Inside ‘30 Coins,’ HBO’s Insane New Horror Show About Judas’ Betrayal of Jesus
Premiering Jan. 4, the new supernatural series features a violent cult and creepy creatures on the hunt for the coins Judas received from the Romans for double-crossing Christ.
Many supernatural shows partake in the crazy, but few do so with the non-stop gusto of 30 Coins, whose maiden season is awash in unhinged religious insanity. The brainchild of director Álex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus), who helms its entire eight-episode run, this Spanish saga dials itself to eleven from the outset, and then somehow manages to maintain its hysterical horror vibe through an absolute litany of bonkers twists and turns. It’s like being on an out-of-control haunted house theme park ride: you just hold on for dear life while the scares batter you about.
Debuting Jan. 4 on HBO, 30 Coins is set in the walled Spanish town of Pedraza, a rustic outpost that’s now home to priest Don Manuel Vergara (Eduard Fernández), a bearded, bald-headed man of the cloth whose back features a giant tattoo of Christ on the cross sandwiched between two self-flagellation scourges, and who spends most of his nights wailing away at a punching bag. Manuel is an ex-con, although the trouble he’s brought with him is of a distinctly unholy sort. That manifests itself early, when local veterinarian Elena (Megan Montaner) tends to a pregnant cow, only to pull a human baby out of the animal’s womb. Such a development naturally stuns everyone, including mayor Paco (Miguel Ángel Silvestre). And things get decidedly weirder once the tyke is put in the temporary care of a couple still grieving the death of their own child, and the surrogate mother becomes particularly attached to the infant—who, in mere days, grows first into a giant, veiny mutant toddler, and then into an enormous spider creature hellbent on destruction.
The cause of this calamity has to do with a coin in Vergara’s possession. Yet before anything can become too clear, 30 Coins partakes in lots more outrageousness, including a ouija board séance that causes one teenager, Sole (Carla Tous), to disappear and then reappear as a self-mutilating demon, and a magic mirror full of nefarious reflections with a mind of their own—as well as the image of a book dubbed “Gospel by Judas.” As relayed by a credit sequence that depicts the treacherous disciple receiving 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal of Jesus (who grins maniacally at his former friend from the cross), that infamous biblical traitor is central to these proceedings—or rather his cursed bounty is, since everything here has to do with a malevolent cabal trying to acquire Vergara’s historically important money.
30 Coins’ premiere wastes no time getting to the bonkers good stuff, moving at a feverish pitch even as it establishes its many characters, who also include Paco’s ambitious and domineering hotel heiress-wife Merche (Macarena Gómez), gross Renfield-esque vagrant Antonio (Javier Bódalo), and police officer Laguna (Pepón Nieto). The central romantic dynamic concerns Paco and Elena’s budding amour, which is complicated by his marriage to jealous Merche and her strange marital circumstances—her husband went mysteriously missing two years earlier—and growing bond with wealthy playboy Roque (Antonio Velázquez). Iglesia grounds his wild material in soap opera terrain, and then embellishes it with all manner of CGI-enhanced lunacy, striking an assured balance between heated melodrama and gruesome horror.
Possession and exorcism, witches and resurrections, suicide and murder, red-clad cardinals and the Pope himself, all soon factor into 30 Coins, which revolves around a secret Catholic cult of Cainites—led by a fiend from Vergara’s past—who covet Judas’ 30 coins because they believe any items that caused Christ pain contain immense spiritual power. These villains’ guiding philosophy is that evil is an inherent part of God’s divine plan, and thus that carrying out insanely wicked deeds gets them closer to Him—a notion born from their study of unsanctioned gospels (by, among others, Jesus himself) which preach that God is literally in everything. Such theological ideas aren’t exactly novel, but they provide a sturdy religious mythology upon which Iglesia builds a conspiracy-drenched tale of noble individuals combating organized apocalyptic forces.
30 Coins’ Pedraza setting gives it the feel of Resident Evil 4-via-Silent Hill (especially in its fog-drenched final showdown), and it also ventures outside the town’s borders to visit Geneva, Manhattan, Paris, and other foreign locales where clerics use magic charms to enslave innocent people in order to have them fetch some of Judas’ carefully-guarded coins. Sinister priests abound, none more menacing than Father Angel (Cosimo Fusco), whom Vergara initially encountered during his ecclesiastical training, and who may be the Devil himself. Before any true confrontation with Angel can take place, however, Vergara, Paco, and Elena must first contend with a variety of lesser dilemmas, including the inexplicable reappearance of loved ones, the arrival in town of two federal agents, imprisonment in far-off lands, and—in Paco and Elena’s case—their own desires for a new life, potentially with each other.
Iglesia indulges in so much non-stop action that it’s easy to ignore the fact that 30 Coins isn’t actually about much, other than delivering spooky set pieces, eerie imagery and love-triangle conflicts. Though it proposes an off-the-wall answer to the question of why God permits evil to exist in the world, the series is hardly a serious-minded spiritual work, and it boasts none of the allegorical bite of its maker’s gonzo The Last Circus. More interested in surprising and exciting its audience than engaging with them on an intellectual level, it’s a plot-driven affair akin to a disposable summer-reading paperback novel. On those limited terms, it’s a success, offering up a considerable amount of entertaining madness.
Its episodes functioning as both distinct stand-alone chapters and pieces of a larger narrative puzzle, 30 Coins tries on various horror guises while crafting its own unique vision of the battle for—and to prevent—Armageddon. Led by capable lead performances that teeter on the edge of campiness as well as Iglesia’s sturdy direction, which employs shadow and mist to unnerving effect, the show—packed with hallowed relics, bloody stigmata, and myriad more religious elements—proves a pulpy nightmare of the sacred and the profane.