It’s really too bad Guillermo del Toro didn’t get to make those Hobbit movies. That’s kind of been the trajectory of his career lately, as he had to walk away from that big franchise, then his game was cancelled, then Pacific Rim 2 was put on the shelf and Hellboy 3 will still probably never happen. Apparently studios or executives or somebody doesn’t trust del Toro with big budgets anymore. This is tragic, because I can think of few other directors who have such respect and reverence for their material. And no one does a dark fairy tale better.
The Devil’s Backbone is set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. But Sean, you ask, doesn’t Pan’s Labyrinth also take place in Spain during the Civil War? Yeah, it does, and that’s not the only similarity between these two movies. Specifically the whole “child being aware of something supernatural going on that everyone else is oblivious to and maybe isn’t actually happening” thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is a young boy brought to an orphanage after his father dies in the waning days of the war. The orphanage is run by Republicans who dress it as a Catholic church so as to avoid persecution by the Francoists. In charge are an elderly couple: Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the steely woman with a wooden leg, and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, Mr. Cronos), a man full of regret and weary of the world. Also there’s a couple other adults, most notably Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), an orphan who grew up and became the janitor – an horrific fate indeed.
There are a few other things you need to know about the orphanage: first, a giant bomb was dropped right in the middle of it, but failed to explode. It sits in the middle of the courtyard, a grim reminder of the war and the danger everyone is in. Second, the elderly couple have a vault full of gold that they want to use to help the Republicans, but don’t know how to use. Oh, and there’s a third thing too. A ghost. The other kids tell stories about “the one who sighs,” a specter who haunts the halls of the orphanage at night.
If I have thus far deceived you into thinking I was somehow knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War I must now disappoint you by admitting that I am not. So while I’m sure del Toro is saying a lot about that particular conflict and period in history here, all I can appreciate is the broader strokes about casualties of war, loss, and grief. The Devil’s Backbone makes me wonder why there aren’t more ghost stories set during wars – it’s so easy to tie that senseless devastation to the common ghost story themes of unfinished business and vengeance.
Not that del Toro goes for such easy allegories. Like I said, the man is respectful. Everyone here is human – the benevolent doctor has his own weird obsessions and imperfections, the bully is clearly dealing with his own heavy problems, it’s pretty obvious the angry janitor had a shitty life. It’s easy to think that del Toro really tried to capture the essence of why ghost stories are interesting to us and play that up. Which is why the few times he does go for the cheap scare – I can think of one time when he unnecessarily uses a familiar scream sound effect just to accentuate a creepy moment – stand out so much.
He just doesn’t need stuff like that. This was still years before things got really crazy in movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but del Toro still shows how great he is at creating a sense of place and atmosphere. Almost the entire film takes place within the orphanage, but I never got tired or confused being there. And the ghost parts are genuinely unsettling, though again, not to the insane degree of Pan’s Labyrinth.
I think it’s safe to say John and I are pretty big Guillermo del Toro fans, I mean, I feel like I made this review more about him than the movie. So, look, I haven’t seen Mimic or Blade II yet. But I’ve seen everything else and it’s been pretty great. He has a new movie that just came out called Crimson Peak, it’s got a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and stars Jessica Chastain (for the fellas) and Tom Hiddleston (also for the fellas). Let’s all go see it, OK? We need to stop fucking things up for this guy.
P.S. Believe it or not this is a picture of Guillermo del Toro and not me or Elden Henson.