‘The Devil’s Backbone’ review

23 10 2010

[written by author, Orrin Grey]

“What is a ghost?” a voice asks over images of falling bombs and a dying boy at the beginning of The Devil’s Backbone. “A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

This is the thesis that defines what a ghost is, at least thematically, in The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro’s breakout Spanish-language film and the follow-up to his first effort Cronos, which I talked about during Vampire Awareness Month. (He made the English-language film Mimic in-between them, but he doesn’t like to talk about it so we won’t either.)

In the commentary track for The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro talks at length about Gothic novels and classic ghost stories. He says that he intended The Devil’s Backbone to be, essentially, a Gothic novel combined with a Spanish Civil War movie. To this end, he runs through a series of basic definitions of what constitutes Gothic for him: the action is linked to a place, a dark secret from the past affects the present but is shrouded in silence, there is romance/passion/carnal desire that is almost always forbidden or secret or repressed, and the protagonist is usually an innocent. He transposes all of these characteristics onto the chassis of a war film by bringing a young boy named Carlos into an orphanage in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. An orphanage with, of course, more than its share of repressed desires and dark secrets.

Of course, there is a literal ghost in The Devil’s Backbone; the ghost of Santi, the murdered boy who we see dying at the very beginning of the film. We’re introduced to him early on, a decision that del Toro says was prompted in order to make us feel sadness toward him, rather than fear. This is in keeping with what del Toro says is the greatest strength of Gothic and horror fiction, which is that it teaches us to understand “the other.”

“You have to love the monster to tell a really interesting horror tale,” del Toro says in his commentary track.

As with the vampire in Cronos, though, the actual, literal ghost in The Devil’s Backbone is only the most obvious of the film’s many ghosts. Almost all of the characters in the movie are suspended in time in one way or another, their tragedies constantly returning to haunt them, constantly being repeated again and again.

Santi’s ghost may be the most literal expression of this motif in The Devil’s Backbone, but he is not, perhaps, the one most central to the film. That would be the unexploded bomb that lies half-buried in the center of the orphanage’s courtyard. A bomb that was dropped on the same night that Santi was killed. It sits at the geographical heart of the orphanage and the thematic heart of the movie, as a constant reminder of guilt and of danger, and that, while the war may be outside the walls, it is inside them as well.

The bomb is a visual nod to The Castle of Otranto, which is widely considered the first Gothic novel and in which a giant helmet falls from the sky near the beginning. It’s a recurring visual reminder not only of the guilt and danger within the film, but a reminder to the audience of del Toro’s stated objective of marrying the Gothic novel and the war movie. Even the film itself, by its end credits, comes back around to where it began with the repetition of its opening monologue, although now it’s being said with an added poignance.




One response

13 11 2011
Dark places: Asylum porn « Strange Days

[…] I think perhaps the stereotypical abandoned asylum is a broadcast of old voices and images – and rage and hate and fear – but its our own subconscious that is transmitting and receiving, our own knowledge of just exactly what kind of “ghost” inhabits them. It is Guillermo del Toro‘s ghost from The Devil’s Backbone: […]

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