The Devil’s Backbone: The Past Is Never Dead . . .

On Film / Essays — Jul 30, 2013

Talking to me about the vibrant darkness of his distinctive worldview back in 2006, Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro cited a phrase from “The Skins of the Fathers,” a short story by Clive Barker, the British writer turned filmmaker who helped to refresh and redefine the horror genre in the 1980s. “The line refers to a feeling which stirs ‘deep in her, in a place touched only by monsters,’” said del Toro. “And I really think that the most creative, most fragile part of the child that lives within me is a child that was literally transformed by monsters. Be they on the screen or in myth or in my own imagination.”

For those with a weakness for the beautiful monsters of modern cinema, del Toro has earned himself a reputation as the finest living exponent of fabulist film. In essence, he is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic (“Not quite the same thing as an atheist”) with an interest in sacrifice and redemption (who nonetheless turned down the chance to direct the fantasy blockbuster The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting”).

Throughout his career, del Toro has divided his filmmaking endeavors between personal “European” projects (the modern vampiric chiller Cronos, the Spanish Civil War fables The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) and big-budget Hollywood hits (Blade II, the Hellboy movies, and, most recently, Pacific Rim), though he stressed to me, “I have never made a film just for them—Hellboy represents me as much as The Devil’s Backbone.” His best work combines a love of the freedom of fantasy with a commitment to the strictures of social responsibility, creating populist fables with strong political undercurrents, fairy stories about the “real world,” often seen through the eyes of a child. In this context, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is a touchstone, bringing together the personal and the political in perfect, passionate harmony.

Del Toro began work on The Devil’s Backbone in the wake of two terrible events that he would describe jointly as “the worst experience of my life”: the unraveling of his Hollywood debut, the mutant-bug movie Mimic (1997), which Miramax had signed him to direct following the sensation of his first feature film, Cronos (1993); and the kidnapping of his father, who was abducted in Guadalajara and held for ransom for seventy-two days. Surprisingly, del Toro describes the falling out with his Mimic producers as almost more traumatic, because “what was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than the kidnapping—which is brutal, but at least there are rules. I remember there was a moment on Mimic that was an almost out-of-body experience, when I achieved an absolute Taoist sense of being there but being almost in a state of grace and being able to survive that fucking pain. And it is a strange mixture of becoming immune by not engaging and believing you are not important at all—that the only important thing is the film.”

Determined never to relive such a creatively conflicted experience, del Toro turned his energies toward the potential adaptations Mephisto’s Bridge (from Christopher Fowler’s novel Spanky) and The List of Seven (from Mark Frost’s tale of a young Arthur Conan Doyle), both of which fell through, as did the initial plan for his ambitious comic-strip adaptation Hellboy (2004), for which the studio wanted to cast the Rock in the lead role. Finally, an offer came to helm Blade II (2002), the script of which attracted del Toro. Yet that project would have to wait because, as del Toro told journalist and broadcaster Alan Jones, “I was sick of Hollywood politics by that point, and I wanted to direct my personal movie that I’d had on the back burner for sixteen years. Doing that would give me room and breathing space to realize I did have a career away from the Hollywood studio system. I was stubborn, but it paid off, and I regained my independence.”

“Guillermo had been through a terri­ble time on Mimic,” recalled Pedro Almodóvar, whose El Deseo company coproduced The Devil’s Backbone, recently. “I knew Cronos and was very, very impressed by it—it was a truly original horror movie. So my brother, Agustín, and I contacted him, and he told us about his experience with Miramax: how awful it was in terms of freedom; how he really needed to get back to his own language, and above all to be able to shoot with complete freedom. So we took advantage of that.” Creatively, it was a marriage made in heaven, and one that would prove a defining moment of del Toro’s career. In its 2012 poll of the hundred best horror movies of all time, London’s influential Time Out magazine noted that The Devil’s Backbone “proved conclusively that, working without interference, this Mexican up-and-comer was capable of remarkable cinema—a fact that has since been reconfirmed time and again.”

Set during the endgame of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone was a labor of love for del Toro, who has frequently described it and its “sister picture,” Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), as his favorite and most personal movies. The script dates back to the mid­­eighties, when del Toro worked on it as a student, before cutting his cinematic teeth on the short films Doña Lupe (1985) and Geometria (1987). Its inspirations are far-reaching, ranging from twentieth-century political history to the ghostly tones of M. R. James’s fiction to the Spanish graphic-novel series Paracuellos, by Carlos Giménez (who worked as a storyboard artist on the film), via the overarching specter of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), which casts a long shadow over del Toro’s entire canon.

The story takes place largely in the Santa Lucia orphanage, where Dr. Casares (Cronos star Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes) shelter children of the Republican militia, while the sinister caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) pursues his own hidden agenda. The low-key action unfolds in the shadow of a crucifix and a giant unexploded bomb, which stands nose down in the courtyard, its size deliberately exaggerated to reflect the perspective of the children, who believe that if you “put your ear against her, you can hear her ticking.” In its earliest incarnations, the drama was envisaged as playing out against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, with visions of Jesus playing a central role. But as del Toro told Jones, despite his personal connections to Mexico, he became increasingly drawn to the wider canvas of the Spanish Civil War, a labyrinthine conflict that was “the precursor of all the fascist conflicts in Europe.” He also saw clear parallels between the plight of the orphans and that of Spain, abandoned by Europe “in the middle of nowhere, in the hands of fascism,” a theme vividly realized on-screen.

Into this orphanage comes Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is assigned to the bed formerly slept in by Santi, now deceased and rumored to walk the corridors as “the One Who Sighs.” Facing down the bully who initially threatens him, Carlos is drawn ever deeper into the secrets of the orphanage, slowly uncovering the true meaning of Santi’s enigmatic warning that “many of you will die.” As with so many of del Toro’s apparently fantastical imaginings, the inspiration for Santi’s ghostly presence was drawn from his own real-life experience. As a child, del Toro says, he made a pact with the monsters in his bedroom, overcoming his night terrors by befriending the apparitions that haunted his waking dreams. So when, at the age of eleven, he heard the sound of his deceased uncle sighing in the room where he had once lived, rather than being terrified by the experience, he stored the memory away, keeping it, nurturing it, until one day it could be used to creative ends.

This has always been a key to del Toro’s work—the triumph of sympathy and melancholia over terror. No wonder critic Roger Ebert described The Devil’s Backbone as “a mournful and beautiful ghost story [that] understands that most ghosts are sad, and are attempting not to frighten us but to urgently communicate something that must be known so that they can rest.” Significant, too, that the ghostly presence is here seen through what appears to be a veil of tears, echoing the watery motif that ripples throughout the movie, a nod perhaps to the traditions of the Japanese kaidan-eiga (ghost story film), along with the masklike white face of Santi, which evokes the ghost of Noh theater.

The critic J. Hoberman has astutely described The Devil’s Backbone as “an experiment in antifascist super­­naturalism,” a phrase that neatly encapsulates the recurrent themes that haunt del Toro’s work: the ghosts of history, the freedom of fantasy, the imperative of choice, the relationship between the “real” and the “imagined.” At its heart lies the conviction that horror and fantasy are inherently political. As del Toro told Time magazine in 2011, “Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-­institution . . . the other is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.” Opening with the question “What is a ghost?” The Devil’s Backbone equates the legacy of history with the mythology of the living dead, providing a powerful metaphor for the way in which the past informs the present, and therefore shapes the future. Within this paradigm, a ghost may be “a tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and again . . . An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive.”

At the time of its release, many critics compared The Devil’s Backbone to Alejandro Amenábar’s more widely seen war-inflected ghost story The Others (2001), although by the time del Toro was “presenting” J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage several years later, it had become clear that The Devil’s Backbone was the more influential work. Looking back on the experience of making the movie, and the traumatic events that led to its creation, del Toro remains typically positive. “I can attest, in a non­­masochistic way,” he says, “that pain is a great teacher. I don’t relish it, but I learn from it. I always say, even as an ex-Catholic, that God sends the letter but not the dictionary. You need to forge your own dictionary.”

This willingness to confront pain and to forge his own cinematic dictionary has informed the blend of innocence and brutality that is a trademark of del Toro’s phantasmagorical cinema. From the crushing addictions of Cronos, whose aging antihero is reduced to licking blood from the tiled floor of a public toilet, to the redemptive fantasy of Hellboy, whose titular demon takes an industrial grinder to the horns of his head in a bid to take control of his destiny, del Toro has returned compulsively to these twinned themes. In the case of The Devil’s Backbone, it is the pain and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War that underwrite both the sense of horror and the spirit of defiance that ring throughout the movie. It is a film about repression that celebrates, albeit in heartbreaking fashion, the irrepressibility of the innocent human spirit. This duality also underpins Pan’s Labyrinth, a fable about a young girl’s exploration of an underworld. Both films balance political tensions with a feud between fantasy and reality, between the way the world seems and the way it is. And both counterpose the recurrent fairy-tale motif of choice against the specter of fascism—the ultimate lack of choice.

Both films also centrally feature “a child facing a very adult situation, and dealing with it from a place of grace or purity.” And even as his extraordinary career takes him to the helm of blockbuster movies like Pacific Rim (2013), this sense of innocence remains an essential element of del Toro’s work—del Toro, the child whose life was “transformed by monsters,” who has devoted his career to exploring the inextricable relationship between pain and beauty, death and rebirth, damnation and salvation, and nowhere more poignantly than in the eerie enchantments of The Devil’s Backbone.