Back in 1994, Mexican writer-director Guillermo Del Toro said, “I only want to make horror films.” At the time, he was riding high on the success of his debut feature Cronos—a slick revisiting of vampire mythology that became a critical and art house hit—and hadn’t yet followed it up with the American-made mutant bug disaster Mimic. Asking Mira Sorvino to play the part of a brilliant scientist in the latter film would seem to be enough horror for anyone’s lifetime.
In principle, Del Toro’s still sticking to that artistic vow with his latest film The Devil’s Backbone, but it’s obvious that he’s gotten itchy to mix a little more social commentary into his genre films—to make movies that are, you know, about something. Every once in a while, stylish creepiness permeates The Devil’s Backbone. More often, whatever atmosphere Del Toro may have created gets bogged down in ham-fisted efforts at turning a ghost story into a political treatise. It’s like The Sixth Sense as directed by Ken Loach.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, The Devil’s Backbone centers on an isolated orphanage in the Spanish countryside. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is brought to the orphanage and its Communist-sympathetic principal (Marisa Paredes) and science teacher/doctor (Federico Luppi) when his anti-Nationalist father is killed in the war, and Carlos is left there without warning. Though he is initially shocked at his sudden abandonment, it doesn’t take long for him to suspect that strange and sinister doings are afoot. Scary enough are his bullying classmate Jaime (ÃÃ±igo GarcÃ©s) and brutish groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the latter a former resident of the orphanage with designs on its stash of gold ingots. But Carlos also discovers that the orphanage may be haunted by a restless spirit—”the one who sighs”—with some unfinished business to resolve.
As a horror craftsman, Del Toro’s got plenty of chops. Cronos boasted some of the most atmospheric sets and mordant wit of any thriller of the 1990s—including the priceless image of a desperate vampire lapping blood off a bathroom floor—and there are moments when that style emerges in The Devil’s Backbone. A nighttime visit to the orphanage kitchen shows a room full of ominously dangling knives and scissors; later, Carlos flees from an apparition into a linen closet, and winds up fighting with his unknown pursuer for control of the door’s handle. Though child-in-peril suspense always runs the risk of being an emotional cheat, Del Toro puts together some tense, effective scenes of Carlos’ encounters with the resident poltergeist. When the film actually decides to be scary, it often succeeds.
The problem is that far too often, the film decides it wants to be something entirely other than scary. Much of the time it plays like Del Toro’s spin on kid’s-eye-view war stories like Empire of the Sun and Hope and Glory. Whenever he’s not spotting corpses wander past, little Carlos finds time to do the coming-of-age thing by peeping on adults making out or perusing a nudie picture drawn by Jaime. Meanwhile, a huge unexploded bomb sits in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard like a huge unexploded metaphor. “These children, too,” Del Toro practically announces while patting our hands, “are relics of war that may explode at some point in the future. We must watch carefully so that they do not also become weapons of destruction”
That kind of message-mongering eventually overwhelms The Devil’s Backbone, which becomes a lefty-leaning drama of social upheaval. Del Toro takes backhand swipes at money-lust and the Catholic Church—worthy targets, perhaps, but targets for another kind of movie. For extensive stretches of the film, you can practically hear a ghostly voice insisting, “Um, hey, what about me—I’m trying to haunt the place over here.”
The director attempts to make up for shunting the ghost story into the background by actually showing the ghost far too much (though with a nifty effect of blood trickling off into space) and revealing too much about it too soon. Most of the opportunities The Devil’s Backbone has to provide real uneasiness are turned, one way or another, into exercises in the overly obvious.
Among the casualties of this approach is Noriega’s character, who should have been one of those great horror film villains whose comeuppance we all root for. Best known for originating the Tom Cruise character in the Vanilla Sky precursor Abre Los Ojos, Noriega provides a nasty-sexy vibe for Jacinto as he creeps around the orphanage trying to get his hands on the gold. But by turning Jacinto into an orphan himself with his own troubled past, Del Toro bends over backwards to show that economic disadvantage is hell on everybody, and maybe we should feel a little sympathy for this guy who just stabbed someone in the heart. So much for a cathartic resolution.
In a speech that gives the film its title, Luppi’s character lectures Carlos in front of a preserved fetus with spina biffida, noting that contrary to superstition, such conditions were not about the supernatural, but merely about “poverty and suffering.” If Guillermo Del Toro does plan a career of making nothing but horror films, he might consider making them a little bit more about the supernatural, and a little bit less about poverty and suffering—and a lot less about titles that serve as thesis statements.
The Devil’s Backbone (R) HH Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Starring Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes.