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The Devil’s Backbone ends the way it begins, with a deep and unrelenting voice asking a question we’ve asked ourselves time and time again…”what is a ghost?” The words serve as a blanket, swaddling the discordant imagery of falling bombs, a bleeding child, and the body of a child slowly descending underwater without any intention of resurfacing. While his visionary work on Pan’s Labyrinth solidified del Toro as a master fantasist, it was 2001’s release of The Devil’s Backbone that established the roots from which del Toro’s creative works would continue to grow. “An emotion suspended in time,” our narrator assumes of ghosts, unknowingly describing what would become the crux of Guillermo del Toro’s entire filmography.
The Devil’s Backbone follows a young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve), recently orphaned after his father dies in the final year of the Spanish Civil War. He is taken to an orphanage run by an older couple, Casares (Frederico Luppi) and Carmen, who secretly support the rebels during the war and hide their gold on the orphanage grounds, gold the sadistic groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is plotting to steal. Shortly after arriving to the orphanage, Carlos begins having visions of The One Who Sighs, a ghostly boy believed to be Santi (Junio Valverde), who went missing when a bomb landed in the center of the orphanage grounds without detonating. When Carlos learns the truth about The One Who Sighs, he teams up with his bully-turned-buddy Jamie (Inigo Garces) to avenge Santi and bring his sadistic murderer to justice.
Fantasy films are predominately presented in realities unlike our own, and yet del Toro’s decision to set The Devil’s Backbone during the final year of the Spanish Civil War successfully allows audiences to transport themselves to a fantastical world without much suspension of disbelief. Spain in 1939 is an enigmatical time in itself as war can dramatically alter the perception of those that endured the period. There’s no way to universally understand how things were or weren’t during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, and thus this setting blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Del Toro was even quoted saying “the civil war, which as never completely healed in Spain, is a ghost.” However, the end of the Spanish Civil war marked a time of rebirth, a theme that runs rampant throughout del Toro’s work. The end of the war and the closure of Santi’s death deliver a sense of mourning, but with the glimmer of hope that things do not have to be as horrific as once before. Guillermo del Toro’s work doesn’t want to act as if badness is a thing of fantasy, but rather utilizes fantastical elements to give the audience a safe distance to explore negative experiences and emotions.
The human fascination with what happens after our bodies leave this mortal plane has been the focus of storytellers since the creation of the written word. Ghosts are not defined by a set mythology and are therefore open to a variety of interpretations. Guillermo del Toro presents this horror as an experience of emotion rather than a formulaic technique for cheap scares. The ghost in The Devil’s Backbone is not presented as a wailing, overwhelming, jumpscare-inspiring ghoul, but is shown (as the narrator puts it) as “a tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again,” emphasis on tragedy. Del Toro isn’t trying to use the ghost as a malicious villain intent on horrifying the masses, but rather an empathic character desperate to be understood as any other living person.
It’s del Toro’s decision to focus on a ghost described as The One Who Sighs that sparks a pattern in his filmography of horror presented as an experience of emotion, rather than a filmmaking tactic. Through the course of The Devil’s Backbone, the appearance of Santi serves as a reminder of a monstrous past that cannot be ignored until it has been addressed. The ghost is meant to be fearful, but in a way that forces audiences to reflect inward and ask themselves, “what ghosts do we have haunting us from within?” Ultimately, the true horror of The Devil’s Backbone lies not with the brutalized ghost of Santi, but is instead shown through someone definitely human, who shows their true face as a monster more horrific than any otherworldly creature. Forcing the audience to understand and sympathize with the “other” allows us to see the true evil that lies within the human, and challenges our perception of the world around us. Whether it is Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy or even Pacific Rim, del Toro’s films are constantly urging us to look past the surface appearance and instead analyze a character from the inside out.
Perhaps the biggest strength of The Devil’s Backbone is that the entire film rests solely on the shoulders of children, but del Toro refuses to treat children as anything other than fully capable humans. Del Toro’s work is often described as fairy tales about the “real world,” and yet palatable for even the smallest of film viewers. It’d be easy to dismiss his use of child protagonists as a cheap way to establish an emotional weight for the viewer witnessing a child in a fantastical (and usually dangerous) environment, but del Toro’s use of children runs much deeper. Children are often used as symbols of innocence, and while this is true of del Toro’s leading players, they are also seen as the most neutral parties. They’ve yet to have their imaginations squandered which allows them to see these fantastical worlds exactly as they are, but they’ve also yet to see humans as anything but, allowing the reveal of the depravity human beings can possess to be from a pure and objective perspective.
Guillermo del Toro’s auteur hallmarks can be easily identified. He treats supernatural creatures as commonplace occurrences, leads his films with orphaned characters or ones who lose a loved one, establishes settings that are visually rich from all angles (rather than saving for a money shot), and reaches the climax of his stories with decision-making from the characters, rather than disruptive events. The Devil’s Backbone exemplifies all of these signifiers in their most sincere form, due in large part to the lack of a Hollywood budget. Guillermo del Toro’s visionary filmmaking will inspire future creatives for generations to come, and The Devil’s Backbone will forever serve as his most “del Toro” creation.