Friday, November 20, 2009

Into The Vault: The Devil's Backbone

Before there was Pan's Labyrinth, before Hellboy I or II... before any talk of the Hobbit movies, there was simply a Mexican director who had made a cool Hollywood movie and one independent film called Cronos.

The movie is about an orphaned boy who is left at an underfunded orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The life there is pretty brutal, between the teasing, the violent handyman, the many secrets hidden by the other people, an unexploded bomb in the courtyard, and a creepy ghostly figure that shows up from time to time. We know from the beginning of the movie that a kid died in the orphanage, and that this is who the specter is of. The question is why is he haunting the place.

Yet the movie is not just about ghosts as a literal interpretation. A ghost, as the narrator eludes, is simply a secret. This movie is full of secrets too. Every single character seems to have one, and all the plots are brought together in the end. This was done to the same effect in Pan's Labyrinth, which was the spiritual sequel to this movie.

The movie does not have a set genre. It's not a horror movie, as the American DVD distributors like to make you think it is. At least it's not in the usual way. Horrible things happen in this movie. Yet the movie is also a western, a war movie, and a boy's adventure story. Del Toro even mentions in one of the commentaries that it's his "Mario Bava western." Mario Bava was an Italian director known for his stylish horror and giallo films, and Del Toro is a big fan. I love that this movie isn't set to a specific genre. It keeps you guessing, and sets up for some amazing left turns.

I think my favorite aspect of the movie is how there's a sense of somberness throughout the whole movie. No one is happy in this thing. The orphanage is in the middle of nowhere and is falling apart. It's a very creepy place, even in the daytime. The owner of the orphanage is despondent and is sleeping with the handyman out of self-pity. The handyman is sleeping with her to find where she keeps some gold, so he can steal it. At the same time, he also has a girlfriend who knows nothing of the affair. I'm still trying to get my head around how Guillermo Del Toro fit all of this stuff into one movie and ended up with it being fantastic!

It's a shame people don't know more about this film. It's a true work of art and just as good as Pan's Labyrinth. If you take out the fantasy elements of that movie, and replace it with gothic horror, you'd have a good idea of what to expect. It's ruthless, sad and very romantic (stylistically, not lovey-dovey) yet is not altogether a downer. There's some hope in there too. It's really a shame that this movie didn't get a surge of popularity with the release of the popular Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II. It truly is Del Toro's best film so far.

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