The Devil's Backbone
El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico
“...too weird for full-on summer fare, too in love with pop culture for the art house world, and too esoteric for hardcore fandom.”
- Guillermo del Toro on himself, in his foreword to the book on The Devil’s Backbone
The world thinks of Guillermo del Toro as a director, but his all-encompassing approach to filmmaking means he wears many hats: screenwriter, producer, author, sometime actor and, crucially, former special effects/makeup artist. He was born and raised in Mexico, where he made his first feature film Cronos (1993). He then proceeded to alternate Spanish art house fare with “mainstream American sci-fi action films”, which means he is as well known for the Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017) as he is for Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013). He is one of the “Three Amigos of Spanish Cinema”, the other two being directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Del Toro wrote The Devil’s Backbone as a thesis for his film school screenwriting class, intending it to be his directorial debut. It was strongly inspired by his personal memories: life at a Jesuit boarding school, his relationship with an uncle who supposedly returned as a ghost, and an obsession with death that involved becoming a hypochondriac after seeing his first corpse at the age of five (“When I was 10 years old, I was 70 years old.”) Not surprisingly, like all his work, Backbone is characterized by a deep respect for the fantastic and the horrific.
Although Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar offered to produce del Toro’s next film in 1994, after viewing Cronos at the Miami International Film Festival, Backbone’s production only began after what del Toro called “the worst experience of my life”: the troubled release of his Hollywood debut Mimic (1997), and the simultaneous kidnapping of his father. Del Toro found filming Backbone therapeutic, and to date he considers it his favourite work, with its “sister film” Pan’s Labyrinth a close second.
Guillermo del Toro and Federico Luppi on the set of The Devil's Backbone