The Phone Box

English Title: The Phone Box

Original Title: La Cabina

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Radio Televisión Española

Director: Antonio Mercero

Producer(s): José Salcedo

Screenplay: José Luis Garci, Antonio Mercero

Cinematographer: Federico G Larraya

Art Director: Antonio Sanz

Editor: Javier Morán

Runtime: 35 minutes

Genre: Crime and Thriller

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Agustín González, José Luis López Vázquez

Year: 1972

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

In a bland square in Madrid, some workers, who are wearing a strange uniform, are installing a phone box. Some moments later, an anonymous citizen, after taking his son to the school bus, gets trapped in the box for no understandable reason. As the day goes by, all kind of strangers go there to see the strange event: some of them try to free him; others make fun of him… Everyone looks interested in this little man. After a distressing delay full of surrealistic moments, the trapped man is taken to a strange factory full of thousands of phone boxes. In each one, a single corpse is trapped, in some strange ritual. The movie ends with a new phone box in another square of the city.

The Phone Box is probably one of the most complex and stimulating medium-length movies in the history of Spanish Cinema. Developed just three years before the death of Dictator Francisco Franco, a lot of critics have understood this film as a strange political fairy-tale about the isolation of the society during the 1960s. In any event, his powerful and provocative content is wide open enough to stop it being classified only in a concrete socio-historical context.
The film uses very long shots, suggesting an extremely distressing concept of time. Inside and outside the phone box; everything looks slow and oppressing, never ending. The buildings of the town are recorded as inhuman giants, skyscrapers crossing an apocalyptic skyline, not interested in the pathetic feelings of the poor man. At the same time, the phone box is surrounded by a really disturbing crowd, composed by all kind of strange characters who are directly connected with the Spanish satirical tradition. Mercero is successful in the portrait of the cruelty of some specific Spanish characters, mostly in the ones who are related to the romantic literary school: dumb police, evil small boys who understand the catastrophe as a kind of twisted game, etc. Some of them, following the rules of the ‘absurd’, dare to reproach López Vazquez for his clumsiness and his foolishness at being trapped inside the phone box.
But, without any doubt, this movie is specifically brilliant in the second part, focused on the travel from the initial square to the evil Factory. Mercero shows an accurate and thrilling direction, mixing nostalgic, borrowed, elements, with the codes of the horror movies. The nature of evil is not only related to the absurdity of the whole situation, but with the feeling of loneliness and helplessness with which López Vazquez imbues the main character. The torture becomes something unpredictable and random (he is trapped, as were all the other lonely skeletons who fill their own and forgotten phone boxes), and the audience is forced to look for an impossible pattern for the victims: maybe the haircut, maybe the suits…? Anyway, the final shot – which shows a new and open phone box – suggests an eternal cycle, a killing process impossible to understand.
The Phone Box is one of the most important masterpieces in a powerful horror tradition that was developed by Spanish public television in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Fairy tales for not-sleeping (1966–1982) or ¿Es usted el asesino?/Are you the murderer? (1967), both of them directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. The Phone Box is the first one in using the absurd as a way of shocking the audience, and it was followed by other interesting products such as the medium-length movie El televisor (The TV) (1974). Mercero himself would repeat this kind of product with La habitación blanca (The White Room) (2000). In any event, the original movie would become one of the most powerful experiences launched by the television in this decade, and it is important to understand the dialogue between TV and Cinema in the 1970s.

Author of this review: Aaron Rodriguez