|The Devil's Backbone, 2001. Directed by Guillermo
de Toro. Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Inigo Garces,
Irene Visedo, Marisa Paredes.
Synopsis: In the closing days of the Spanish
Civil War, young Carlos is brought to an orphanage that houses the sons
of leftists killed in the fight against the fascists. The orphanage is
run by two aging Reds, Dr. Caesare and Conchita, who love each other with
an unconsumated love that neither has the courage to articulate. Conchita
is missing a leg, which makes her dread intimacy, although she needs it,
too, and attempts to satisfy herself with clandestine encounters with
the school's young janitor, Jacinto. These encounters leave her more ashamed
than satisfied. Jacinto has an agenda of his own. Ruthless and mercenary,
he covets the gold with which the school's proprietors keep things afloat.
He wants nothing more than to steal the gold and raze the school to the
ground. He bides his time. The school has an unexploded bomb in its courtyard.
The school is also haunted. The ghost, called "the one who sighs"
by the students, is the revenant of one of the students, mysteriously
killed the night the bomb fell. Carlos begins to see the ghost from the
first. The ghost wants to contact Carlos, and on a secret trip to the
kitchen one night, it succeeds. "Go away from this place," the
ghost tells him, "or many people will die." As the story unfolds,
the desperate times in which the film is set catch up to the characters
and many people do indeed die as the boys of the school find themselves
matched against an evil that is larger than they are....
Horrors: If more evidence were required to
demonstrate that 2001 was a superb year for movies, I would offer the
following barrometer: If I get a single good horror movie during any given
year, I am satisfied that I have been provided with a good year for movies.
If I get two good horror movies, I am usually ecstatic. 2001 provided
me with three good horror movies, The
Others, Ginger Snaps, and The Devil's Backbone.
I am beside myself with glee. And isn't it interesting that none of these
films originates in the United States?
When last we saw Guillermo del Toro, he was busy trying
to make a name for himself in Hollywood. His debut Mexican feature, Chronos,
was striking, one of the best horror movies of the 1990s, and he had been
hired to make a silk purse out of the sows ear he had been handed by cackhanded
Hollywood producers. The result, Mimic, was stylish but stupid
as hell, a post modern big bug movie overlayered with an uneasy veneer
of pretension. No wonder, del Toro felt compelled to seek his fortunes
elsewhere. Now, with another strong horror film under his belt, del Toro
has headed back to Hollywood to helm two comic-book adaptations (Blade
II and Hellboy), which is really too bad.
Regardless of what becomes of those projects, del Toro
still has The Devil's Backbone on his resume. A stronger, scarier
film than his debut, The Devil's Backbone juxtaposes the unreal
supernatural horror of a ghost story with the very real horror of the
Spanish Civil War. More than that, though, de Toro accomplishes the tricky
feat of distilling childhood fears into a concentrated shot of terror.
Many great horror films are constructed in a way that reduces the audience
to a state akin to the dreaming of children--often by presenting children
themselves as participants in the story. The Devil's Backbone employs
this technique masterfully. One of it's earliest sequences combines the
childhood fear of dark places at night with the fear of getting caught
misbehaving. Later in the film, it combines it with fear of retribution
from an abusive adult. De Toro ups the ante even further by adding the
very adult concern with seeing children put in harms way (those who are
squeamish about such things should avoid this movie at all costs).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Devil's
Backbone is the fact that it is one of the few horror films that shows
the audience everything without punching big gaping holes in its own ambience
of menace. The CGI effects utilized by de Toro and his collaborators are
convincing and imaginative.
Performances: Fernando Tielve gives a terrific
performance as Carlos. For some reason, horror films tend to provide audiences
with the best performances from children and this film follows that trend.
He is by turns lost, heroic, scared, and resourceful, all without seeming
precocious or unconvincing, Of the adults, the ones who grab your attention
are Federico Luppi and Eduardo Noriega. Luppi's Dr. Cesare is a much more
complex character than one is used to in horror movie, a man consumed
by self doubt and by a frustrated romance. He provides the film with a
moral center. Eduardo Noriega, it should be noted, is going to be a major
star worldwide. Since he isn't one yet, he still takes roles like the
vicious Jacinto. His movie star good looks are a nice counterpoint to
the sheer ugliness of his character. Jacinto is surprisingly complex,
too--moreso than one would expect given the role his character plays in
Images: While the characters are complex and
believable, The Devil's Backbone ultimately provides unforgettable
imagery. The film takes its name from the exposed spine of pickled fetuses
and the sight of these is amplified by the drowned ghost, Santi. The unexploded
bomb at the center of the courtyard is a chilling reminder that everyone
is on borrowed time. The narrator, who proves to be a ghost himself, ties
all of the film's images together when he speculates that a ghost is a
terrible event repeated over and over again. There is a reason this film
is set during a war, and the final narration hints that we are all trapped,