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A Child and a Monster go to the Lake, or …
“What shall we throw in now?”

August 19th, 2022

Set in central Spain shortly after the Spanish revolution, Victor Erice’s film The Spirit of the Beehive opens with the children of a rural village watching James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Two of the children, sisters Ana and Isabelle, watch wide-eyed as the monster encounters a young girl by a mountain lake. It’s the same scene you’ll find restaged for laughs in Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (1974), but here it’s played straight. The result is at once moving and confounding, leaving the viewer—like the child—to wonder just what the heck is going on.

I admit to having had the same reaction during most of the film’s hour-and-a-half running time. Nevertheless, I admit, it was time well spent.

The monster-by-the-lake scene takes place late in Erice’s film, but revealing it here isn’t a spoiler. Beehive isn’t about plot. It’s a meditation on innocence, wonder, and the ways that children make peace with the troubled world that lies just beyond their grasp.

Top: José Villasante and Ana Torrent in The Spirit of the Beehive. Below: Boris Karloff and Marilyn Harris in Frankenstein.

The scene opens with a reference to Mary Shelley’s novel, in which the creature regards its reflection in a forest lake: “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.” The difference is that here, the child is the one looking into the lake, and her reflection–distorted by turbulence–becomes the monster’s.

Is Erice suggesting that Ana is the monster, that as the great philosopher Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”? Or is something else going on, as suggested when Ana turns from her distorted reflection to find the Frankenstein monster (complete with Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup and Boris Karloff’s forlorn stare) standing behind her? Perhaps it’s all best regarded as an enigmatic dream, something to be pondered rather than stated.

Do I recommend the film? That’s hard to say. It’s certainly beautifully photographed, and the performances—particularly those of the children Ana and Isabelle (played by Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería)—are thoroughly convincing. But some viewers may find themselves sharing the view of Gary Arnold, whose Washington Post review dismisses the film as “the sort of slumbrously sensitive item that tends to give art films a poisonous reputation.”

For my part, as I told hosts Brantley Palmer and Nick Schwartz on a recent episode of the Horror Drafts podcast (which you will find here),  The Spirit of the Beehive may be the kind of film that plays best in retrospect. I’m not in a hurry to see it again, but I have a feeling I’ll be pondering it for a long time to come.

<<< “What shall we throw in now?” Peter Boyle as the Frankenstein monster meets Anne Beesley as the little girl in Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein

For now, I’ll leave you with film scholar Kristin Thompson’s reflections on the film, released as part of Criterion’s Observations on Film Art. (Click the player below.)

After that, if you’re up for an allegorical riff on the nature of monsters, you can stream The Spirit of the Beehive on The Criterion Channel or own it on DVD  from The Criterion Collection. If you do, let me know what you think. And if you have suggestions for overlooked Frankenstein films (like the ones covered in previous posts here, here, and here), please share them in a comment below or by reaching out via the social media buttons in the upper right corner of this page.