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Tag Archives: The Devil’s Backbone

He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. He Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world that’s unstable. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pierce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.


Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife Jillian at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival

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46th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

From my perspective, a member of the ticket-buying public who also happens to teach film studies, this was the strongest CIFF in years. Of course, the opening night slot was again taken by a would-be prestige film with no real “awards season” prospects that was predictably dumped on us by a major studio (Stone) and one could always nitpick the absence of such major 2010 festival players as Carlos, Film Socialisme, Hahaha, Poetry, The Strange Case of Angelica, Mysteries of Lisbon, Another Year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Road to Nowhere, etc. On the other hand, it was a major coup to land such heavyweight titles as Cannes winners Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and On Tour. Combine those films with Chicago premieres/gala screenings of genuinely anticipated titles like Black Swan, Tamara Drewe and Hereafter, not to mention a “Visionary Award” / Q&A session with a director who actually deserved the honor (Guillermo del Toro) and you have the recipe for a successful festival.

Unfortunately, I was able to only take in 8 screenings (out of over 100 available). I tried to diversify as much as possible by going with films by directors I admire (Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy), recommendations from friends (Caterpillar, Heartbeats) as well as a few stabs in the dark based on catalogue descriptions (Shorts 4, Devil’s Town). The one screening I really regret missing is Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed-about film of the Romanian New Wave. But it wouldn’t be a proper festival experience without “the one that got away.” Here is a report card of my festival experience:

Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran)
Grade: A+ / 10

Who could’ve guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book – the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer they carry on the act the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight of hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of his longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that haunted me for days. I can’t wait to see it again.

Cinema of the Americas’ Visionary Award – Tribute to Guillermo del Toro / The Devil’s Backbone
Grade: A+

Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife, Jillian

In receiving the festival’s Visionary Award, del Toro, a witty raconteur, regaled the capacity audience with tales of his adventures in filmmaking across Mexico, Spain and the U.S. and was abetted by surprise guest Ron “Hellboy” Perlman. The genuine affection between the two was touching to behold (Perlman’s deferred salary helped del Toro complete his first feature Cronos and del Toro repaid the favor years later by insisting against vociferous studio exec objections that only Perlman could play Hellboy). Both were even gracious enough to put in a little face time at the requisite “after party” held at a nearby nightclub. A rare screening of The Devil’s Backbone in 35mm was the icing on the cake; for me, the true highlight was watching del Toro kiss my star-struck wife on the cheek.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Grade: A- / 8.9

A man searches the jungle for an elusive “monkey ghost” before sprouting hair and blazing red eyes and becoming one himself. A princess copulates with a talking catfish. An orange-robed Buddhist monk checks his cell phone. Welcome to the wonderful world of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, the international face of Thai art cinema. Joe’s latest is a gentle, meditative fable about the titular character, dying of kidney disease, who not only can recall past lives but is also attended to by the ghosts of dead family members. God, it can be so refreshing to see a movie that does not aspire in the least to follow any sort of Hollywood-style narrative formula, especially when that movie is presided over by a director whose employment of image and sound is as masterful and poetic as this.

Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada)
Grade: B+ / 7.5

Francis and Marie are best friends. He’s gay and she’s straight. Their friendship is put to the test when they meet Nico, a handsome, seemingly bi-sexual Adonis-type who conforms to both of their romantic ideals. As a statement on young love today, this arty, candy-colored rom-com is funny, tender and very, very sweet. Derided in some circles as “style over substance,” I was only too happy to see a new movie packed with enough filmmaking smarts to fill half a dozen others. At just 22 years old, writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

On Tour (Amalric, France)
Grade: B- / 6.6

Rumor has it that On Tour has yet to find a U.S. distributor due to expensive music rights so I was grateful to catch this at CIFF. The wonderful actor Mathieu Amalric directs and stars as Joachim, a formerly successful television producer who has since fallen on hard times and is forced to hustle a living by producing a traveling burlesque show. A genuine sense of warmth develops between Joachim and the American burlesque performers (all real dancers playing themselves) as he shuttles them along the coast of France, booking venues and hotel rooms by the seat of his pants. However, this unfocused ramble doesn’t quite achieve the depth of characterization of its obvious model, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and one suspects that Amalric’s Best Director win at Cannes was possible only because he also plays a director-type character in front of the camera. Still, Amalric is fun to watch as a variation on his usual fuck-up character and the dance routines are magnificent.

Caterpillar (Wakamatsu, Japan)
Grade: C / 6.3

An odd, genuinely disturbing Japanese drama about a soldier returning home to a small village after losing both his arms and legs in WWII. He attempts to assuage his anguished memories of rape and murder through overindulging in food and sex and ironically finds himself pronounced a “living war God” by the local villagers. I didn’t quite know what to make of this film; as a statement about how war dehumanizes everyone it touches, it’s undeniably effective. But there’s also a pointed lack of humor as well as the kind of sociological insights that a director like Imamura would’ve brought to the table. In fact, Imamura’s great final film (the short, cryptic Japan), accomplishes much more in the span of just a few minutes.

Shorts Program 4: Together Apart (Various directors and countries)
Grade: C-

As with all “shorts programs” these days, this was the usual international mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly, with everything being shot on video. The one obvious standout was White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, a terrific documentary about a curiously under-documented era: the Bronx in the early days of hip-hop. Let’s hope director Travis Senger is able to turn it into a feature.

Devil’s Town (Paskaljevic, Serbia)
Grade: D / 4.1

A wannabe Altmanesque comedy about the crisscrossing lives of a dozen or so citizens of Belgrade over the course of one long day. I’m sure this was intended to be some sort of dark social satire but I was repulsed by the lightness that writer/director Vladimir Paskaljevic made of rape, cruelty to animals, violence towards women, child abuse and pedophilia. The sooner I forget this movie the better, a sentiment with which I’m sure Serbia’s Board of Tourism would readily agree.


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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