The trend of revered directors lending their support to similarly-styled fare has seen a plethora of films reach a broader audience courtesy of the recognition of a famous name. Yet, rather than just a marketing tactic, it is an act often borne of commonality and passion for cultivating new talent, the executive producer credits more than just notches on a resume. In recent years, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has lengthened his list of projects in such a manner, offering fourteen efforts his involvement in the five-year gap between his own helming work. Though diversity is apparent in a list that spans animated family flicks, soccer comedies and existential dramas, most spring from the director’s preferred content – the dusky, the brooding, the disconcerting and the supernatural.
Cronos, the unconventional vampire tale, commenced del Toro’s dalliance with the dark and daring; Mimic, the Hollywood monster B-movie, acted as a continuation. Both earned attention, one for its fresh spin on the gothic familiar, the other for its creepiness within a conventional creature feature, but it was The Devil’s Backbone that cemented the enduring association between the auteur and the sublimely spooky and sinister. Even as his output added comic flair through Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and steely action with Pacific Rim, he again waded through the haunting with Pan’s Labyrinth, and solidified the harrowing through his association with The Orphanage, Rage, Splice, Julia’s Eyes, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama. Yet, it is his original evocative and eerie ghost story that ties them all together, the cornerstone of a career grown from the handsomely disquieting.
In The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro assembles elements now seen as expected: children without parents, a makeshift home with its own sordid story, adult characters plagued by tortured pasts, the contextualization of conflict, and the jumps, bumps, thrills and spills that unsettle and unnerve. An innocent, uninitiated in the secrets of his new abode, provides the guide to the mythical mystery, his presence a lightning rod for the unseemliness that lurks below the surface. Youthful wonder drives his exploration of hidden nooks and crannies; untapped resilience in the face of the unknown continues his quest to find the truth. The answers – when they come – are both simple and bittersweet, wrapped in the longing for a normal life and a sliver of acceptance, as well as the revenge that follows when both hopes come to their conclusion.
Twelve-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve, Estés donde estés) arrives at the film’s orphanage setting circa 1939 not by choice, but in the company of wanted men aware of the death of his parents. The Spanish Civil War rages towards its end, and he is left behind and alone with nowhere else to go, the resident doctor Casares (Federico Luppi, Men with Guns) his only initial ally. Entrenched bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, El hombre del saco) fleeces his belongings and belittles him in front of the other inhabitants, but his looming threat is far from Carlos’ greatest concern. During a night-time dare perpetuated by his tormentor, the boy wanders into a puzzle of lights and shadows, reflections and suggestions, and sighs and whispers in the wind – the unexplained disappearance of fellow student Santi (Andreas Muñoz, Onán).
Santi’s ominous name adorns the lips of his classmates, but the establishment’s adults – strict headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes, Talk to Her), former pupil turned groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, Burning Money) and his naïve lady love Conchita (Irene Visedo, The Lost Steps) – prove unconcerned. Their attention is monopolized by the unending war, their Republican loyalist sympathies, and the stash of gold hidden in the school for safe-keeping – all three a recipe for military intervention. Yet Carlos cannot forget the face that appears in frosted window panes or the form he glimpses in empty doorways; nor can Jaime, as their adversarial stand-off becomes a reluctant friendship. Their journey to uncover Santi’s story takes the boys into dangerous territory, their home both the solution to and the refuge of their enemy.
As he did with Cronos before and would in his work since, del Toro infuses his film with elegance in the tender but terrifying narrative, the overall parable of innocence lost, the striking aesthetics, and the stellar performanecs. Taking his time to establish the many aspects of the atmospheric period piece, he teases out each, first with a dash of emotion and the onset of tears, then with a sudden, subtle scare from the menacing environment, never quite obscuring his end game but never revealing the full details either. His camera prowls hallways, peers into corners and peeks through openings, just as his narrative probes the recesses of the characters’ minds, projecting its details from their irrational boyhood fears. The audience mimics their afraid but curious state as they are immersed into an intricate enigma.
Indeed, The Devil’s Backbone proves an amalgam, piecing together the best of its many components. Though steeped in the hallmarks of ghost stories, and evidently endeavouring to elicit the horror subgenre in its ephemeral opening narration, the mournful film owes a debt to the complexity of its historical context and the thoughtfulness of its youthful perspective. Again del Toro illustrates a skill that has infected the sum of his output to date, creating a potent, powerful patchwork that still shines with a distinctive and united vision. There’s a reason his resume is filled with features of the same attempted ilk, even if not from his driving force; in his cultivation of beauty and poetry in the fantastical and frightening, as amply evidenced at its pinnacle in The Devil’s Backbone, the Mexican auteur is a master not just in the making.