Including a Guillermo del Toro film in a month of horror films is almost a giving, considering that despite his movement through a few different genres, he manages to perfectly entrench himself within the horror film tropes, often using them in wildly inventive and engaging ways both in terms of pulling from a classical understanding of Gothic style horror, while also infusing it with his own understanding of the supernatural as it emerges within Mexican culture. Indeed, at this point one can even begin considering the particularly auteur elements of del Toro since it is possible to pick up visual and narrative themes between something like Cronos and his much larger, yet equally engaging Pacific Rim. Furthermore, I had all but convinced myself that del Toro's masterpiece was Pan's Labyrinth one of my earliest emerging cinephile experiences, and quite possibly the work that pushed me into an understanding that film could be something much larger than the traditional three act structure and move a viewer towards a more profound understanding of the themes at work. I was, as such, surprised when The Devil's Backbone, his 2001 offering began to unfold in front of my eyes, because what I was viewing was not only excellent, creepy and indicative of all things praised aside del Toro's name, but it was miles ahead of the stunning and near perfect Pan's Labyrinth. In this film, which doubles as a consideration of the Spanish American War through a paranormal metaphor and orphanage setting, becomes a clearly sentimental, albeit in a somewhat unsettling way, film that possesses a view of the world that could only exist through the eyes of somebody who understands the innocence and, at times, ignorance of youth. Yet, del Toro realizes that his films are not at all intended for a young audience, although I am sure he revels in the thought of them encountering their oneiric, surreal feel, thus fusing his films with a high degree of psycho-sexual tension, doubled in wild ways through the steam punk world he has come to embrace. This particular composition never allows for viewers to feel a sense of safety, despite it being a visually sumptuous film, often inserting the presence of spectral figures with no warning or non-diagetic cue, to del Toro, the other side of perception is constantly present and to awake to its intrigue and possible threats would be enough to drive a movie comfortably, the fact that there is also a well-developed and engaging storyline is yet another factor speaking to the proficiency of del Toro as a filmmaker.
The Devil's Backbone focuses on the existence of a minimally ran orphanage for boys during the Spanish Civil War, one that exists purely out of the goodwill of its founders Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Growing considerably in age, both Casares and Carmen rely on the help of their groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), as well as his romantic love interest a teacher at the orphanage named Conchita (Irene Visedo). The boys at the orphanage seem quite content to go about their lives in a rather desultory manner, despite their limited space, always minding the presence of a ghost they purport to exist. Indeed, when a new child arrives named Carlos (Fernando Tieve) they make sure to bully and haze him into encountering the presence of the ghost named Santi, although they are unaware that the hyper-prescient Carlos noticed the ghost the moment he arrive at the orphanage, marked by its unique possession of a defused bomb sitting in the center of its courtyard. Despite an initial confrontation with the orphanage bully Jaime (Inigo Garces) Carlos is able to befriend him through proving his trustworthy nature, while also showing a genuine interest in the whereabouts of Santi and precisely what led to his disappearance, or as Carlos and Jaime assume demise. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Jacinto and Carmen have been in cohorts, the decidedly younger groundskeeper engaging in sexual acts with the disabled Carmen in exchange for the promise of sharing in the large amount of gold stashed away in the orphanage's safe. This all happens as the Spanish Civil War slowly begins to encroach upon the space of the orphanage, causing paranoia amongst the children, as well as Carmen and Jacinto who see their wealth becoming threatened by the invasion of greedy soldiers. Furthermore, during a confessional moment on the aprt of Jaime, Carlos discovers that Jacinto is actually the one responsible for the death of Santi, attacking him when he is caught rifling through the safe by Santi who had been spending the evening catching slugs with Jaime. This leads to an act of vengeance that is jointly executed by the young boys of the orphanage and Santi's spectral presence, but not before the destruction of the orphanage by a vengeful Jacinto. Yet, considering that Santi proves to be far from the only ghost in the space of the orphanage, the group is able to overpower Jacinto and leave the orphanage to engage in a quest all their own, clearly grown from the experience.
A lot of things could be stated about del Toro movies, doubly so when he clearly situates them within such an event as the Spanish Civil War. As such, perhaps the most obvious way to consider this film is to look at the way trauma affects a persons bodied identity, especially intriguing within the context of the film being about paranormal presences. Carlos and the fellow boys at the orphanage reflect a group of children suffering from abandonment, some by their parents choice, while others were drawn to the space when their parents died in the violence of the war. Not having a means with which to speak to their anxiety and pains of loss, they work actively to reject any sense of oppressive forces or authoritative figures occurring, whether it be through embodying silence in face of authority figures, or acting out violently against one another, whom they deem equal enough to fight, a survival of the fittest mentality kicking in, not because they are animalistic, but because they only understand individualistic survival they faced after loss and abandonment. Gender embodies itself far more fascinatingly through a figure like Carmen, who herself has become a victim of amputation, although the narrative is far less specific in how this occurred. What is made clear through her character is the way in which her lack has caused her to feel considerably less worthy as a woman, doubled by her age in relation to Conchita, with whom Jacinto is romantically involved. Realizing that her power is fading, Carmen asserts power through the incorporation of money and its power, accepting her advancement and bodily privilege must be bought, nevermind that she hides the gold in her already heavy prosthetic leg, the castration element to this metaphor becoming wildly clear. Ultimately though, the most interesting character is the spectral figure of Santi, whose association with the deformity known as "devil's backbone" causes his already paranormal spatial existence to become a thing of impossibility. By causing him to be a figure floating through the world, doubled by his blood constantly flowing and rising upward with an airy quality, del Toro infuses Santi, the same sort of wandering nature of the other boys in the orphanage, although where they seek survival and hesitation to bond with others, Santi only wants two things, to rekindle with his friends despite being bodily detached form doings so, while also exacting revenge on the threatening patriarchal figure of Jacinto. The fact that del Toro adds on scenes of killing and execution happening in the war only make the narrative idea of body, identity and to a degree sacrifice that much more fascinating.
Key Scene: Carlos' first lengthy encounter with Santi is something fresh and eerie in terms of paranormal horror cinema and del Toro executes it with perfection.
But the Criterion bluray for this film. It is absolutely mesmerizing.