A Look Back... The Devil's Backbone
Guillermo del Toro, a household name now, was in 2001 a new(ish) director. Mostly known by English language speakers for Mimic (1997), he had also made Cronos (1993), a twist on the vampire story that belied his mystical style. In 2001 he released The Devil’s Backbone. His style was evolving, the spirals and puppetry of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy (2004) not yet fully formed but emerging amongst the ghosts, cockroaches and clockwork of his early films.
The Devil’s Backbone was his third film, a low budget Spanish-Mexican ghost story, that… isn’t really a ghost story. The ghost is a character among many, all of whom are trapped in a remote orphanage in the dying days of the Spanish civil war. The orphanage covers for a leftist outpost. Secrets lie in the walls, behind closed doors and below the floor of the building. An unexploded bomb at its centre belying the ticking clock of Franco bearing down on them across the desert.
The film takes the transition to fascism and transplants it into a group of orphaned children. A generation lost in war, a country divided and the remaining leftist factions feeling like orphaned nationals without a country. As history repeats itself, the ghosts of secrets in the walls are balanced and supported by ghosts walking the halls. In particular, Santi, a boy murdered in a quest for gold. The quest for riches hidden and saved for a dying cause, while the boys live on bread and milk, a reflection of the hardships coming to Spain under Franco’s rule.
Each aspect of the narrative is wrapped up in a parallel and a contradiction, left and right wing of course, but also science and superstition, philanthropy and greed and the mystery of whether Santi is dead or alive. The circular nature of men and their evolution to adulthood is emphasised in a lesson where the boys are taught about men working together to defeat a mammoth. At the time, the tallest boy in the class Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) refuses to work with Carlos (Fernando Tielve) on his comics, it is too much his and too important, and yet by the final act he is the leader and they have formed a team preparing to take on their own mammoth.
As the mystery is resolved the knowledge causes an evolution for the boys in the story, as they find the strength to fight their own battle in their own way, forming a Lord of the Flies style alliance against the adults who plan to kill them. A revolution of their own. They leave the orphanage, a band of misfits in a new world which they will have to battle and navigate well into adulthood. It is then bookended by a speech by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), the patriarch of the film, discussing this cycle, the repetition, and the nature of ghosts. 2001 of course, being a time of new beginnings worldwide, as the world grappled with the concept of a new millennium, and fast moving modernity.
While this remains a cult film, del Toro’s affection for Spanish ghost stories has been long lasting. He still continues to reference politics and forefront the underdog in his work, winning the Best picture Oscar for The Shape of Water - which gave a voice to those who are silent. But while he has mostly moved on from ghosts himself, he still supports other directors to export their films worldwide with his name “presenting” them. Without del Toro, and this film, would we had the work of J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage), Andy Muschietti (Mama) or Sergio G. Sanchez (Marrowbone)? While there is no way to know for sure, The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s passion for a good ghost story, and the world’s appetite for weird and wonderful horror speaks for itself. As this warm and family oriented style starts to become absorbed by mainstream cinema, where will the next wave come from? It will be very exciting to find out.