What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.
When Guillermo del Toro (GDT) is on target with films like Cronos (1993), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) few modern directors can match his vision of gothic horror and homage to films that are no longer made. At his best I think he is a maverick filmmaker with an unmatched visceral style that bucks the system and says “this is how I make a film”. I still consider Pan’s Labyrinth the best horror-fantasy film of the last 20 or so years (I can’t think of any film quite like it), and the Spanish-language El espinazo del diablo one of the finest ghost films ever. At his worst we see studio-imposed blockbusters with CGI rubbish, albeit entertainment such as the gigantically disappointing Pacific Rim (2013). It’s still difficult for me to comprehend that a man who wrote, directed and produced Backbone and Labyrinth could churn out headache-inducing hollywood IMAX/3D/D-Box fodder.
I first saw The Devil’s Backbone in an art theater in the metro-Detroit area. I had never heard of GDT. I remembered him afterward. The film occurs during the Spanish Civil War, sometime between 1936-1939. A 1935 Peugeot 601D sedan rumbles down a barren, wind-swept landscape to an orphanage. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives with his tutor, who fights for the Republican loyalist minority. Carlos’ dad has died in the war. The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (well-played by GTD regular Federico Luppi) and headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who has a prosthetic leg. The villain of the story is groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Also present is compassionate teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo), who is involved with Jacinto. An unexploded ordinance, a metaphorical bomb the size of a sedan sits planted in the pavilion of the orphanage.
The orphanage is populated with colorful characters like Jamie (Iñigo Garcés) the bully, and Owl, who doesn’t speak but watches a lot and once made a marble out of dirt and 6 months of snot. Carlos is given bunk 12, which belonged to Santi who mysteriously disappeared. Another entity is present in the orphanage. Carlos is picked on by Jamie and the other kids and learns about a cistern underlying the orphanage. It looks like a swimming pool filled with rusty oxidized water. We also learn that the orphanage is a depository for gold used to fund the loyalists. Other odd trappings abound in the orphanage.
Dr. Cascares explains to Carlos that deformed fetuses, pickled in rum and spices, serve as a source of elixir that is profitably sold to town men looking for a cure for impotency. Cascares refers to a spinal deformity that the locals call el espinazo del diablo. He drinks a shot.
Carlos eventually learns the secret and fate of Santi.
The Devil’s Backbone is shot in two color schemes: gold and blue (like old vintage photographs or cyanotypes). It’s a gorgeous film to look at and like Pan’s Labyrinth was story-boarded by GDT and several talented artists and shot by DOP Guillermo Navarro. GDT and production designer César Macarrón styled the doorway arches in the orphanage to look like the glass vessels containing fetuses. Also take note on the use of the color red, which is reserved for the presence of blood. Everywhere there are details in this film. Rain is added to suggest cleansing (like in Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne finally escapes), while in PacRim it is an excuse to add an additional layer of 3D.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray print is the definitive version to own. The 2-disc set is loaded with supplements, including story board comparisons, artwork, several interviews and commentaries and deleted scenes. The uncredited cover artwork by GDT collaborator and friend Mike “Hellboy” Mignola and essay by Mark Kermode are also special. I also like the Criterion touch of making this film title #666.
I’d like to watch a GDT film with the director. I think it would be a fascinating experience. I love his style and appreciation of old films and gothic horror. I might be tempted to watch Pacific Rim. I’d ask him what the hell were you thinking with yet another rain shot and stupid “top gun” cliches. Sometimes I wonder if GDT is better making films in his native language.
GDT has noted that “The better the villain the better the film”. I think this is true -remember Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh? Orson Welles as police captain Hank Quinlan? Or Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947)(I remember him pushing that wheelchair-bound woman down the stairs, but that’s all I remember). A good villain can carry a film. The evil Jacinto is despicable but he is no match for the porcelain-faced Santi who says “bring him to me…”.
The Devil’s Backbone. Essential horror viewing. One of the top Blu-ray and DVD releases of 2013.