Monday, December 26, 2022

Tales to Keep You Awake: Adapting Fredric Brown’s “Nightmare in Yellow” in Spain

by Gabriel Cubillo

The May 1961 issue of The Dude, a men’s magazine, featured Fredric Brown’s "Five Nightmares," a series of short shorts that included "Nightmare in Yellow," the story of a murder. In the story, a man awakens on his fortieth birthday, planning to kill his wife and run off with money he has embezzled. He takes her to dinner and he takes her home, where he kills her on the front porch. When he opens the door, he is shocked that his friends have staged a surprise birthday party; they are shocked to see that he holds his wife’s corpse in his arms.

"Nightmare in Yellow" was translated into Spanish in 1965 and published in volume six of Narraciones Terroríficas (Terrifying Stories), part of a series of anthologies of tales of terror that featured writers from different times and places. In this volume, Arthur Machen, Robert E. Howard, and Joseph Payne Brennan share space with Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and Fredric Brown, along with several Spanish authors, both classic and modern. I think it’s probable that Chicho Ibáñez Serrador picked up this book while looking for ideas for a new horror TV series he was developing at the time.

Chicho Ibáñez Serrador
Chicho Ibáñez Serrador (1935-2019) was one of the most successful creators in the history of Television Española, the Spanish public--and at that time, only--television channel. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and spent his early childhood in Spain, but he left the country in search of new horizons. He began a successful career in Argentinian TV before returning to Spain. Ibáñez Serrador specialized in genre fiction, mainly science fiction and terror, and when he arrived in Spain, he began to remake his Argentinian hits. After achieving success with a series titled Mañana puede ser verdad (Tomorrow it may be true), he started to develop a new series called Historias para no dormir (Tales to keep you awake). It was a big hit and is still well remembered by older viewers who, even if they have forgotten the details of every episode, remember the opening sequence that depicted the shadow of a door closing, with the sound of slamming and a cry. Chicho kept working in Spanish television for decades and produced some very successful shows, notably a quiz show called Un dos tres responda otra vez (One two three answer again), which ran for several seasons.

No doubt imitating Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he opened every chapter of Historias para no dormir with an introduction filled with humor and the macabre. In the first episode, he provided a statement of intent for the series: he wanted to give new life to the old terror genre. Instead of crypts, chains, and pits, he wanted a more psychological--and cheaply produced-- approach. The first episode was titled "El cumpleaños" ("The birthday"), an adaptation of "Nightmare in Yellow." It was broadcast on February 4th, 1966, and it was the shortest episode of the whole series, running just 12 minutes.

Rafael Navarro in El Cumpleaños
The star of the show is the husband, played by Rafael Navarro, a well-established supporting actor at the time, whose voice was better known to the public than his face (he dubbed in Spanish, among others, Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, Glenn Ford, and Humphrey Bogart). Indeed, his voice is omnipresent from the disturbing first frame, which depicts an extreme closeup of an eye opening. The voiceover monologue is interrupted only by brief dialogue at the airport and a few words from the husband. The images illustrate and underline the narration. Only in the final scene are the visuals allowed to bear the weight of the story, while the voice is silent.

The eye is that of the husband, nameless, as in the short story, who tells us that it is Saturday, January 22, 1966, his 50th birthday (he has aged ten years from the short story) and the day of his liberation: he is going to kill his wife and run off with a pile of money. From this point, the script, credited to Luis Peñafiel (in fact, a pseudonym of Ibáñez Serrador), keeps most of the plot elements from Brown’s story but makes some changes and additions in order to extend a very short story and to emphasize the more sinister aspects of the plot, pushing the tale into darker shadows to chill the audience and make it fit more neatly into the terror genre. In the teleplay, the husband has not yet committed robbery but plans to do it today. He is a psychopath who hates his wife because she is boring and obsessed with order and tidiness. Navarro plays the part with a fake smile on his face and condescension in his voice. The wife and his colleagues are slightly distorted by the camera angles, which show the way he thinks of them while he continues to smile at them. He keeps a large knife in his suitcase and plans to use it on his wife.

The man is also looking for new sexual partners and lusts after sexy stewardesses he sees at the airport. He stands before his front door and tells the viewer that he plans to kill his wife on that spot; conveniently, the neighbors are away for the weekend. In Brown’s short story, the man insists on murdering his wife precisely at 8:46 p.m., the exact minute when he turns forty years old. In the TV version, this is less clear.
El Cumpleaños looks like it could be taking place anywhere, except for the presence of a Sereno, the character who walks alongside the couple when they are coming back after dinner; in some Spanish cities, a Sereno oversaw opening and closing the neighborhood gates at night.

I suspect Chicho chose "Nightmare in Yellow" to adapt because he thought that it could be easily and cheaply done, because of its great twist ending, which fit the tone he intended for the series and, of course, because it was a delightful story. The episode can be viewed on YouTube. In the photo to the right, the two diamonds shown briefly in a corner after the title were used to display the rating of the program: one diamond meant that the show was appropriate for viewers over 14 years old, while two diamonds meant it was for viewers at least 18 years old. Historias para no dormir was for adults only!

Thirty years later, viewers were more visually sophisticated, and it took more to surprise them. The short film Esposados (1996) was almost certainly influenced by the 1966 TV show. Brown’s influence remains, however faint. The 24-minute film was written by Jesús Olmo and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and fails to credit Fredric Brown or Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. Fresnadillo also directed the film, which was an instant success and which was nominated for an Academy Award. This short film, which was followed in 2001 by his first feature film, Intacto (2001), aroused the interest of the American film industry; Fresnadillo went on to direct 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Intruders (2011), among others.

Pedro Mari Sánchez in Esposados
IMDb calls the film Linked, but Esposados has additional meanings in Spanish: it can mean "married" (esposo and esposa are Spanish for husband and wife), but the main meaning is "handcuffed." Fresnadillo calls the film a "black story… a husband who wants to kill his wife and run away to Brazil with the money she won in the lottery."

The only elements of "Nightmare in Yellow" that remain in Esposados are a husband who wants to kill his wife, a celebration on the last day, and the surprise ending, here with an added twist. While El cumpleaños added sex and the lure of Brazil as motivating factors, Fresnadillo uses those bricks to construct a different building. He acknowledges these sources through the black and white cinematography, the music in the first scenes, a closeup of an eye as the film’s first shot, and even the mustache that Antonio, the husband, wears. Yet he constructs another kind of story. In El Cumpleaños, as in the short story, everything builds up to the final surprise. Esposados, on the other hand, takes its time telling a more complicated tale in a different way.

"Nightmare in Yellow"
was first published here
The characters, nameless in both short story and 1966 TV episode, are now named Antonio and Concha, and they are played by Pedro Mari Sánchez and Anabel Alonso, well-known actors in Spain. As a child, Pedro Mari Sánchez appeared in the TV series Mañana puede ser verdad and Historias para no dormir, both of which were produced by Chicho.

The wife, voiceless in El cumpleaños, becomes the dominant figure in the short film. The story is told visually and the minimal dialogue adds little to the understanding of the plot, as viewers not fluent in Spanish can confirm. Antonio and Concha are not the well-to-do couple of El cumpleaños but rather working-class people dreaming of a better life. The husband is unemployed and the wife works as a cashier in a supermarket. Despite its background of social realism, the short film features a series of episodes of cartoon violence; like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the roadrunner, the man is trying to catch the woman’s savings. Then the quintessential Spanish dream of a better life comes true: winning the Christmas Lottery.

All social classes buy and share Christmas Lottery tickets; it is one of the biggest Christmas traditions in Spain. The draw is a media event that runs for hours and is broadcast, both on radio and TV, all over the country. In homes, bars, offices, and workshops, one hears the monotonous ditty sung by children as they read the numbers and the prize. When people win a big prize, they run to the Lottery Shop where they bought the ticket to open champagne or cider to celebrate with others. TV crews arrive to interview the winners, asking whether they have shared the ticket or kept it for themselves, and what they are going to spend the prize money on. These interviews are broadcast on prime-time television! When our couple’s turn comes, Concha answers that they are going to buy a house with a garden; Antonio wants to go to Brazil, to the beaches of Rio.

In the next scene, Antonio is dreaming of beaches and beautiful women--again the allure of sex--until Concha enters his dream. In Brown’s story and the TV version, the husband’s desire to kill his wife is separate from the way he gets the money. In Esposados, Antonio must kill his wife to get the money.

"Lo justo."
From here, the film closely follows the classic narration of the crime. The screenwriters enrich the plot with a new character, a recently retired policeman, and the nightmarish looks of suburbia help keep the events feeling like a dream. The two new elements help flesh out the final surprise and make it more resonant. This time, the story does not end with the guests yelling "surprise" as the husband opens the door; instead, the film ends by completing Antonio’s dream. Just before his wife dies and the sand engulfs her body, Antonio says, ¿Duele? ("It hurts?"), which is the same word his wife had spoken earlier in one of the sequences of cartoon violence when she burned his feet with an iron. She answers, "lo justo," which means "in the right measure," and I leave it to the reader to judge this ending.

Read "Nightmare in Yellow" here. Watch "El cumpleaños" here. Watch Esposados here.

Gabriel Cubillo was born in Spain and still lives there. He works as a computer programmer, has a degree in Spanish Literature, and is very interested in ancient history and archaeology. An avid reader of mystery and science fiction, Gabriel is a compulsive compiler of bibliographies and has a lifelong fascination with the life and work of Fredric Brown.


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