A haunted phone booth may seem like an unlikely object of horror, but that’s precisely the status it attains in this creepy Spanish TV movie, a classic of its type. In the years since its 1972 debut on Spanish television, the 35-minute LA CABINA has attained near-legendary status among horror cultists. It stars the veteran Spanish actor Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, whose death in November of 2009 further stoked interest in the film.
In a bustling city several men unload a red telephone booth from a flatbed truck and deposit it in the middle of an empty square. A bit later a middle aged man drops his young son off at a nearby bus stop and decides to make a phone call, failing to notice the booth door snap shut behind him after he steps in. The phone is dead, and when the man tries to leave the booth he finds the door won’t open.
Thus the protagonist is effectively trapped inside a glass coffin. Several passerby fruitlessly attempt to free him, and as the day wears on a large crowd gathers around the booth, intrigued and amused by its occupant’s bizarre predicament. Eventually some firemen turn up, poised to smash the glass. They’re stopped in the act by the sudden reappearance of the men who dropped off the phone booth, who pull up in their flatbed truck and load the booth back onto it with its captive still stuck inside.
The trapped man is transported through the city. At one point the truck pulls up alongside another flatbed carrying an identical phone booth with a man inside. The protagonist tries to communicate with his fellow captive but is driven away. He also spots a funeral procession with a dead child in a glass coffin and a band of circus freaks, who gaze back at him sympathetically; clearly they understand the isolation he’s experiencing better than anyone else.
After a lengthy drive through an increasingly rural landscape (where at one point the truck is shadowed by a helicopter), the phone booth is deposited at its final destination: a vast, forbidding laboratory set within a mountainside. I won’t reveal what occurs there, but it’s horrific and disturbing, closing out this disquieting little film in unforgettable fashion.
Simplicity is this film’s key asset. The narrative is spare to a fault, consisting of an unnamed individual caught up in an increasingly surreal predicament. The dialogue is quite scant (the lack of subtitles is only a minor annoyance) and the stylistic gimmicks are kept to a minimum. There are no viewpoint shifts, and nor is any explanation ever offered for the bizarre events, while the 35 minute running time seems entirely appropriate. If there’s any padding in this film I don’t know where it would be.
Many commentators have offered some highfalutin’ interpretations of LA CABINA’S narrative (as a “poetic meditation” on the oppression of Franco’s fascistic rule, and so forth), but it works best as precisely what it is: a no-frills horror story that plays ingeniously on our collective fears of entrapment and torture at the hands of a malevolent entity. The fact that director Antonio Mercero illuminates those fears so skillfully nearly cancels out the film’s shortcomings (such as an overly insistent music score). It’s direct and unaffected, and all the more impacting for it.
LA CABINA (THE PHONE BOX; THE TELEPHONE BOX)
Director: Antonio Mercero
Producer: Jose Salcedo
Screenplay: Antonio Mercero, Jose Luis Garci
Cinematography: Federico G. Larraya
Editing: Javier Moran
Cast: Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, Agustin Gonzalez, Goyo Lebrero, Tito Garcia, Carmen Lujan, Maria Vico, Felipe Martin Puertas, Jose Montijano