Mexican-international director Guillermo Del Toro made a name for himself in 1992 with Cronos, a shiver-producing if slightly shaggy-doggy story of an antique dealer with a magic timepiece. Alongside such European filmmakers as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), the Mexican-born Del Toro — who also works in the horror-fantasy vein — seemed well equipped to use new production technologies in quirky, nonclichéd ways. In Cronos, his brooding Hispanic Gothicism combined nicely with eye-popping camera work and dizzying effects. Then the sophomore jinx hit. Del Toro’s 1997 feature Mimic, a timewaster about a swarm of giant winged cockroaches chasing Mira Sorvino through the New York subway system, combined the worst puddles-of-crud excesses of Clive Barker with a routine monster scenario. Del Toro’s eccentric sense of humor and flair for truly disturbing detail seemed to have gone south. Suddenly, he was no fun anymore.
But now Del Toro is back. His 2001 Mexican-Spanish coproduction The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) still carries an unfortunate whiff of Barker — as well as a middlebrow Hollywoodish taste in apparitions — but the screenplay (by the director, with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz) is strong, flavorful stuff, a period tale of the supernatural with enough startling narrative incident and believable characters to glue us to our seats all the way to the harsh climax.
It’s a schoolboy ghost story, the kind best told after lights-out. During the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, a ten-year-old named Carlos (played by Fernando Tielve, a dead ringer for the young Matthew Broderick) finds himself unceremoniously dropped off at Santa Lucia School, a walled compound surrounded by desert. The bleak setting is matched by the lives of the school’s inmates. In the eyes of the dejected Carlos, everyone there is either frightened, or hungry, or both. The students are a grotty group of orphaned nose-pickers led by a bully named Jaime (Iñigo Garcés). The headmistress is a dignified woman of a certain age named Carmen (veteran Spanish actress Marisa Paredes, last seen here in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother), who clomps around with a prosthetic leg and bemoans the fate of her late poet husband, presumably murdered by fascists. The pretty school cook, Conchita (Irene Visedo), seems friendly enough, but she’s clearly under the thumb of the cruel caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former student at the school, a young man loaded with resentments. The only welcoming face belongs to Professor Cásares (Argentine actor Federico Luppi, from Cronos), a kindly soul who dispenses wisdom to the kids and who also keeps the headmistress company.
Film-school homages to Jean Vigo, Luis Buñuel, Lina Wertmuller, and Elem Klimov aside, director Del Toro manages to move an ordinary boarding-school-from-hell yarn onto some fairly interesting turf with careful placement of the odd visual note. Smack dab in the middle of the school’s courtyard, for instance, is a huge unexploded bomb buried nose down in the dirt. According to local legend, the bomb dropped out of the sky one rainy night (from a German plane in aid of the Nationalist forces, no doubt) and failed to detonate. Republican troops came to disarm it, but the thing remains stuck in the ground, like a modern sculpture. That same rainy night, something just as worrisome occurred: One of the students, a boy named Santi, disappeared; his ghost continues to haunt the school, even as poor Carlos arrives to bunk down, as fate would have it, in Santi’s very own bed. Yes, soon after he lands at Santa Lucia, Carlos sees dead people. But that’s only one of his troubles.
Del Toro and his cowriters strive to keep us off balance. Happily, the moment The Devil’s Backbone appears to be drifting into The Sixth Sense-Unbreakable territory, unexpected plot turns and character fillips bring us back to reality. These are not your average schoolboys: They fantasize more about food than about sex. We’re constantly reminded that the school and its inhabitants are in a Republican-held part of Spain, and that Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces (rebellious fascists, allied with Hitler’s Germany) are closing in. The story bears a slight resemblance to Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants, with its petty personal treacheries bleeding over into wartime political issues, and the film might have profitably gone down that more realistic path. All the elements are there for a satisfyingly poignant war drama: the widow Carmen two-timing Prof. Cásares with the young, amoral stud Jacinto; Jacinto’s malevolent right-wing buddies in town; Carmen’s fears that the invading Nationalists will kill everyone in the school for being “Reds looking after the children of Reds,” etc. But Del Toro is not Louis Malle, he’s a horror filmmaker. The wartime disasters he shows us are firmly in the service of the ghost story of Carlos, the departed Santi, and Santi’s killer. If you can’t guess whodunit by the midway point, you should be sent back to watch the last dozen Stephen King adaptations.
Young Tielve does a creditable job portraying the heavily conflicted Carlos. His best scenes come in the opening moments, when he realizes he’s being abandoned and the full misery of his situation sets in. After that, he’s a sleuth on the trail of justice. Paredes’ Sra. Carmen is a bit more complicated: a disabled leftist trying desperately to hold her world together, instructing the boys right up to the end, even though none of them may survive to benefit from the book learning. Noriega’s Jacinto is also allowed a bit more latitude than the standard bully boy, even if it’s the standard latitude — he, too, is a bitter orphan lashing out at the world.
By contrast, Prof. Cásares is a font of avuncular wisdom — if we can get past his bizarre fondness for his collection of human fetuses suspended in jars of fluid. These aborted would-be students provide Del Toro with the movie’s heavy-handed overriding metaphor. One of the fetuses has an exposed spinal column, which superstitious locals refer to as el espinazo del diablo. So Santi’s seemingly demonic haunting of the school echoes the fate of the unwanted unborn: He “lives” in the school’s murky cistern just as the fetuses float in their jars. True to form, perennial trickster Del Toro undercuts this weepy metaphor with a grisly joke: In the presence of Carlos, Cásares carefully dips a ladle into a jar of fetus water, and after comparing the liquid to “very old rum,” drinks it down. Yuck.
The Devil’s Backbone was produced by El Deseo SA, the company started sixteen years ago by Pedro Almodóvar and his producer brother Agustiacuten. Now that the novelty of la movida — the spirit of brash openness in Spanish society and arts that burst out in the ’80s after the death of Franco — has cooled off a bit, it’s a smart move for the Almodóvars to back young filmmakers like Del Toro. In fact, the Mexican horrormeister has his own clique, the Tequila Gang, a loose collaboration with fellow filmmakers Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate), Bertha Navarro, Rosa Bosch, and Alejandra Moreno Toscano, that exists to market Latin-American films internationally. Both those companies put their names on The Devil’s Backbone. Despite a few writing problems, Del Toro’s thoughtful grotesquery is a solid entry in El Deseo/Tequila Gang’s horror division. !Saludos!