I love Guillermo del Toro. I love Pedro Almodóvar. I didn’t care much for the Hellboy movies, but Guillermo charmed me with Pan’s Labyrinth. Pedro, well… Pedro is such a visionary that he can’t be summed up in a brief introductory paragraph. He’s ingenious and audacious. Being embarrassingly ignorant about other Spanish moviemakers, I can’t say whether Almodóvar’s audacity is his personal merit, or whether it’s a common trait for Spanish directors. Either way, for me, Almodóvar’s work represents bold honesty about the human condition. Needless to say, I had high expectations for The Devil’s Backbone (2001), since it was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro and co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar. I am aware that having a big name co-produce one’s movie is a marketing gimmick, but I still went for it. I wanted to believe!
The movie starts with a young boy arriving at an orphanage for boys during the times of the Spanish Civil War. Seems like orphans are a pet subject for del Toro, since later on he was involved with producing The Orphanage (he had managed to become the very marketing gimmick Almodóvar was for this one!). Aaanyway, the boy, quite predictably, has trouble fitting in and during his social trials he encounters a ghost and the seedy history of the place folds out for him to investigate.
The storyline doesn’t have Almodóvar’s twisted inventiveness, beautifully exemplified by recent international hit The Skin I Live In, nor del Toro’s subtly ethereal atmosphere which made Pan’s Labyrinth such a stunning fairytale. I guess Mr. Toro was still looking for his vision, since this was one of his earliest productions. Gotta love the unconventional sexual boundary-breaking, though; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lovely old lady principal with naughty nighties. Moreover, this peg-legged granny is sexually taken advantage of by a young man who is also trying to pull a young and alluring brunette woman. That business has “Almodóvar” written all over it! Furthermore, the things that give the movie its name are daringly shocking, which is why I’m not going to spoil that for you.
All this being said, I was disappointed with the ghost. He was shown for the very first time already at the beginning of the movie – which in itself is disappointing – and he was shown way too clearly, albeit from a distance. Sure enough, his form is clearly visible and he gets a close-up already about half an hour into the film. If it weren’t for the exotic sound of Spanish, his too-clear speaking voice would also fail to, as it were, shiver me timbers. I still find the sound of the word “muerte” as pronounced by a proper Spaniard eerie as heck! The ghost is also more zombie-ish, because he can’t pass through solid things. I guess the very nature of a ghost, both physical and metaphysical, is something del Toro wanted to explore, since the movie starts with the words “What is a ghost?”. I’ve always campaigned against what I’d like to call “monster elitism”, so I’m fine and dandy with a zombie-ish ghost. The problem is that I still wasn’t that scared, even though zombies do scare me: this boy is just way too sentient to be zombie-scary, and way too visible to be ghost-scary. Caught in the middle. So I gave up on being scared and decided to concentrate on the other aspects of the movie.
These other aspects are really well done. The characters are nuanced and their motives unfold nicely along with the story, which is well-structured and relatable. My favourite thing about the story is that the ghost is only a part of the big picture; mainstream horror so often places main focus on the supernatural entity and makes a big deal out of it. Here the big picture is about human suffering and how that can unleash the evil within, which is only spiced up by a ghost story. I was, however, disappointed by the bad guy – he was a bit too archetypal for my tastes. I’m a villain enthusiast and a sloppy villain is something that really disappoints me. But at least he had a back story, unlike Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean 4! I was sooooooo furious with the unbelievable flatness they had managed to achieve in writing that legendary man into the script. An English actor playing the villain is usually such a safe bet, but this time even that wasn’t enough to save Blackbeard. And now I’m getting sidetracked.
Overall, I’ve yet again managed to write about an un-scary horror movie. If it weren’t for the disturbing sexual themes and the devil’s backbones, this would be a very good ghost story for children. As it is, it is a beautiful and a very classic story; del Toro weaves the supernatural element into it using themes found in international folklore going back hundreds, even thousands of years. While The Devil’s Backbone didn’t quite reach the stylistic and atmospheric proportions of Pan’s Labyrinth, it is a clear first step towards the gorgeous fairytale that del Toro was on his way to create.
“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.” – Dr. Casares –