Over the weekend I watched ‘Mama’ which is produced by Guillermo Del Toro, and was amazed at the work he manages to get out of younger and newer directors when focuses on a genre he knows well- Ghost stories. This made me a nostalgic for some of Del Toro’s earlier work and the first film that came to mind as a complete work of brilliance was ‘The Devils Backbone’ so it’s this weeks recommendation.
‘The Devils Backbone’ is Del Toros’ 2nd major motion picture and was heralded as a huge success in the industry for being a complicated and emotional story set against a background of terror and impending dread. And this is where Del Toro has always succeeded- in telling emotionally engrossing stories that manage to keep you scared and tense throughout and ‘The Devils Backbone’ may be his best movie for this.
The film has a fairly simply plot at heart: Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) operate a small home for orphans in a remote part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Helping the couple mind the orphanage are Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the groundskeeper, and Conchita (Irene Visedo), a teacher who is also involved with Jacinto. Casares and Carmen are aligned with the Republican loyalists, and are hiding a large cache of gold that’s used to back the Republican treasury; perhaps not coincidentally, the orphanage has also been subject to attacks from Franco’s troops, and a defused bomb sits in the home’s courtyard. One day, a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the home, looking for a place to stay after being left behind by his parents. Casares and Carmen take him in, and the boy soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), a boy with a reputation for tormenting other kids. But Carlos soon begins having visions of a mysterious apparition he can’t identify, and hears strange stories about a child named Santi who went missing the day the bomb appeared near the orphanage.
Yet when the movie begins it becomes clear that the simple plot is not as simple as first thought, there are huge emotional investments in all of the characters that appear- but mainly the collection of children that live within the orphanage. Yet that’s not to say that the adults within the movie don’t have huge amounts of character development as we see just as much of their struggle for the Republic as we do anything else. So lets stark by looking at the adults, who are all ailed in some way from a wooden leg to an impotent lover and a man who loves to torment the children in the orphange- yet these ailments all seem to be reflecting the republics struggle against the Fascist uprising of the movies timeline. Add to this the unexploded bomb in the courtyard- and it seems that at any moment the adults world could literally explode and end, and its this sense of turmoil and pain you feel for the two lovers that is used to great effect in drawing you into the story on display here, and the daytime sequences within the film seem to focus on these greatly and show a world of colour and light that hints at hope for everyone achieving there dreams.
Conversely to this the children seemed less focused on the ills of the world and themselves, despite their situation and moe concerned with comic books, marbles and games yet they have a fascination with an alleged Ghost of a boy called ‘Santi’ who died the day the courtyard bomb arrived. The boys spend their nighttime hiding and haunted by the apparition, in a swell of dark light and green hues used by Del Toro to add a sense of dread and boy does it work. This is easily the best aspect of the movie as Carlos’s following of the ghost footsteps down into a dark cavernous chamber is filled with odd eery noises and water droplets and splashes of light that make this a truly edge of the seat tensely terrifying affair. Yet Del Toro always manages to pose the question whether it is better to seek out that which will find you or to hide under the covers (like some of the children do).
The ghost itself is brilliantly well done, ghost children are always creepy however Del Toro manages to up the ante with this, as you get to see the ghosts half destroyed skull through the removed and decaying flesh of the head that was clearly destroyed in death. Add to that the fact the ghost is always looking wet and rotting, and leaves wet and slimy footsteps wherever it goes and you truly do get a creepy feeling every time a scene could possibly feature the ghost- and this is a real success as many ghost merely give you the old ‘Boo’ i scared you factor. Yet the intelligent and adult approach here makes you fear that it could appear, not scare you, just simply appear.
Finally both of these tales are merged together and the results are nothing short of spectacular and somewhat violent as they rattle towards the climax of the movie- and Del Toro shows that his intelligently woven story will end just as cleverly as it began. However the sense of dread never leaves you, as you always fear for the boys and their inevitable end and its with the final shot that Del Toro really delivers the final blow of the movie as he moves the emotions from one of horror to one of utter heartbreak for all viewers. This is the staple Del Toro has become famous for, getting you so emotionally involved that when you think it can’t get any worse the movie twists and you feel as though you’ve just had your heart ripped out your chest with that final scene.
If you love intelligently written movies, with enough creepiness to keep you on the edge of your seat and a brilliant story you truly owe it to yourself to check out this masterpiece of film making.