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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

HBO’s 30 Coins merges religious horror with the fantastical

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Megan Montaner and Miguel Ángel Silvestre star in 30 Coins
Megan Montaner and Miguel Ángel Silvestre star in 30 Coins
Photo: Manolo Pavon/HBO Nordic

30 Coins, HBO’s latest international production, offers full immersion into the weird terrors that torment the remote town of Pedraza, Spain. Helmed by horror auteur Álex de la Iglesia (The Day Of The Beast, The Last Circus), the eight-episode Spanish-language series follows Father Manuel Vergara (Eduard Fernández), an exorcist who has been exiled by the Catholic Church and sent to serve as Pedraza’s new priest. Soon after his arrival, demonic and unexplainable events—like a cow giving birth to a human baby or a book that appears only in a mirror’s reflection—start to occur and send the once peaceful town into shock. Local veterinarian Elena (Megan Montaner) and the town’s mayor, Paco (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), form an alliance and set out to uncover the truth about Vergara and his past. Along the way, they unravel a scheme that traces back to the Vatican involving the elusive artifacts of the show’s title—the same pieces of silver Judas Iscariot received for betraying Jesus of Nazareth.

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The series draws on biblical references allusions like this, incorporating religious music into its eerie score by Roque Baños. Each episode focuses on a specific event or item that ties back to the main plot—Vergara’s past and the coins—bringing Elena and Paco closer to understanding what is truly happening. The pilot is suitably frightening, immediately introducing the show’s dark plot; in the second episode, the spirits contacted using a ouija board request the coin that Vergara has given to Elena. With every occurrence, it becomes clear that the coin, though initially dismissed as something worthless, is the cause of everyone’s misfortunes. But giving it to the priests at the Vatican would likely place power in the wrong hands, as “whoever has the 30 coins will have in their possession a weapon more powerful than the very Arc of the Covenant.”

Though 30 Coins focuses often on Vergara, it operates as an ensemble drama, at times placing Elena and Paco at the forefront and exploring their personal lives and inner struggles. In the pilot, it’s revealed that Elena’s husband has been missing for two years, which the town’s rumor mill blames on Elena and her “craziness.” As a result, many people (especially the men) don’t take what Elena says seriously, while others use her husband’s disappearance as a way to dismiss her entirely. Through this dynamic, de la Iglesia and his Day Of The Beast collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría seem to underscore the machismo that is present in Spanish (and Latin American) cultures. The issue of a woman being gaslit in a culture still rooted in old-fashioned traditions is nothing new, but 30 Coins puts its own twist on it: The men who dismiss Elena’s experiences and accounts of what she saw are as much a danger to her safety as the supernatural threats.

Telenovela-like romantic storylines hone character arcs and provide backstory, allowing the series to successfully lean into its drama-horror hybrid to underscore the characters’ humanity. There is jealousy, love, betrayal, heartbreak, and the universal struggle of deciphering right versus wrong, all while dealing with the chaos in Pedraza. As the series progresses, Elena and Paco’s friendship deepens, which causes people in town, including Paco’s wife, to suspect they are having some kind of an affair. Other character threads begin and end as the individuals seeking the coin continue to torment the town and find new and cruel ways of acquiring it.

Though these arcs intersect with the horror genre in subtler ways, the grotesqueries that de la Iglesia is known for are on full display in the phantasmagoric visuals and viscera: exorcisms, gory deaths, ghosts, and a demonic-baby-turned-spider-monster. The CGI and special effects makeup work together with the score to create the series’ religious horror aesthetic. 30 Coins also combines elements of thriller and mystery series with more fantastical turns, like portals into parallel worlds and dream sequences—though the genre fusion does make the story a bit overwhelming and overlong. When it seems like some matters are resolved, other things unravel, but the performances by the cast, especially Fernandez and Montaner, keep these sections together. Despite the broad narrative focus and widespread plot, 30 Coins ultimately remains rooted in the real terror of the way people treat one another in the face of fear.