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Giving The Devil’s Backbone Its Due

Tonight the Chicago International Film Festival will be honoring Guillermo del Toro with their “Visionary Award.” The evening will include a rare 35mm screening of del Toro’s 2002 film, The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo), followed by a Q&A with the director. In advance, here is my own appreciation for del Toro and the movie.

Among general audiences Guillermo del Toro is best known as the director of the Hollywood comic book adaptations Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Among cinephiles, del Toro is better known as the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Spanish fairy tale/political allegory that won a surprising 3 Oscars in 2007. Personally, I celebrate the man’s entire catalogue (to borrow a phrase from Office Space); even Blade II occupies a place of honor in my home video library. Part of the fun in admiring del Toro is noticing how the same themes and visual motifs run through his entire body of work; these cinematic threads end up weaving their way through a lot of otherwise disparate movies that have been made in different film industries all over the world.

Del Toro was born and raised in Mexico but the only film he made in his native country was his first, the wonderful vampire movie Cronos from 1993. Since then he’s become a true international auteur, seemingly at home both inside of the Hollywood mainstream as well as with more arthouse-oriented fare such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which were made independently in Spain. One of the things binding del Toro’s movies together is an interest in the supernatural; fantastic elements manifest themselves in very different ways in each one of his films. For example, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone were designed as companion pieces, with Pan’s Labyrinth conceived of as the feminine “sister” film to the more masculine Devil’s Backbone. This is most obvious in that the earlier film centers on a little boy as protagonist and the later film centers on a little girl. But the supernatural elements in Pan’s Labyrinth can be seen as “feminine” in their fairytale nature whereas the supernatural elements in The Devil’s Backbone are “masculine” in that they’re closer to pure horror.

The Devil’s Backbone is indeed the closest that del Toro has ever come to making a straight horror film, but it isn’t quite that, in spite of the director’s obvious love of monsters and the grotesque. This is in part because del Toro’s project is to always try combining different genres. First of all, The Devil’s Backbone is a melodrama. (In del Toro’s own words, all of his movies are melodramas because he’s Mexican.) But the primary genres combined in the witches’ brew that is The Devil’s Backbone are the gothic horror film and the war film. The gothic horror arises from ghost story elements that are very conventional in a lot of respects: the story involves a ghost who cannot rest until the secret behind his death is brought to light and justice has been served – a classic ghost story narrative, to be sure. But del Toro puts his own spin on the tale by setting the story in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, a unique juxtaposition. Del Toro well knows the importance of satisfying the audience by acknowledging genre conventions in their broadest outlines while simultaneously making the movie his own through the accumulation of small details.

On the audio commentary track to The Devil’s Backbone DVD, del Toro says something simple and profound – that the best horror tales are those where the teller of the tale is in love with the monster. What a succinct definition of what makes a horror movie work! This is also arguably an explanation of why horror movies today are not as successful as horror movies from previous generations. Think of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s or the Hammer horror films of the 1950s. The main object of interest in those movies is the monster. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man are objects of repulsion and fascination but they are inarguably the stars of the show. Today, the predominant form the horror movie has taken is that of the “slasher” film. In the slasher, the killer is more often than not faceless and silent and the primary sense of characterization in these movies falls solely onto the victims and drawn-out scenes of their suffering.

Del Toro elaborates on his theory that in a good horror tale the teller must love the monster by saying that he thinks the horror genre is the most humanistic of all genres because, at their best, horror movies ask us to sympathize and identify with “the other.” While it’s debatable whether del Toro had “torture porn” (the subgenre favored by Hollywood these days) in mind when he made this statement, the notion of identifying with the other is unquestionably a strategy at work in his own movies. Think of the lovingly detailed way in which the ghost, Santi, is presented in The Devil’s Backbone – with his pale, translucent skin and the blood pouring out of his cracked skull that floats upward as if traveling through water. Combine this with the film’s appropriate tag line, “The living are always more dangerous than the dead,” and you’ll have more than a glimmer of what del Toro is up to.

Another important recurring del Toro motif is the heavy burden of responsibility his characters feel in the face of difficult moral choices. For instance, in Blade II Wesley Snipes is a vampire, essentially at war with his own nature, who has chosen to fight other vampires. In Hellboy, Hellboy is a demon who has been conjured from hell by the Nazis but who has ultimately chosen to use his demonic powers for good. This aspect of the film is wonderfully symbolized in the scenes where we see Hellboy literally filing down the horns on his head to prevent them from growing into full-blown devil horns.

In Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone the moral choices the characters have to make concern more real world horrors as both films take place during the Spanish Civil War. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the climax of the film revolves around the main character, Ofelia, having to make a difficult choice in the face of certain death. In The Devil’s Backbone, the setting is the aforementioned orphanage in the earliest days of the war, several years before the action of Pan’s Labyrinth begins. The orphanage functions then as a kind of microcosm of Spain and the choice that the main characters have to make is whether to go along with the rising tide of fascism that is sweeping the country or whether to resist it. Like Douglas Sirk and other great Hollywood melodramatists of old, del Toro knows that the best way to get audiences to examine similar questions with respect to their own lives is to smuggle these kind of moral dilemmas into entertaining films that communicate with audiences in a simple and direct way.


Other parallels between The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth:

– Both films employ circular structures where the first scene is repeated as the final scene.
– Both feature voice over narration only during the opening and closing scenes.
– The narrative proper of each movie begins with a child arriving at a new home and then being visited on the first night by a magical or fantastic creature.
– Both lead characters spend the majority of each film trying to solve a mystery posed by the creature on that first night.

Also drawn from del Toro’s commentary track on The Devil’s Backbone DVD, here is an illuminating list of the diverse influences on the film:

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Charles Dickens in general
H.P. Lovecraft in general
Luis Bunuel in general
Mexican melodramas starring Pedro Infante
Alfred Hitchcok in general and Sabotage in particular
Mario Bava in general
Sergio Leone in general
John Ford’s westerns and The Searchers in particular

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

24 responses to “Giving The Devil’s Backbone Its Due

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  • Alisa

    What informs the plot of ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ is the use of warm and dark tones throughout the film. Seldom does the cinematographer choose to use cool colors; in fact we only see cool colors in rain, night, and in the underground chamber. Even at the final culmination of the film in which Jacinto died the colors remain warm. For a horror film I find this an interesting choice as cool colors and noir aspects seem to be more traditional. The film begins with amber, red, and brown hues, evoking a womb-like atmosphere, referenced in the opening lines of the film, and later echoed in the scene in which Dr.Casades reveals the fetuses to Carlos.

    There is a correlation between the amber hues of the film and Jacinto’s love of gold which is highlighted in his murder scene; while drowning in amber colored water Jacinto tries to free himself of the gold bars that he collected. This made me think back to the scene when Jacinto reads the quote on the back of the photograph – the comparison of a heart that is cold and cruel in its emptiness to his obsession with riches; even in the end, Jacinto’s comrades abandon him.

    Perhaps this may be a stretch, but it seems as though Jacinto’s character serves as a strong reminder of how the intention of a revolution can be skewed in dangerous and power hungry ways. Turning fanatical and lonely [a common trait among fascist leaders] Jacinto’s cruelty and need for riches eventually rendered even the riches useless; losing the support of his comrades made him mad and weak, making it easy for a small group of children to exact their revenge.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Great observation about the unusually warm (for a horror film) color scheme. The color of the fluid that the fetuses are in is amber and the word “amber” is even uttered in the opening narration (“an insect trapped in amber”). In PAN’S LABYRINTH, Del Toro frequently combines warm and cool color temperatures within the same shots. 10/10

  • Dylan

    The significance of the title in “The Devil’s Backbone”

    In class I compared the deformed fetus being preserved by Dr. Casares and the healing properties of it’s preserving fluid to the way the ghost of Santi is offering help to the living from beyond the grave. The fact that they explain the deformity is called “the devil’s backbone” is enough to relate the movie’s title to the the plot and characters. However, I think that the title is related to the rest of the film on another level as well.

    The case can be made for Jacinto (and the fascism he represents) to be considered an embodiment of the Devil in the film. In a Faustian sense he displays each of the seven deadly sins; lust in his relationships with Carmen and Conchita, wrath in his murder of Santi, pride in his murder of Conchita, gluttony in his cigarette habit, greed and sloth in his desire for the gold and the easier life it will bring, and finally he is envious of the fact that Carmen treats Dr. Casares as an equal but not him. Despite him being the devil, I found myself impressed, however reluctantly, by the resolve and determination shown by Jacinto and despite his many weaknesses Jacinto is not a coward. A typical symbol of such resolve is a strong spine or “backbone” thus the devil’s backbone is Jacinto’s determination to succeed in his evil ways, or the determination of a fascist movement that has gained momentum.

    I also just wanted to bring up that I found it very interesting that the dud bomb was set up as a sort of Chekov’s Gun but in the end it wasn’t the source of the huge explosion in the last act. I thought that was an interesting play on a common trope that Del Toro chose to include.

  • Brianna Clark

    After watching this movie, the parallels I see between it and Del Toro’s other film, Pan’s Labyrinth, are clear. Two worlds are brought together through a young child’s curiosity and exploration. The director brought two worlds together in this film through medians such as ghosts, which I thought were portrayed in a more melancholy tone rather than an angry or evil tone typically associated with spirits. In fact, Santi’s proclamations are clear warnings of what is to come and not violent acts done by him because of resentment or retaliation for past wrongs. I thought it was interesting that the only time the director used cool color tones in the scenes was when Carlos was interacting with the ghost Santi in the bathroom and when he is in the boys dormitory. It made me question if that was the place where Santi had the fatal incident was closely tied to those two places, especially since he was a young boy when he died. In other scenes, however, the color tone is warm, almost golden. I believe this is to reflect the greed for gold Jacinto has and the lust and passion for power and control him and Dr. Casares possess.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Good point of comparison between THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. Santi is an ambiguous figure, as you note, much like the Faun in the latter film. He’s definitely not “evil” although I think Del Toro misdirects us in the first half into thinking that he might be. Jacinto is the true villain, something that the film’s original tagline cleverly hinted at: “The living will always be more dangerous than the dead.” 10/10

  • nishat c

    A very Beautiful sense of work and interesting combination of warm and dark tones in the film which kept the audience on their toes in my opinion. Del Toro has done an amazing job perfecting each scene to keep you wondering what would exactly happen next. In which the characters were made to mislead. the title of the film itself reflects to the characters of the film in which i believe mainly Santi, Jacinto. every character was the “backbone” important to how this movie played out. Rather than an Evil, Gory type of horror the director shows a “ghost” who’s soul will not be at ease until revenge is made to the evil doer, in this case (Jacinto). Jacinto’s character was probably the most interesting twist to the story line. He portrayed the real “devil” in disguise. The plot twist of his character being quite the hardworking man who wants to make it out and do something with his life to the evil and greed behind everything towards the climax. The director slowly reveals his true colors displayed as the real devil and Santi being the deceased innocent soul who had injustice done to him. The tagline ” “The living are always more dangerous than the dead” i think shows in this film Jacinto being the evil and sometimes as people may think its the “ghost” in many cases it is not. It is because something may have been done to them in such a way that the soul cannot rest which this film misleads us in the start to believe the ghost is evil to bringing out the true colors of the real evil. ( Jacinto)

  • Liz

    Horror films typically aren’t my go to genre of choice. However, I’m so pleased I was able to view this film, “The Devils Backbone” in class Wednesday. I was instantly drawn in during the opening scene when the narrator of the film, Dr. Casares, starts pondering and making the audience ask themselves the question, what is a ghost? The narration which only happens in the beginning and end of this film works because the film ends full circle (one of my favorite ways for a film to end), when Dr. Casares repeats his opening statements/questions and then reveals he himself is a ghost. In addition to being pleasantly surprised by how this film satisfied my need to view more excellent done horror films, I was also pleased to see so much character development particularly between two main characters. Carols, the protagonist, is the first and probably the second most profound example of character development because his everlasting curiosity for life at the orphanage seems to always keep the audience, as well as himself guessing. Towards the start of the film I wanted to shake him and wished he would stand up for himself more as the boys bullied him.. However, without his bravery and curiosity the film wouldn’t have had a solid platform in which to evolve. The most profound character development though, I feel was Jacinto. Jacinto from the start seems troubled, bossy, disturbed and like a man with a plan that somehow gives off the vibe that it just won’t turn out the way he’d like. I feel his character grows more and more abusive both verbally and physically and towards the ending scene when it is made clear he killed Santi, I realized how great Del Toro is at slowly but not in a bad way, toying with his audience, so to speak. I remember you pointing out the parallel between the Spanish civil war and how it kind of represents itself within the orphanage and I did recognize that while watching. It’s interesting how you say that often in horror films the narrator is in love with the monster and I do think that tends to be a common theme. In “The Devils Backbone” I feel the monster is Jacinto and the narrator, Dr. Casares, is not very fond of him at all, with good reason. Overall, I’m pleased to have viewed this film and am now interested in watching “Pan’s Labyrinth” not only because I enjoy Del Toro’s work but also because I would like to see the correlation of a feminine type of antagonist as you explained above.

  • Flavio Torres

    The Devil’s Backbone was one of the best horror movies I’ve seen to date that even beats some of the more recent horror films such as paranormal activity. Its evident to see Del Toro’s love for the horror genre, as throughout the film there is clever use of German Expressionism with all of the night time scene using the shadows and low key lighting. That really drove home how frightening it would be to be followed, and chased, around by ghost whose intentions are unknown.
    Not to mention, the love for Santi and how he was portrayed was a great example that proved to me that Del Toro loves all his monsters. One doesn’t see that often nowadays in films such as Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, and Insidious. Those films only portray the fear and terror of their monsters only showing the darkest and ugliest of monsters or not even showing it at all, I’m looking at you Paranormal Activity, and that is a big aspect of any film is to show off your characters in some way.
    In regards to our class discussion, I do believe this film is a combination of all three horror sub genres. For example, in the film we see Santi portrayed as the supernatural being that is haunting the orphange, Jacinto the violent caretaker that physical threatens the life of everyone and as the psychological as he pushes the survivors into a corner with fear.

  • Maria Reji

    The Devil’s Backbone-Comparison to Spanish Civil War!
    The Devil’s Backbone is a supernatural thriller in which extreme fascism and democracy prevalent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War is metaphorically presented to them e audience. Children and the owners of the orphanage are sympathetic characters(democracy) who fights against the fascist character Jacinto. Throughout the movie, Jacinto treats everyone cruelly and is only caring about stealing money from Carmen. He killed Santi while he was covering up his act of opening the case for stealing gold from Carmen. He killed Dr Casares, Carmen and other innocent children by setting up fire for materialistic money. What really blow my mind is the act of he killing his fiance Conchita! I couldn’t believe the fact that he killed the love of his life for some gold. This movie shows that materialistic things such as money and power can turn a person to an evil one. At the end of the movie, justice was served when Jacinto was punished by the boys. The fascist regime was overthrown by the democratic one.Overall I really liked this film. I almost cried at the scene where the innocent kids were killed by fire. It was really interesting to observe that the cinematography along with the warm colors adds fear and loneliness in the film.

  • mike speck

    The devil’s backbone didn’t really feel like a horror film. It felt more a thriller/drama to me. Del Tore does a really good job of building up suspense which is why i enjoyed this movie. I found it interesting that Del Tore uses the ghost Santi as more of a protagonist character that is trying revel his killer so he can pass on peacefully. Originally when you said that this film was set in a orphanage, I was assuming that the plot was going to have more a Children of the Corn vibe to it. Which is cool because Del Tore kept me guessing and didn’t revert typical horror film technique. Visually Santi gothic look adds a spooky feel; its similar to the girl from the ring. Del Tore adding the crack on top of Santi’s head made him more human like and had myself questing what happen too his head. The two main boys Carlos and Jaime relationship starts off very rocky but eventually evolves into a strong/fearless friendship. That component of the movie really drew my interest through out the movie. Jancinto was probably my favorite character, I had no clue that he was going to be the villain. Another reason why I enjoyed Jacinto is because he progressively get more evil throughout the movie; very similar Jack Nicholson character in the shining. I find when directors use blue and yellow tones in there movie it give the film a rustic/authentic look that I really enjoy.

  • Tazrin Choudhury

    “The Devils Backbone” is the first Horror film I watched where I wasn’t spooked out by the ghost/monster. Instead I was shook by the behavior of Jacinto. Jacinto’s abusives character came out more and more throughout the film. I admire Carlos for being so pure and genuine. Carlos was a messenger in the film in which he was in charge of bringing awareness that Santi’s spirit is still in the orphanage. Messengers often have godly characteristics like being compassionate for others and having a purpose to fulfill and doing everything in their power to get the message across. Carlos was still loyal to Jamie although there were many occasions where Jamie did him wrong. That still didn’t change Carlos’s good character. Santi only asked for one thing and it was Jacinto. It seemed as though Jacinto abused everyone he came in contact with. He cheated on his fiance with the headmistress who he later stabbed with no hesitation to look like a macho man, cut Carlos in the face when he took the blame for having the pocket knife, and worse of all burned the orphanage down. Jacinto was the monster in the film and karma sure bit him in the ass. Carlos succeeded at bringing Jacinto to Santi and justice was served. Jancinto got pushed into the water where he left Santi’s dead body after killing him and was not able to swim up because of all the gold he stole. The scene where he is being weighed down by the gold was sensational because he got himself in this situation and then Santi was able to take him down. This scene was iconic because of the way it was shot and felt like it was in slow motion to show justice and that Karma is real.
    This horror movie was both supernatural, psychological, and physical. It was also very different from the mainstream horror porn movies that are out there.The film was a feel good horror movie and I am very pleased to be able to watch such a film that opened my eye to all the great horror movies that are out there.

  • Seni Membreno

    Name: Seni Membreno
    The movie “The devils backbone” is by far one of my favorite horror movies not because of the visual effect or the highly talented cast but for the amount of talent behind the symbolic meaningful aspect of this movie. What I refer to is the unique way the director plays out the film that is largely different then the average horror flick with unique lines and characteristics such as the way the ghost states “Many will die” which send goosebumps to the audience until they realize that the deaths will be brought upon Jansito and not the monster (ghost) himself because the true monster is one that is living. This then backs up the a famous quote from the movie stating, “The living will always be more dangerous then the dead”. This is a direct reference to the plot twist that the ghost is in fact friendly and only seeks for revenge and closure regarding his murder. The movie has several other symbolic meaning behind it that only the most observant viewers are meant to see which I thought was an outstanding tribute to the movie. A strong symbolic reference is the big bomb that dropped the day the little boy died and how it seems to be dead yet houses a trapped soul inside just as Santi is trapped earthbound due to his unsettled mystery. I strongly believe that the directer went out of his way to create a master piece full of very strong visual and symbolic meaning that overall stands above all other horror flicks for going above and beyond expectations of the standard scary movie. The movies highlights where its plot twists, foreshadowing, and Guillermo del Toro expertise that really embraced one of his best, most unique, creations in the film industry.

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