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Arts & Culture

Film Review: "The Devil's Backbone"

"The Devil's Backbone," (2001)
Criterion Collection
"The Devil's Backbone," (2001)

Guillermo Del Toro creates his version of a ghost story with "The Devil's Backbone" (opening Dec. 19 at Landmark Theatres).

When Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro was four-years-old, he had a life altering experience. After watching an episode of “The Outer Limits,” Del Toro's brother dressed up like the bug-eyed monster from the TV show to scare his younger sibling. "Then," the adult Del Toro recalls, "I woke up and had an urgent need to pee. I looked around and saw monsters everywhere. There was this fluffy carpet and I thought every single strand of the carpet was a finger and in the closet I saw a big monster. I was so scared that I resigned myself to pee in the bed. That happened almost every night for a couple of weeks and my mother said ‘If you pee in your bed again, I'm gonna really give you a good one.' That night I woke up and wanted to go to the bathroom so I spoke to the monsters in the room and I said that if you let me pee, I will be your friend forever.' They allowed me and here I am peeing happily and making monster movies."

Guillermo Del Toro has made good on his pact with the monsters in his room. In


“Cronos,” he turned a vampire into a Christ figure. In “Mimic,” he showed that the giant bugs threatening humanity were just trying to keep their species alive. In “The Devil's Backbone” he sympathizes with a ghost and in “Blade 2” (opening in 2002), he shows compassion for the brooding, day-walking vampire superhero. Taking the monster's side has given Del Toro's films a unique perspective that's further enhanced by a striking visual style. He finds a dark beauty in his Gothic tales and an odd strain of Catholicism, which he says comes from being raised on a steady diet of "Catholic horror."

"I think that it affects the way I view the world," Del Toro confesses, "You can call yourself a renegade or an atheist, but you can never shed that Catholic education. It affects my whole take on the world." It may also be one of the reasons that Del Toro makes horror films that are interested in humanity.

"A lot of people," he notes, "use horror stories to talk about inhumanity, about brutality and to ultimately make films that offer harsh bleak statements. But in my movies, there's always a tender moment and always at the end a bittersweet hope for humanity. I am truly interested in the human aspect. And “The Devil's Backbone” is a perfect example of that.

This latest film is set during the Spanish Civil War and focuses on the Santa Lucia School, which serves as a refuge for abandoned children. It's run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes), a one-legged widow of a leftist poet, and Casares (Federico Luppi who was the vampire in “Cronos”), a philosophical old professor. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is their latest arrival and he unlocks the mystery of a little boy who haunts the school.

Calling “The Devil's Backbone” a ghost story is an unfair simplification of an exquisitely crafted film. It may also create false expectations. As Del Toro explains, "it's a very moving and very dark fable about war. And within it's walls is contained a ghost story." At its core, is an elegiac exploration of the things can cripple childhood, which in this case is war. If you must label this film as horror, then it's a horror film with a soul.


The film is stunningly rendered with the ghost cutting a sad, beguiling figure as he moves through the school, leaving small wet footprints on the cold floor and filling the nights with sighs. This is what Del Toro refers to as a "personal film" and he knows that it will be seen by far fewer people than his big budget Hollywood film

“Blade 2.” But it's these personal films that Del Toro feels compelled to make and which allow him to reveal his true cinematic skills.

I spoke with Del Toro last month while he was in New York promoting “The Devil's Backbone.”

BETH ACCOMANDO: So how did “The Devil's Backbone” come about?

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: I wanted to do a movie for myself again. After working in the studio environment [on“Blade 2”], I very much wanted to go back and do a movie where I control both the form and the content.

BA: So what gives you that greater control--is it the smaller budget and the lack of studio executives always looking over your shoulder?

GDT: Yes, the smaller budget and the fact that I did it within a scheme where my own company is one of the producers and that the other company is Pedro Almodovar's company, which is very much in favor of the story and the director. By contrast, in Hollywood, everything is geared in favor of the product as a shelf object. It doesn't matter who completes it or how it ends but just that it fits certain demands as a product. Pedro Almodovar [the Oscar-winning director of “All About My Mother”] knows that freedom rather than economic resources is the most important component for a director.

BA: Where did the story come from?

GDT: I started writing it sixteen years ago. It originated with me trying to put some of my own childhood experiences within a fictional tale. I started by setting it during the Mexican Revolution because I was interested in doing a ghost story set against a war. But it really didn't find its shape until 3 years ago when decided to use the Spanish Civil war as a background.

BA: As in “Cronos,” you make us sympathize with a character that other horror films would use to scare us.

GDT: It's very clear in the movie that my point of view is with the ghost. In “The Devil's Backbone,” I am essentially saying that you have to fear the living and not the dead. You loose your fear of the ghost rather rapidly and quickly find yourself more and more afraid of the living. That's still my position. Be it “Mimic” or “Blade 2,” I still have enormous sympathy for the monster.

BA: How did you want to depict the ghost visually?

GDT: I wanted to make the image of the ghost visually very striking. I didn't want the usual transparent ghost that appears in the movies. My ghost only becomes semi-transparent when he crosses a ray of light. But the most important thing for me was to have a little bit of distortion around him, like water distortion since he had died in the water. I wanted to have blood flowing from his forehead continuously like a little halo because I wanted to evoke a kind of a ethereal apparition but very beautiful at the same time, very captivating. I think the little ghost is much more sad and tragic than scary.

BA: It's refreshing that you don't view horror as a stepping-stone to something else.

GDT: Why should I? There's nothing higher. I think there's no escaping what you like to do in moviemaking, just like there's no escaping what you like in a woman. Like why do you go out only with brunettes? I don't know. But it's the same with horror. It's all I love. And I'm completely sincere. I'm doing them because I love them and I put as much care in doing them as someone else would put in making Gandhi.

BA: But does it bother you that the horror genre simply doesn't receive the same kind of respect as other film genres?

GDT: Yeah absolutely, but it's their loss and it's the consequence of people doing horror films for a quick buck. And there are a lot of those. I mean I have to admit that not every Italian eye gouging, zombie movie is the Mona Lisa, but some of them are.

BA: You move between Hollywood and personal filmmaking and maintain your unique personality in both realms. How do you manage that?

GDT: I think what happens is that you have to be very stubborn and be a kind of specialized idiot. Even when I'm accepting industrial movies like “Blade 2” and

“Mimic,” I accept them because I am attracted to them. I try to look for ideas in movies that make me enthusiastic because life is to short. You suffer the same doing your own vision as you do doing someone else's vision. So at 37, I think I understand that in an industry like Hollywood I'm not going to win all the battles all the time but I try to win key ones for whatever movie I'm doing. But I understand that my war is in another place. It's in my own personal films and there I will fight to win every battle. So I understand what's my office and what's my home. Hollywood is my office, my movies are my home.

BA: But having you do “Blade 2,” even if it is a Hollywood film, seems like a perfect match.

GDT: Yes. I think it's a very happy marriage in the sense that the “Blade” universe is an odd universe and Blade is by no means Superman. He's not a guy that's as clean cut as American pie. This guy is a very dark superhero. He's a kind of leather-clad freak who hunts vampires at night and injects himself with a serum to control his own thirst for blood. He lives in abandoned warehouses and drives a 1970's muscle car. This is a dark, brooding superhero. So the universe that was sketched in the first movie I found very attractive, this alternate world of vampires living along with humans. It's not really comparable to “Cronos” because they are totally different films. But they do contain some images that make sort of like siblings. “Blade 2” is

“Cronos” on steroids.

BA: So what's your next project? A personal film or a Hollywood feature?

GDT: I'm working on a movie called “Mephisto's Bridge.” It's the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil and it's the kind of movie where you understand both the devil and the guy a little more, so yes it's a personal film.