The three more personal projects of Del Toro’s career so far are released on blu-ray. John ventures into the labyrinth…
From his first steps as a feature director, Guillermo Del Toro has mixed a childlike fascination with some very adult choices of subject. At the heart of films dealing with Fascism, faith and eternity, children are nearly always the sane centre of the action, representing the key perspective of the director’s work. Innocence, a kind of innate spirit and a basic trust of the good are celebrated whilst those who endanger these virtues are those who are most serious, most powerful and most adult.In his debut, Cronos, a grandfather takes on young blood through both his association with his granddaughter and his discovery of an elaborate insect driven device which promotes rejuvenation. Unfortunately, the device and his vanity sow the seeds of disaster as these two generations come into direct conflict with the two generations of the powerful Le Guardia family (a preening thug played by Ron Perlman and his elderly parasitic uncle).
Cronos follows these intergenerational partnerships through the handy thematic shortcut of modern vampirism. The old want more life and they can take it from the young and the golden scarab that they prize. By the end of proceedings, the healthiest family proves to be the one where the young are kept safe from the adult desire for their energy.Cronos boasts a strong cast for a first time director, and introduced Del Toro to the bad tempered but brilliant DP Guillermo Navarro, dog faced Ron Perlman and paternal role model Federico Luppi. These partnerships continue through his career with Navarro lensing all his films save Mimic, Perlman becoming Hellboy and Luppi appearing in all of the films in this set in varying degrees of beneficent parent.
Cronos was not the first screenplay Del Toro wrote but he filmed it first for cost and logistic reasons. After the success of his debut and his first US film Mimic, Del Toro chose to return to his first screenplay with the support of the Almodovar brothers. The Devil’s Backbone again is concerned with a child’s perspective on a very grown up subject – The Spanish Civil War.Set in an orphanage for anti-Franco rebel children, an explicit opposition between childlike freedom of thought and adult machinations is explored. Specifically war and imagination face off and there is again a model of a child grown into twisted adult in the thoroughly evil proto fascist Jacinto. Like the nephew in Cronos and Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is clear evidence of what happens to children who fail to be free.
An even more elegant screenplay than his first film, the attempts at poetic narration are quite brilliant and the conceit of exploring the meaning of a ghost is most rewarding. Where the fantastic was part of the story arc in Cronos, in The Devil’s Backbone it is more coherently absorbed as part of the film’s world and meaning. The central idea of “unfinished business” and unresolved pain as ghost is immensely powerful and moving.If I have one criticism of the first two films in this collection it is that the depiction of women is passive, secondary and martyr-like. Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone feel very masculine, and this criticism is more than addressed in the final film in this collection and the best film that the director has made – Pan’s Labyrinth.
For Del Toro’s world of good children and bad male adults is significantly refined and developed in one of the best fantasy films made in the last twenty years. Employing uterine imagery and peopled largely by female characters around a male ogre, Pan’s Labyrinth takes up the plea for freedom of thought in his previous film and associates this virtue explicitly with the feminine here.Back in the Spanish Civil War again, we are introduced to Ofelia whose pregnant mother is marrying evil Francista soldier Vidal. In essence this a story about the future of humanity where Vidal’s patriarchal order fights for control of the unborn child from the free and feminine Ofelia. Flights of fancy punctuate grim reality and the contrast between Fascist oppression in the real world and liberal expression in the imaginative realms is the crux of the film.The largest of the productions on review here is unsurprisingly the most impressive both visually and emotionally. The figurative labyrinths of the first two films are replaced by a literal one and the conclusion is a sanguine victory of the imaginative over the physical.
These three films have been produced as labours of love within the career of a successful film director making commercial fare in between each one. It is clear that this approach to the director’s career has been very creative rather than piecemeal one, as one thread of his work informs the other. Watch Hellboy and compare the narration with that present in The Devil’s Backbone, and compare the teeth fairies in Hellboy 2 with the fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth. This set shows an imaginative and original writer director evolving with his opportunities and growing his work from nascent brilliance into mature significance.
Optimum presents the three films on individual discs with their appropriate extras. Region B encoded, the discs carry the films in AVC/MPEG4 coded transfers and with two lossless sound options each. Previous transfers of Cronos have frankly been shocking and the need for something half decent is pressing. That is what is delivered here with a much cleaner image than the existing DVD releases. Contrast is greatly improved, skin tones are a little too hot and edges are a little emphasised but this is far superior to previous versions in detail and simple representation. The transfer takes up 22.8GB of the disc.
Sadly, The Devil’s Backbone could very well be from a DVD master as edge enhancement is excessive and sharpening hampers those seeking a film-like image. Shadow detail is not impressive and a persistent scratch is visible on screen throughout the film. The file size is 28.1GB and this presentation can be easily improved upon. Much better news is the new transfer for Pan’s Labyrinth which is a far more natural looking image than the previous Blu-ray release which had a VC-1 transfer. Here the image is less bright, colours seem less filtered and the contours of the visuals are greatly improved. A larger file size of 29.5 GB from 37.7 used on the disc is also worth noting.
Sound wise, each film offers uncompressed stereo options alongside 5.1 master audio mixes. On the commentaries, Del Toro talks about his ornate sound designs and how 5.1 mixes will immerse the viewer. This is most definitely the case with Pan’s Labyrinth which has terrific three dimensional motion through the soundstage and detailed reproduction of all the audio elements. I was less impressed with the master audio mix on Cronos and preferred the simple stereo option given the more humble origins of the director’s debut.
The Devil’s Backbone does seem to have corrected the surround issues on Optimum’s previous DVD release and is a definite improvement overall. Plenty of atmosphere is available from the master audio mix whose surround capabilities give it the edge over the LPCM track.
English subs are optional throughout and there are a handful of mistypes.
Unfortunately the elaborate design of the retail release was not available for our review copy but this boasts pop-up scenes in the gatefold presentation. A large feature of the extras offered here is the ever talkative director and a lot of what is included has been available before. No HD extras are included.
Each disc has a sympathetic design which in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth rather undermines the elaborate original nature of the extras included there. New to this release is an hour long 2010 interview with Del Toro, included on the Cronos disc, which is conducted in English and concentrates on that film before moving on to the rest of his career.A remastered rarity of a short from the director from 1987 is included as well and it brings to mind the cheeky horrors of Peter Jackson and George Romero. The older interview rakes over Del Toro’s debt to Terence Fisher and Universal and a grumpy Navarro barely suffers his short interview on Cronos’ look. An interview with Luppi is reframed into a featurette and a myriad of storyboards, sketches and photos complete the Cronos package.
The commentaries on all the discs are very full with the director’s nerdy characteristics given free rein as well as some nice nuggets about being “brutally raped” over Mimic and making his lead child cry to get the effect he needed at the end of The Devil’s Backbone.
All of the extras on the remaining discs have been seen before and are full of the director’s contributions. There is plenty included for the obsessive including many storyboards on the latter two films, and for those looking to upgrade from standard definition the duplication of existing DVD extras will not be a real concern.
This package could be improved with HD extras, a better transfer for the middle film or more new special features. However, for someone looking to upgrade to HD this is a splendid opportunity which improves on the existing Pan’s Labyrinth release especially.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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