Girl Meets Context: This October is going to be dedicated to classic haunted house movies. Next up, Guillermo del Toro’s period ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. Produced by Pedro Almodóvar, the film really established del Toro as a filmmaker to be reckoned with (after the minor arthouse hit Cronos (1993) and underwhelming Hollywood horror flick Mimic (1997)). A young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is left at a remote orphanage run by feisty principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and the gentlemanly Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), who struggle to provide enough food for the small group of young boys in their care. But Carlos soon realizes that the disappearance of a previous occupant holds the key to a dark secret, one that involves the sexy but temperamental groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who himself grew up at the orphanage under Carmen’s care. Carlos begins to see ghostly apparitions as the ongoing violence in the surrounding countryside threatens to intrude upon the orphanage, before a bloody climax that forces Carlos and his friends to fight for their survival. Establishing the setting and tone of del Toro’s later breakout film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Devil’s Backbone showed that del Toro was a unique filmmaker with a specific voice and vision. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen The Devil’s Backbone, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: So we’re discussing this the same week that Guillermo del Toro directed the intro to The Simpsons latest Treehouse of Horror episode. I really loved it, and I want a complete list of each and every reference.
Sean: You can watch an annotated version here. Did you catch Homer as Santi at the end?
Kristine: Yes! I want to state that I just watched The Devil’s Backbone last night and today was hectic and I haven’t had the chance to really think it through yet. I don’t really know what I want to say about it.
Sean: That’s weird, because I’m coming into this conversation not quite sure what to say either. I guess I like the movie. It’s kind of weak on story.
Kristine: Funny you should say that because I feel like there’s too much story going on in the movie! I had a hard time getting truly invested, which surprised me because you know how I usually love anything set in a boarding school/orphanage type of environment (á la Diabolique, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Suspiria, Black Christmas, Phenomena, etc.) Maybe that’s because I didn’t totally grasp all the subtleties of the Spanish Civil War backdrop. Plus, add that to the Carmen/Casares/Jacinto love triangle of sexual frustration and the ghost story… It just all felt like too much.
Sean: I probably agree with that. It felt like all the pieces were in place for awesomeness – the period setting, tons of political allegory, Marisa Paredes with a wooden leg, kids bonding over comics, a ghost child, Eduardo Noriega naked… But then it somehow never comes together.
Kristine: Right! I agree. I am surprised that I didn’t like it more.
Sean: I actually think the character of Jacinto makes no sense and is so weirdly underwritten for a movie that wants to milk all these other characters for pathos. Like how the movie turns the bully, Jaime, into a sympathetic character, but then Jacinto is just a misogynist, avaricious hardbodied freak. It felt weird, because the movie seemed like it was all about subtlety, but then Jacinto is like a moustache-twirling villain out of a telenovela. So did Carmen take advantage of him when was an orphan and it fucked him up? I never got why he was such a freak.
Kristine: The impression I got was that Carmen did seduce him when he was probably too young for it to be appropriate, which was weird because the movie totally lionizes her, right?
Sean: Right. It also annoyed me how all the ladies got killed in the lamest ways, especially Conchita who just basically decides to die without fighting or running or anything. The movie wanted me to find her heroic and amazing in that moment, but it just made me mad. Plus, you could see that scene coming from miles away – when she decides to walk to town I was like, Okay she needs to take the gun or someone needs to go with her… But no.
Kristine: Conchita in general was not satisfying.
Sean: She seemed like a fine actress, but the part as written was dumb. She could have handled being an actual person and not just the bearer of Jaime’s cigar band.
Sean: That’s all she was! She had to die so that Jaime got his big stabby moment of revenge. She only existed to fuel his psyche.
Kristine: Ugh, Jaime. If Jaime was so traumatized by Santi’s death, why did he continue his bullying antics, like daring Carlos to sneak into the kitchen for water? I will say I thought Santi’s ghost was awesome.
Sean: Yeah, the design was pretty cool where you can see the water shimmering around him because his body is at the bottom of the well.
Kristine: I loved all the ghost visuals.
Sean: But why didn’t Santi’s ghost just kill Jacinto? There was no reason he had to wait until the end.
Kristine: He can only do it in the water? Weird ghost rule.
Sean: The movie was kind of writerly and manipulative, I thought. I also thought the unexploded bomb as this big, gigantically obvious metaphor was clumsy and silly. The movie has too many ideas, like you said. The bomb, the allusions to The Count of Monte Cristo, the tension between ideology (represented by Carmen’s dead husband) and real political struggle (Carmen herself), Casares’ poetry vs. Jacinto’s sexuality… I got it all, it was just too much.
Sean: I thought the character best served by the movie was Dr. Casares. They nailed his gentlemanly awesomeness and you really loved him as this kind, paternal figure.
Kristine: Yes, and I thought the boys’ reaction to his death was heartbreaking and real.
Sean: And the only pathos in the movie that worked for me was Casares dying in the chair, with the flies crawling all over him. But why could he come back as a ghost to unlock the door? But none of the other murdered people could? Why couldn’t Carmen come stomp around in her ghost leg?
Kristine: Who knows? There is something too mystical-magical-romantic about this movie for me.
Sean: Right? Apparently del Toro has said it’s his “most personal film.”
Kristine: It’s like a ghost story meets Like Water for Chocolate.
Sean: A movie beloved by white girls who had an emotional “experience” in that one Caribbean women’s literature course they took in college.
Kristine: Or, more like, The House of the Spirits. Remember that wreck?
Sean: Oh god yes. There was that wave of movies that embraced the whole Latin American Magical Realism thing in the early 1990s.
Kristine: I know this is Spanish, but still. It reminds me of all that. I could never get on board with any of it.
Sean: Yeah, I don’t hate that kind of thing, but I’m not drawn to it. It is so hetero.
Kristine: Oh, totally! Maybe some lesbo stuff for titillation.
Sean: Speaking of queerness, Pedro Almodóvar executive produced this.
Kristine: I saw that! I can detect none of his sensibility in this movie, can you?
Sean: No, not really. He would have given Marisa Paredes some real diva shit to do in his version.
Kristine: See, this was why I was insecure about discussing the movie, because I really don’t have much to say other than it being confused and underwhelming. I thought maybe I was missing something. But maybe it’s just not that great?
Sean: Well, one of the things doing this blog has gotten me thinking about is just “the Gothic” as a literary/cinematic tradition, and how the trappings of the Gothic are used and what they communicate… So the most pleasure I got out of watching this was (1) Eduardo Noriega being naked and dirty and (2) Seeing a Mediterranean take on the Gothic. It was fun to see all the classic Gothic tropes (like the uncanny shadow on the wall) taken out of an English/northern European setting and placed in early 20th-century Spain.
Kristine: I did love the setting a lot. The setting plus the ghost of Santi were the only things I loved.
Sean: I mean, del Toro himself is responsible for a resurgence in the Gothic, if you think about this movie and Pan’s Labyrinth, plus movies he’s executive produced like The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, Mama, that remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Splice, etc. There’s actually been a whole of wave of Spanish Gothicists in the last decade or so – like Alejandro Amenábar, who made Thesis and The Others, Guillem Morales’ The Uninvited Guest, Jaume Balagueró’s movies Darkness, Sleep Tight, The Nameless, Frágiles and even his [REC] movies. I know del Toro is Mexican, but he obviously is interested in Spain and Spanish cinema, and has played a role in developing and making movies there.
Kristine: I don’t know enough about Spanish national identity to hazard a guess about the origins of the trend, but I definitely thought of both The Orphanage and The Others while watching this movie. Though I think both of those movies benefitted from having relatively streamlined plots that focused in on one particular set of ideas. The Devil’s Backbone gets into all the historical details and big metaphors and lots and lots of characters… For me, it detracted from the power of the Gothic story buried under all these other elements.
Sean: Well, both The Others and The Orphanage are both maternal melodramas that put a mother-figure at the center of the story, while The Devil’s Backbone is ostensibly Carlos’ story and his movie, even though he’s ancillary to so much of the important action.
Kristine: In The Others you actually got a sense of what it would be like to live in that house, or to even be a ghost in that house. I did not feel that way here.
Sean: For me, my biggest gripe is that Marisa Paredes wasn’t the star and that her character, Carmen, wasn’t at the center of the movie. The Orphanage had that strong female role to ground the movie. I think I just like my ghost stories to be all about ladies.
Kristine: I agree that she is a scene-stealer. I loved her steely pragmatism.
Sean: Well, I think it’s fine for us to not have much to say about The Devil’s Backbone. Speaking of which, that title is yet another element of the movie that felt overly symbolic and undercooked for me – the whole metaphor about the spinal deformation in the fetuses in Dr. Casares’ lab and his speech about how the superstitions of the day are just distractions from real political concerns, that communities make up these dark mythologies in order to not have to actually think about the real systemic problems with their society that create poverty and disease and injustice. But again, too much ideology, too little story. Too many “symbols.”
Kristine: Why do you think this movie is held in such high esteem? It’s got a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sean: Del Toro’s celebrity, right? He has a such a strong visual sense. He’s Spain/Mexico’s Tim Burton.
Kristine: I like that.
Sean: Were there any legitimate scares in this movie for you? Any creepy moments?
Kristine: I mean, it has moments of tension and creepiness, but no scares. I was stressed for Carlos to get out of the kitchen alive, but I wasn’t scared for him.
Sean: Agreed. I was on the edge of my seat about whether or not Eduardo Noriega’s clothes would suddenly fall of him.
Kristine: Ha! How would you rate this? Mine is: It’s fine but it’s not for me.
Sean: Samesies. I am also adding Where’s the queer? because of the appalling lack of diva antics for Paredes and lack of menacing queer sexaulity from Noriega.
Kristine: Yes, that is disappointing.
The Girl’s Rating: It’s fine but it’s not for me.
The Freak’s Rating: It’s fine but it’s not for me AND Where’s the queer?