October marked the beginning of the delightfully pretentious Laemmle’s “Scary Subtitles” month. (I like to think I’m delightfully pretentious, too, but I’m probably just annoying.) The first week’s entry was Guillermo del Toro’s companion film to Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone.
Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the movie opens on a rainy night with a bomb being dropped from a plane into an orphanage where one of the boys—who has just experienced something horrible—is standing. The bomb lands, but doesn’t go off.
The next day Carlos is brought in. He’s an orphan, but he doesn’t know it yet, and the man taking care of him is abandons him there against the orphanage’s wishes. But they’re all on the communist side and the food-strapped orphanage is also a cover for funneling supplies to the troops. The communists are losing, and the fascists are on the march.
The orphanage itself has its own issues, besides starving. The creepy matron, Carmen is being serviced by a young man, Jacinto, one of her former children, while Dr. Casares, an older man, pines for her. She has gold which cannot be used to buy food, but which Jacinto is planning to steal so he can run off with beautiful, young and none-too-bright Conchita.
Also, the orphanage is haunted.
The ghost is of a boy who went missing the night the bomb dropped. The official story is that Santi ran away that night, but the boys all know he’s real and Carlos is both drawn and repelled to this ghost.
GDT isn’t going to pussyfoot around. You get ghostly action, and lots of of it. The effect used for the ghost is poetic and haunting: He drowned after being struck on the head, so he is blurry, and the blood from his wound seems to float off into space. And much like Pan’s Labyrinth, Man’s Inhumanity To Man (and especially child) is going to be far worse than what the supernatural has to offer.
My favorite part, the thing from which the movie takes its name, is that of Dr. Casales. The good doctor has fetuses in jars, including one aborted because of “The Devil’s Backbone”, which is an old peasant name for spina bifida. The good doctor is a Man of Science, he announces, when Carlos asks him whether he believes in ghosts.
Then he pours off the juices the fetuses have been soaking in for hundreds of years to make some sort of snake-oil cure that the villagers buy up like crazy. (The intimation at one point being that they think it’s like Viagra, which makes his subsequent drinking of it more interesting.) He uses the fetus-juice money to buy food for the kids.
His fate is wonderfully ironic, and the whole movie works very, very well, reminding us why we love Mr. del Toro. The Flower was so taken with it, she said, “This makes The Shape of Water even more disappointing, Dad.” We had rushed out to see that movie on Christmas Eve, she was so excited for it, only to find its inappropriate and anachronistic view of the ’50s inexcusably hacky for such a brilliant director.
As good as it is, it’s not quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth is, but if you like del Toro, it’s a must-see.