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