Bury Me in Celluloid: The Feverish Cinemania of ‘Arrebato’

Movies are one hell of a drug. Also, drugs are one hell of a drug.

José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) is struggling to complete his highly anticipated second feature. After a draining day in the editing booth, the horror director stumbles back to his sweaty apartment awash in doubt. There, he is met with two revelations: the sudden reappearance of his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Cecilia Roth) and a package from an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), containing a reel of Super 8, a taped confession, and a key.

What follows is a drug-induced whirlpool of memory, sex, and film as José finds himself sucked back into Pedro’s eccentric riptide. The pair have only met twice before. But neither seems able to shake the other’s intense influence and shared dedication to movies — and heroin. Pallid, emaciated, and unnaturally childish, Pedro’s mind has become consumed by a photochemical abnormality: an ever-growing red mark that appears, without warning, during time lapses of his opioid-induced slumber. Caught in the grip of something that feels urgent and visceral, José recalls his uncanny encounters with Pedro as he listens to his old friend describe what has taken place since they last met.

Filmed four years after the death of Francisco Franco in the early, rebellious days of La Movida MadrileñaArrebato couldn’t attract an audience when it originally premiered in 1979. After decades of obscurity, Iván Zulueta’s under-seen movie is in the process of a great re-appraisal. (While putting too much stock in Rotten Tomatoes is ill-advised, it’s worth noting that all 23 of its cited reviews are from the last two years.) A stunning 4K restoration and now a US release have allowed Arrebato to reach audiences previously unaware of the movie’s existence — a genuinely striking discovery that feels akin to locating a dusty copy of a long-lost Silent Era project, or perhaps more appropriately … a cursed videotape.

A disorienting, frightening, and peerless viewing experience, Arrebato envisions media consumption as the ultimate source of agony and ecstasy. Re-framing cinema as a highly addictive substance, the movie unsheathes the dark undulations behind our desire to escape reality, to sublimate entirely and disappear into the silver screen. And so, our jittery duo finds themselves hooked on that phenomenal high of stuttering frames, clicking sprockets, and the death drive of the creative process.

It’s easy to roll our eyes at navel-gazing love letters to filmmaking. Hollywood, in particular, loves stories about itself, especially when the thematic takeaway is romantic and congratulatory.

Horror is not immune to this self-reflexive interest in The Power of Movies. But the genre is far more skeptical about the righteous purpose of the cinematic project. In horror, there is something sinister and slippery about the act of creating and consuming film. The genre is keen to criticize the obsessive voyeurism that movies engender in the filmmaker and viewer alike (see Peeping Tom, Blow-Up, Funny Games). There is also a recurring thesis that the relationship between movies and real-life is not always a positive or uplifting one (see New Nightmare, Censor, Berberian Sound Studio).

Arrebato, meanwhile, is interested in the medium of cinema itself, endowing fluttering acetate, grease pencils, and metallic cans with a distinctly insidious quality. Zulueta seductively twists cinephilic reverence into obscene fetishism. Cameras are the tools of paranoiacs who clamor after evasive perfection. Film stock takes on the likeness of a hard drug: addictive, over-the-counter, and a gateway to another plane.

Other genre films possess a similarly evocative flirtation with malignant, mind-altering media. This is, after all, the basis of the vast majority of Lovecraftian fiction: stories and images so engulfing they leave their audience speechless (and usually insane). But unlike many of its peers (with the exception, possibly, of Videodrome), cinematic encounters in Arrebato are corpulent rather than intellectual.

When José first visits Pedro in the country, the evening winds down around a television. The image on the garish box is lifeless and malformed, all ontological sense blown out by nauseating cathode beams and unseemly color correction. The projected film that follows, on the other hand, is a living breathing thing; vulgar, sticky, and organic. Hair trapped in the gate, the scent of burning dead skin as dust sizzles under the light of the projector, the icky biodegradable lifecycle of cellulose emulsions ticking away. This is ritualistic and tangible. And with that physicality comes a danger that threatens to unspool reality itself.

The lividity of film also takes on a distinctly erotic quality in Arrebato. Pedro’s cinematic experience is defined by orgasmic convulsions that he repeatedly claims supplement any other fleshy desires. For his part, José embodies the other interpretation of the film’s title (Rapture, as it translates in English). While José’s own cinematic pursuits leave him limp and impotent — a side effect of heroin but also a creative malady — Pedro’s process is mesmerizing.

Indeed, one of the most striking motifs in Arrebato is this parallel between drug addiction and cinephilia, a potentially trite metaphor that Zulueta sculpts into something genuinely nuanced and terrifying. Pedro’s screenings must be conducted under exacting conditions to ensure the ideal “trip.” His contagious obsession with his craft dulls his need for food or sleep. And so, José is drawn into Pedro’s celluloid opium den with its addictive promise to numb and thrill in equal measure.

As Pedro Almodóvar notes in his 2009 eulogy for his late friend, Zulueta had a great sense of humor. And for all its menace and psycho-sexual cinemania, Arrebato is surprisingly funny. There’s a lot of build-up to Pedro’s work in the movie, which we’re told is so terrifying it leaves him in tears. But when we finally see it, Pedro’s filmmaking is hilariously amateurish (though, what were we expecting, exactly, from this weirdo?). That said, if you’ve ever had a euphoric experience with a sub-par cheese pizza while under the influence, you’ll no doubt see the method in the madness of José’s awe for time-lapses of flowers.

All to say: there is a distinct sense of self-awareness to Arrebato’s ecstatic attitude towards film that never dulls its edge. Is Pedro unwittingly performing some dark ritual through his drug-addled filmmaking? Or are he and José constructing a hypnotic hell of their own making out of thin air and opiates? Does it have to be one or the other?

Partially due to his own heroin addiction and the project’s troubled production (which were no doubt related), Arrebato was Zulueta’s final feature film. The director retired to San Sebastián immediately after its release (“like Norma Desmond, but with all of his senses intact,” Almodóvar remembers). It’s sad to think of all of the films that Zulueta never made in the wake of Arrebato. And here I am jonesing for another fix. The good news is that, nearly four decades later, a whole new generation of cinephilic freaks have access to this masterpiece. And I for one aim to ride this high for a long while yet.

Arrebato is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Meg Shields: Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.