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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Scary movie retrospect: 'The Devil's Backbone'

So the local cinemas have decided that “Fright Night 2” is far too pedestrian to grace their hallowed halls (rather ironic, given that most of them screened “We’re the Millers” when THAT came out), and WUDfilm decided that cute PIXAR monsters and Simon Pegg smacking zombies around was somehow exactly what this Halloween season needed.

Well, since Johnny’s not here until next week (see what I did there?), I decided to write up a retrospective of “The Devil’s Backbone,” or as it’s less commonly known, “What Happens When Guillermo del Toro Decides to Tell a Ghost Story.” And no, I don’t care if “Captain Phillips” came out today. It’s October, and I’m gonna talk about scary movies.

Let me say right out of the gate: I love Guillermo del Toro. I love him to death (although don’t tell him, 'cause I don’t imagine it would end well). Everything he’s ever made is pure gold in my book. If he ever gets his“At the Mountains of Madness”project off the ground, my life will be complete. For now, I’ll just have to be content with Ridley Scott’s elegant “Prometheus” and the del Toro’s own (MUCH happier) “Pacific Rim.”

“Devil’s Backbone” is yet another testament to del Toro’s prowess as a filmmaker who excels at putting his audience inside his world. It’s not concerned as much with its setting, a bombarded and hellish Spain during the Spanish Civil War before the Nazis marched on Poland; but rather, its more interested in the lives of these people that have all been affected by the war. As is par for the course for del Toro, all of his characters are imbued with a beautiful, palpable, humanness that makes them incredibly believable. I sometimes feel like I can reach out to the screen and touch the actors inside it.

Perhaps the only thing “wrong” with the film in any conventional sense is that it isn’t very “scary.”Meaning, if you’re hoping for cheap, haunted house thrills then go back to “House of Wax” or anything else with equal lack of intellect. “Devil’s Backbone” is a film that understands something profound: ghosts themselves aren’t really all that scary, even if you present them really well. What’s truly horrific (and horrific in the same way that war is horrific, mind you) is how those ghosts came to be.

To that effect, “Backbone” pulls off a grim tale of tragic loss and supernatural revenge with all the grace and beauty of a wicked axe slashing in the sunlight. The boys in the orphanage (they don’t call the building this but it’s what it IS) have all been displaced by war, and the couple that runs the orphanage are becoming more and more worried as bombers roar overhead during the night and POWs are executed in the streets of a nearby town. There’s a scene towards the end that is so terribly beautiful that for a moment I forgot I was watching a movie. The scene’s message, unlike so many other anti-war films, isn’t “WAR IS BAD.” It is simply “war kills.”

Del Toro doesn’t really seem interested in petty moralizing here, anyway: His villains (with the firm exception of Captain Vidal from “Pan’s Labyrinth”) are always morally ambiguous. In “Devil’s Backbone” the young man Jacinto does horrible things, but not because he’s a horrible person. He’s a weak person. Because of his up-bringing and the details of his childhood implied, we sympathize with the hints that he’s just a frightened, lonely man in a world that has never showed him love. But somehow, that ambiguity never really forgives Jacinto for his sins. We leave the film feeling assured that he got what he deserved.

One thing “Devil’s Backbone” lacks, curiously enough, is the ambiguity that makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” feel like a movie set in two separate worlds. None of the adults in “Labyrinth” are ever aware of the supernatural elements, but in “Backbone” every character is tied inextricably to them from the beginning. I don’t think it hurts the film, but it removes a lot of the conflict “Labyrinth” had between what was real and what might not have been real. However, without the brilliant structure of “Labyrinth,” conflict like this would have slowed the movie down. In “Backbone,” the supernatural is straight-faced and wholly present, and I think the film is better for it.

Is the film scary? Definitely not because of grisly creatures or horrible murders (although there is no lack of those). “Backbone” is a film about the horrors of war, and how they can destroy people emotionally and spiritually. That’s where its fear comes from. It’s not currently playing anywhere, but you owe it to yourself to see it this Halloween season.

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