There was no better way to introduce Los Espookys—the band of horror aficionados at the center of the new HBO series of the same name—than with a spooky quinceañera.
In the show’s first scene, the group’s de facto leader, Renaldo (played by the endlessly charismatic Bernardo Velasco), has recruited his friends, who are skilled as makeup artists and production designers, to help decorate his little sister’s 15th birthday party. Quinceañera festivities are usually marked by pink dresses as full and fluffy as the frosting on a cupcake. But Los Espookys have morphed the celebration into a ghoulish get-together complete with smoke machines, desserts that ooze blood, and a dramatic, raven-colored ball gown fit for an evil Disney queen. The gleeful spectacle of it all underscores the absurdity of a ritual centered on young girls transmogrifying into women before a roomful of guests, and it’s a clever and satirical wink at a fusty tradition.
The quinceañera is so successful that the local priest, Father Francisco, enlists Renaldo and his friends for another event. The offbeat crew includes stony-faced dental hygienist Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), pixie-like space cadet Tati (Brooklyn-based stand-up comic Ana Fabrega), and sulky, sapphire-haired rich kid Andrés (Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres), who is heir to a massive chocolate corporation. A clique of Latinx misfits putting on scary events is an enticingly ridiculous premise, in line with the past work of executive producer Fred Armisen, the former SNL regular and co-creator of Portlandia, who created Los Espookys with Torres and Fabrega. Initially, Armisen and his compatriots were looking to land the mostly Spanish-language show on HBO Latino. However, executives at the network picked up the series for their main channel without compromising the language, with English subtitles for viewers who don’t speak Spanish, and Los Espookys premiered this June.
Throughout its six episodes, the series delights in oddball humor with a touch of the supernatural. The story arcs are entertaining in all of their wacky (if occasionally frivolous) bizarreness. However, when the show strikes a deeper vein, it does so with quiet nuance, capturing certain subtleties of Latin American culture, particularly its affection for the morbid, for magical realism, and for all things espooky. While in some instances the show’s interest in horror and surrealism is used to explore deeper cultural anxieties like queer identity and the othering of Latinx people, Los Espookys is as interested in silliness as it is in social commentary. The comedy stems from the wit and precision of the writing as well as the deadpan delivery of nearly every actor on the show.
At first, the horror that Renaldo, Úrsula, Andrés, and Tati enjoy seems more of the craft store variety. The job from Father Francesco—he wants to fake an exorcism to outshine a younger priest who has won the affection of his parish—is heavy on costumery and special effects. The group executes his vision by lathering up Tati in green paint and having her spew pink vomit. Mira Esto, a news show in their unnamed city, is there to record the whole thing, after Los Espookys capture the attention of the program’s host by arranging the delivery of a fake severed head to her. While props and DIY tricks are major parts of the series, an eerie mystical energy also lurks in the world of these four friends. Andrés convenes meetings with a long-lashed water demon who lives inside him and holds the key to his mysterious childhood. At one point he watches his boyfriend doing crunches through the use of a magic amulet that he wears over decadent robes and ruffled shirts that are part David Bowie and part Walter Mercado, the famous Puerto Rican astrologist who appeared for decades on Univision. When Tati offers a list of all the roles and jobs she can do for Los Espookys, she casually shares the information that the crew can light her on fire if they want. Úrsula chimes in dryly, “Tati is indestructible.” Most satisfying of all, no one explains this paranormal side of things; it is just a part of everyday life.
People familiar with Latin American culture’s superstitions will appreciate these uncanny bits. The writer Carlos Fuentes once said in an NPR interview that Latin American novelists write about reality so extravagantly “because it’s the only way to deal with the magnitude of the problems of the characters in history, of the length of the rivers, the height of the mountains.” This baroque imagination can be traced back to famous folk tales, which include figures like La Llorona, Mexico’s weeping ghost, and La Tunda, a shape-shifting monster familiar to Afro-indigenous communities.
These folk stories share a bond with horror, which has established its own foothold in Latin American cinema, lately thanks to directors like Guillermo del Toro and Pablo Parés. Renaldo touches on the power of the horror genre in a hilariously exaggerated monologue describing how he was teased in school because his absent-minded mother forgot to put a “y” in his name to make it “Reynaldo.” He felt like an outsider until he discovered the work of Bianca Nova, a (fictional) horror director played in Los Espookys by Carol Kane, saying wistfully, “The kids made me feel like a monster, so I embraced my monstrosity through horror.”
Los Espookys also pokes fun at Latin American media’s interest in religious mysteries and sensationalist content through Mira Esto, a parody of the intense and sometimes grim Spanish-language news shows like Telemundo’s Al Rojo Vivo. “When we return, we’ll meet a restaurant owner who claims that an angel has been calling and placing long, complicated orders but never picks them up,” says Gregoria Santos, the unblinking host, in one segment. “And when we return, the most liked car crash on Facebook,” she announces in another. All of these are satirical takes on stories that have actually appeared on these programs; Al Rojo Vivo has run reports on a crying statue of the Virgin Mary in Honduras, a possessed Mexican doll, and a man with 26 fingers and toes. When Los Espookys try to drum up a furor by staging a monster sighting to boost tourism in a nearby city, Anglo viewers may think of Bigfoot, but plenty of Latinx kids will think of the chupacabra, the blood-sucking creature of legend that made headlines in several Spanish-speaking countries in the ’90s.
Nods to telenovelas sneak in through a parade of idiosyncratic characters, including the wide-eyed, expressionless Santos, who seems to have no memory of her life outside Mira Esto; a dramatic lady in red called simply the Mysterious Woman; and Andrés’s boyfriend, Juan Carlos, who serves as an amusing avatar of unabashed wealth and snobbery. (“Promise me you won’t do more ugly things with that greasy guy,” he says to Andrés about Renaldo at one point. “You know I can’t tolerate ugly things. When we watch Beauty and the Beast, I skip the scenes with the beast.”) As pompous as Juan Carlos is, his push-and-pull relationship with Andrés is hysterically funny, and it’s a portrait of queerness that is largely still taboo in a lot of Spanish-language media. The ability to tie so many things together—cultural specificity, comedic weirdness, striking modernity, and a roster of peculiar personalities—gives the series its distinctive charm.
As enjoyable as most of the show’s antics are, some of its jokes can be somewhat glib. One of the least interesting subplots involves Tati getting mixed up in an energy-drink pyramid scheme with a company that is clearly a spoof of the disgraced nutritional supplement corporation Herbalife, which preyed on underserved Latinx communities throughout the United States. After a wild plot twist leaves Tati rich, she pays off her debts and wraps up the story line abruptly, leaving viewers wondering what exactly the setup was for. (Maybe magical thinking has its limits.) Additionally, Armisen spends his time on the show playing a valet driver (Renaldo’s uncle Tico) with an empty clownishness and an exaggerated accent, both of which come across as more mocking than funny.
People have praised the show and HBO for putting Spanish-language programming on prestige television. And while the use of Spanish is a step forward in terms of the network’s diversity, Los Espookys still follows some of the patterns of HBO-style comedies: The characters fall into the category of modern, light-skinned, middle-class young people trying to find themselves (think Girls or How to Make It in America). Considering that the show uses so much magic and imagination to spur the plot forward, it seems that the writers could do more, in terms of storytelling and casting, to push the boundaries of Latinx representation and show the broad range of backgrounds and races that make up these identities.
As far as the show’s actual message, Torres has explained that sweeping political statements aren’t the central focus. “The trend right now is horror as a vehicle for scary social critique, like Jordan Peele’s work,” he told Ars Technica. “[Los Espookys] is sillier than that. It has a very silly sensibility.” The irony is that when the show does aim for sharp insights about the current cultural moment, it’s both engaging and perceptive. The difficulty of getting a visa as a foreign Latin American traveling to the United States is reflected when the foursome accidentally traps a US diplomat in an enchanted mirror that eventually shatters. Andrés’s water demon is comical, but it also hints at a larger quest for identity and self-discovery in today’s world. A scientist hires the four friends to pretend to be extraterrestrials for a grant audit, during which she quips, “You won’t believe what language they speak… Spanish! What a coincidence.” The line carries extra weight as the group stands in front of her, wearing green alien costumes.
The first season, which wraps up with a perfectly preposterous wedding ceremony, can feel like working your way through a small but delightful haunted house at an amusement park. The episodes are heavy on thrills and laughs, if sometimes light on substance. Still, there’s room for Los Espookys to leave a lasting impression: HBO has ordered a second season of the show, giving Armisen, Torres, and Fabrega more time to stretch the limits of their absurdist imaginations.