite kids with exact change), but my cinephilia was still subordinate to my hockey fandom. And so those Saturday nights spent at home or babysitting for family friends followed a set pattern: hockey game first, movies later.
One evening, after watching the Maple Leafs lose to somebody or other, cruising past the local Latino channel, I stopped on what seemed to be a diverting image: a red, glass paneled booth containing a man, stowed on the back of a truck, stopped on the side of a rural highway, being stared at by a troupe of face-painted circus folk. I’d seen a few interesting “art” films on TLN in the past, so I stuck with it, wondering if I had fortuitously stumbled upon on some essential world-cinema thing.
I watched the presentation to the end, which came just 15 minutes (and two commercial breaks) later. What bothered me at the time was not the revelation of the truck’s ultimate destination, but the lack of attendant context. What had I missed? Who was the guy in the booth? Had I seen the ending of a feature film or an episode of a television series? I remember trying to mentally construct a first act for a story that ended with an ordinary-looking fellow being literally driven to the end of his existence, and thoroughly creeping myself out in the process.
Fifteen years later, following the invention of Google, I was able to type in a few key search terms (“phone booth” + Spanish?” + “horror film”) and voila: I discovered La Cabina, apparently a 32-minute, International Emmy-winning short by Antonio Mercero. A few more clicks, and I discovered that the film was viewable on somebody’s YouTube page and I watched it, for the first time, from beginning to end. Click above to watch part one—it's divided into four sections. (There are no subtitles, but this doesn’t matter: there’s no significant dialogue in the film.)
It’s not surprising that this second, pixelated, inherently distracted viewing couldn’t compete with the first, but I’m surely glad to have seen La Cabina in its entirety. Especially its expertly calibrated early movements, which describe how the unnamed, balding protagonist (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez) becomes trapped in a phone booth in a town square after dropping his son off at the bus stop, and is transformed into a spectacle for the gathering citizenry. Mercero’s conventional, slightly mechanical technique —all crisp, lateral pans and deliberate slow zooms—gives the proceedings an appropriately slow-burn feel. And there are some wonderful details in the reaction shots of the gawkers, like how one man, who has brought a chair, magnanimously offers it to a stooped old woman so that she might better appreciate the unfolding human tragicomedy.
Even leaving aside the fact that I had already seen the film’s second half, I doubt I would have found it hard to guess where La Cabina was going: after a series of failed attempts to extricate the man from this seemingly impenetrable box (including the shoulder-first efforts of a big, righteously mustachioed good Samaritan), four guys from what would seem to be the phone company arrive and bear the booth away on their truck. The aforementioned roadside interlude with the circus troupe comes after the film’s clear shock-cut highpoint, which I won’t spoil here but confirms that our hero is officially in for it, rather than the subject of some elaborate practical joke. Mercero’s overreliance on a score that pinballs from free jazz to Omen-esque choral bellowing is bothersome, but his craft is solid throughout, aided greatly by Vazquez’s impressively understated but plausibly desperate performance (most of his dialogue is simply mouthed through soundproof glass, but he gives us a sense of a real human being in peril).
The question, then, is what to “do” with La Cabina: is it a slightly creaky relic of short-form audience-goosing, or is there something more to its surreal “gotcha” machinations? Given La Cabina’s country of origin and date of release, it could be read as an oblique critique of Franco’s dictatorship (a “phone booth” film rather than “white telephone” film) with the phone company and their deceptively lethal construct serving as a means of both distraction and control. And were I an academic, I could probably erect a tortuous reading about how Mercero’s film about a man placed on public display anticipated the callow spectatorship of reality television.
But I think the film is simpler—and stickier than that: it appears to be about nothing more (or less) than the trap of aging. Note that Vazquez’s son enters and exits the booth with no difficulty after kicking his ball inside before departing on the school bus. Not the cheeriest conclusion to reach about a film so memorably experienced in one’s childhood, but as somebody whose favorite horror films have always been tinged by melancholy—from I Walked With a Zombie to Wendigo—it confirms the film’s place in my personal creepshow canon.