The Devil's Backbone (2001)
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” – Dr Casares, The Devil’s Backbone
When Guillermo del Toro's first feature film, Cronos cleaned up at the Ariel Awards - the Mexican Oscars - in 1993 it gained international attention. The film took the awards for best picture, director, supporting actor, screenplay, original story, set design, production design, special effects, and the special prize for first work by a director.
It was only a matter of time until Hollywood would come knocking at the door of its 29-year-old director. This nightmare-prone, horror obsessed, self-confessed special effects geek had been part of the Mexican film industry for 10 years, mainly working in make-up and effects, but also producing and directing short films and some TV. Cronos was the most expensive film to have been made in Mexico at the time and it caused quite a stir. It’s a unique vampire tale with some truly memorable, skin-crawling moments.
For crafting such an original, globally adored piece of cinema del Toro was gifted the opportunity to direct Mimic (1997) for a big Hollywood studio with real stars, and a real budget. Sadly the fairytale didn’t last for long. Cast members feuded, producers interfered and del Toro disowned the finished product: a paper-thin facsimile of his original vision. He returned to Mexico embittered and yearning for simpler times.
Since his teens, del Toro had carefully nurtured the tale of a haunting set amid the turmoil of war, a cautionary tale of innocence betrayed by damaged guardians. Now back on home soil, he set to work on turning this dream into reality.
Del Toro had long been obsessed by the macabre and the Gothic. A keen artist, his efforts were noticed by his strict Catholic grandmother (he describes her as being like “Piper Laurie in Carrie”) who imparted cruel punishments on him and, on two separate occasions, attempted to exorcise the young boy. Even these twisted practices did nothing to stifle his daydreams of monsters and a fascination with ghost stories. Del Toro claims that he heard his deceased uncle sigh in his bedroom one night. An unnerving visitation that he assimilated into his fantasy world, it eventually emerged in the screenplay for The Devil’s Backbone as ”the One Who Sighs”.
These odd childhood experiences were thrown into the mix along with Gothic tales of buildings harbouring dark secrets, stories of the cruel treatment of war-orphans in Franco’s Spain and a pinch of “Boys’ Own” adventure. The resulting screenplay feels like an effortless retelling of something familiar, a ghost story with ancient roots.
Designing the ghost became an exercise in perseverence for del Toro and the effects crew. They were inspired by the white faces and watery deaths of many Japanese horror figures terrifying global audiences in the late ‘90s, and set out to create a sad, lonely creature with an appearance that would be unlike any ghost seen on screen before. Initital test filming had all of the ghost's movement filmed in reverse, to be played backwards giving the jerky, uncanny movements so beloved of directors like David Lynch and Hideo Nakata.
(Note: Film Critic, Robbie Collin wrote an excellent piece on the origins of the "dead wet girl" as a Japanese horror icon, and how filmmakers borrowed from the tradition of Butoh dance to fill audiences with dread: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/how-japans-obsession-with-dead-wet-girls-changed-horror/)
When it proved too time-consuming to film using this approach, del Toro decided to use make-up and special effects to create a ghost that would have a more subtle sense of wrong-ness. Details of the make up design for the ghost mirror the pottery tiling and rusting ironworks of the orphanage that it calls home, while a constant ebb and flow of particles surrounding the entity make it appear to have brought a part of its dank, watery grave with it into the arid, dustbowl where the orphanage sits in desolate isolation.
Released to univerally positive reviews, The Devil’s Backbone was a success around the world and helped del Toro to get over the experience he’d had in making his previous film in Hollywood. He would soon return there, and to the vampire myth, with his next film Blade II (2002).
A fascination with the stormy history of Spain from its Civil War, through WWII and into the Franco years led del Toro and his storytelling back to 1944 for his most well-known, and critically acclaimed film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). He views that film as the sister to The Devil’s Backbone, two parts of a whole fantasy world.
There are distinct similarities in tone and subject matter between the two films; the loneliness and terror of childhood, the ever-present shadow of war, adults profoundly damaged by conflict, fascists and revolutionaries, night-time fantasy adventures, and the awakening of adulthood.
So, what is a ghost? For del Toro there is no one answer. He has lived a life populated by them in a variety of forms – some personal, some political, some from the literature and history that he has devoured along the way. Snatches of memory, ideas sketched out in the copious volumes of notebooks he produces, fairytales from childhood, Bible stories. All these things feed his rich imagination and allow us to spend just a little time with the ghosts that he loves so much.