Our very own Queen of Short Films Melissa Cox unearths a little-seen Spanish TV-movie that refuses to be put in a box…
I’d never even heard of Antonio Mercero’s 1972 short La Cabina until a few months ago. Having seen a recommendation for it online (and being a sucker for any horror movies that last less than an hour) I looked it up, and by the end of the 35 minute runtime I was disturbed, entranced, and had a new favourite film.
The premise is simple: a man enters a telephone box and tries to make a call. When he finds that the phone box isn’t working, he goes to leave – but can’t. We see his continuing predicament as various bystanders fruitlessly try to open the door, until telecom company employees turn up and remove the entire booth – with its occupant still trapped inside. In the course of this strange journey, the man begins to realise that his situation is far worse than he could possibly have imagined.
Starring José Luis López Vázquez the film aired on Spanish television in December 1972, and gained critical acclaim, winning an International Emmy in 1973. It became a cultural touchstone in Spain, being spoofed in a 1998 advert (also starring Vázquez) for a telecoms company, and inspiring a public campaign to have a red phone box installed in Madrid in honour of the film.
On first watch, the horror elements of the first half are so subtle as to be barely noticeable. The initial scenes play out like a light, farcical comedy – being stuck in a phone box is an inherently silly situation, and there’s a sense of neighbourliness as passers-by try to help the man escape. There’s some broad slapstick as two men try to yank the door open but tumble over when the handle comes loose, and the jaunty score gives no sense of foreboding. The viewer, like the gathering crowd in the plaza, is lulled into a sense of confidence, sure that the outcome will eventually be fine. And yet, there are hints that all will not be well, which seem clearer on a second viewing.
As soon as the door first closes, there is an overhead shot of the phone box, emphasising its status as a tiny island surrounded by the empty space of the plaza. A distance is created between the man in the box and everyone else – he is no longer part of the community, but an incident; a quirky happening. As people gather round, the plaza takes on a carnival atmosphere: children run around the phone box laughing, people take seats as if at a show to watch the efforts to open the door. There is even a food vendor providing snacks, and someone carrying a huge bunch of balloons. A well-built man charges at the booth several times, treating the challenge as a fairground-style test of strength.
There have been many different theories as to the meaning behind the film, as Mercero himself acknowledged, saying that “La Cabina is a parable open to all kinds of interpretations.” It has been read as a representation of the various metaphorical boxes in which we are all imprisoned, as a critique of corporations, and a commentary on the political situation in the last years of the Franco regime in Spain. To me, La Cabina is a chillingly powerful depiction of the consequences of dehumanization. As soon as the man is trapped in the box, he ceases to be fully human to those around him. He is a part of a diverting problem to be solved, a curiosity to be laughed at. His agency has been removed, and the thick glass of the box removes his voice – his pleas go unheard, and when an anonymous authority appears and carts him off, there is no challenge – the bystanders wave merrily as they watch him get taken away to an uncertain fate.
The short running time – just over half an hour – works perfectly for the narrative. With no in-depth backstory for the main character or explanation for the events that occur, the film has the air of a fable, the lack of specificity allowing the story to remain ambiguous. And as things progress the pace accelerates, mirroring the increasing panic and fear felt by the man in the box. The first 15 minutes are leisurely, and in a static location, but this is then followed by a surreal journey as the phone box is put on the back of a truck and driven away from the city. In the final five minutes the pace is ramped up as both the protagonist and the audience are confronted suddenly with the true, inescapable horror of the situation.
La Cabina is a terrifying, intriguing and perfectly-formed gem of a horror film. I believe it deserves to be recognised as one of the finest examples of the genre, alongside the feature-length, cinematic classics. Watch it, and you may – like me – discover a new favourite (and you’ll certainly be glad that phone boxes are a thing of the past).
La Cabina is available to watch online here.