30 Coins review: HBO’s masterful horror show reimagines the genre
Barely a few minutes into the HBO MAX series 30 Coins, viewers have already witnessed a cow giving birth to a human baby. Clearly, something is afoot in this eight-episode show about malevolent Christian forces trying to take control of a remote Spanish town, and eventually even the Vatican itself. Christian mythology meets Lovecraftian terror in the latest genre-bending, endlessly entertaining effort from iconoclast Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. It’s a series of many treasures.
De la Iglesia has been churning out cult genre films for almost 30 years, from his 1993 science fiction comedy debut Mutant Action to his claustrophobic 2017 thriller The Bar. His cult work ranges widely in tone and subject matter: the Christian end-of-the-world adventure The Day of the Beast redefined Spanish genre cinema and remains a beloved horror oddity. The comedic love letter to Westerns 800 Bullets explored the era of Spanish and spaghetti Westerns in a funny, heartfelt manner. And the weird, dark action dramas The Last Circus and Witching and Bitching showed the world how effortlessly he can combine heightened genre fare with a gut-wrenching emotional core. His filmography has become a rich tapestry of subversive comedy that channels his favorite genres to challenge his audience’s expectations, in Spain and abroad.
30 Coins, or 30 Monedas in its original Spanish title, centers on three main characters: Father Vergara, the exorcist and ex-con priest; Elena, the savvy and resourceful veterinarian; and Paco, the town’s careful and unwilling mayor. That ensemble stands in for distinct sections of society: politics, law enforcement, religion, and so forth. They quickly blend the personal and the universal, thanks to pitch-perfect performances that never lose sight of their characters’ intimate motivations.
The pilot episode slowly builds up atmosphere to eventually go the full Xtro route, with a dash of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive! This opening season is full of cult horror cinema callbacks that are organically built into the narrative. A character is sucked into the ground while dreaming, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The town is ensnared in an everlasting fog, suffering events reminiscent of older horror tales from Spain and elsewhere (The Vampires Night Orgy, the films of Paul Naschy, and so on). John Carpenter’s The Thing is an obvious influence on some of the phenomenal monster designs. But in spite of all the horrors, the director raises doubts: are the series’ events all the result of fear and paranoia, or actually one of the most horrifying incarnations of evil the horror genre has had to offer?
Never in the course of the show do the writers suggest that God or the devil aren’t real. Quite the opposite: they invite viewers on a journey to discover where the battlefields of good vs. evil might lead. The show’s premise is simple: some believe that the truth always resided in the Gospel of Judas, an apocryphal, forbidden Gnostic text that calls for a complete re-evaluation of the Christian faith — namely that Judas never betrayed Christ, but acted precisely as the Son of God instructed.
In 30 Coins, the Gnostic sect of Cainites have become more powerful than ever, and they’re searching for the 30 coins paid to Judas for Christ’s betrayal. They think whoever manages to find them will possess the ultimate power, making them a prize more coveted even than the Spear of Longinus or the Holy Chalice. This premise could have unfolded in myriad ways, and most writers would probably have gone down the Dan Brown path. But de la Iglesia and his longtime screenwriting partner Jorge Guerricaechevarría obviously have other plans.
30 Coins is structured like a tabletop role-playing game, with subplots following each other in a narrative that eventually reveals their close connections. The director said so himself, expressly citing the Call of Cthulhu campaigns The Masks of Nyarlathotep and Tatters of the King. As such, each episode has its own identity while being part of a whole. Each focuses on and reimagines a specific region of the horror genre: the exorcism, the child-monster, the mirror possession, the dead coming back to life, the satanic apocalypse, and so on.
And each episode draws on a wide-ranging network of influences. Since his debut feature, Mutant Action, de la Iglesia has repeatedly demonstrated his vast knowledge of classic literature and cinema — which he pointedly avoided referencing in his early works — and popular alternative culture like comic books and exploitation cinema. His new series is a golden opportunity to retool some of his greatest influences and give them new meaning, or at the very least, to give them a new flavor. Christianity imbues everything in the show, from the landscape to the characters’ way of thinking and behaving. It takes a close look at Spanish religiosity in particular, but also at the ways humans weave untangleable webs of mythological excrescences onto their faith.
The stakes are high because they go beyond the physical realm. The series deliberately challenges the idea of what constitutes evil, and questions the future of faith and spirituality Although de la Iglesia chose to leave his first season open-ended while it could have benefited from a more concrete conclusion, the imagery should delight horror enthusiasts. Genre fare rarely dares go this far in its search for universal, existential substance.
De la Iglesia’s Day of the Beast is about the often-diabolical misreading of signs, as well as the misreading of diabolical signs. 30 Coins is all about learning to read those signs anew. They’re everywhere: in the way people pretend to care for each other, in the way they exploit faith to turn it into fear, in the way humans try to rationalize the unexplainable to avoid facing their deepest fears, in the way they won’t confess to their intimate relationship with evil itself. Father Vergara’s journey takes him from wondering what God’s plan is to understanding that he has to find God within himself, if he’s to find it at all.
But unlike Day of the Beast — and most of de la Iglesia’s work — 30 Coins is by no means a comedy. His 2006 made-for-TV horror movie The Baby’s Room was a rare exception, but 30 Coins reaches further in scope and ambition, and is arguably his most discursive horror project.
Though it makes excellent use of existing sacred texts by turning them into mythology, the show goes much further than that: it reclaims Christian horror through pop-cultural Lovecraftian imagery, atmosphere, and euhemerism that adds new lore to Christianity. For instance, Father Vergara learns that the often-mentioned but never-described gifts the biblical Magi brought to the newborn Christ were magical scrolls bestowing the power of miracles on whoever uses them, thereby explaining Christ’s power by giving it a fantasy-genre gloss. The Lovecraftian dimension given to evil in 30 Coins is one of the most magnificent and satisfying reappropriation and trivialization of classical mythos in modern storytelling. It’s an exercise in bringing the most influential cultural creation of yore into our deformed, ugly, anxiety-inducing present.
But it also isn’t a dry sermon, or a vehicle for lectures about religion. Everything in 30 Coins is designed for maximum audience enjoyment, from the blockbuster style to images like a priest wielding two guns and walking away from a fire in slow motion. It’s a pop reimagining of Christian horror on a scale that’s rare for Spanish entertainment. And it lets de la Iglesia satisfy some of his nerdiest filmmaking desires, while still summoning up creatures extracted directly from humanity’s worst nightmares.