The Devil's Backbone
El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico
The Cast of Characters
What Is a Ghost?
The Devil's Backstory
Why is this Film File #2?
“[O]ne of the hardest things to do is to use a red character, which I’ve done a few times, including Hellboy! Red eats everything. Red eats every color around it. And then reds needs to be exactly red…When people see Hellboy and think, Oh, he’s just painted red!, there are least twenty shades of red in that! It’s incredibly detailed because we need to do the shading, the liver spots. A face is not pink! There’s green on it, there’s blue on it, there’s yellow on it, there’s red.”
- Guillermo del Toro, in the book on The Devil’s Backbone
Such is the fate of The Devil’s Backbone, often dismissed as a horror movie when it also works as a historical melodrama, a coming-of-age story, and a political allegory. The film went through a number of mutations, beginning life as a story of a "Christ with three arms" set during the Mexican Revolution. At various times, it included a "doddering ... old man with a needle" (who became Casares) a "desiccated" ghost with black eyes as a caretaker (who became Jacinto), and "beings who are red from head to foot" (who presumably became the Republicans).
The film opens when the right-wing Francoists are on the verge of defeating their opponents, the left-wing Republicans who they derisively call Los Rojos. Del Toro takes this idea and runs with it, using the colour red to signify liberation in all forms – but especially those of blood and death. The film has innumerable cuts, scars and wounds in varying stages of repair.
The one character who is otherwise devoid of colour is Santi. As a human he looks anaemic; as a ghost he looks like a descendant of his most direct inspiration, the white-faced spirits of Japanese horror films. The final version, created by DDT Studios in Barcelona, resembles “[a] broken porcelain doll… [w]ith a cloud of blood floating above the flaking crack in his head, his bones illuminated as if X-rayed photographs.” Santi’s blood stands out all the more because it is the only colour he has: it tellingly floats upward as if through water.
Del Toro is an avowed Gothic fanboy, owning shelves full of Dickens and Wilkie Collins and H.P. Lovecraft, in which “the supernatural elements of the narrative are often serve as a counterpoint to the human cruelty on display… The orphanage is a stand in for the archetypal castle, situated in the middle of nowhere and in a state of disarray. Santi is the ghost that everyone fears and speaks about in hushed tones, but ends up one of the most tragic figures in the film while Jacinto is the actual threat to everyone’s well-being. Ultimately, the point of Gothic literature is to highlight the cruelty and violence that humans are capable of towards each other." He does go against convention by shooting a ghost film in the daytime: “The light we shoot the ghost with becomes less gothic, less horrific, until you stop fearing the ghost and realize that you should be more afraid of the living.”
Del Toro has also mentioned the influence of Goya’s Black Paintings, such as Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, and The Village Voice's J. Hoberman has compared the film itself to Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), noting that, like the painting, “[t]he elements [of the movie] can never completely be reconciled; the movie is uncanny primarily in its disjunction.”