Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Devil’s Backbone reviewed by Enrique Ajuria Ibarra

The Devil’s Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Released in 2001
Certificate: 15

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is most widely recognised for his hit blockbuster films, such as the Hellboy series and Blade 2, and also because of the huge praise and critical acclaim received for his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth [review]. With a rich and elaborate visual style, Del Toro’s work showcases his keen interest in the monstrous, the vampiric and the supernatural, as he delves into and explores them through the use of popular culture and folklore.  However, insufficient attention has been given to his early work; when assessing his contributions to 21st century horror it is worth considering the high quality of the director’s productions before his global success; such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001). In this film, Del Toro creates a horrifying atmosphere, as a ghost’s insistent haunting is situated within the pain and desolation that a civil war leaves on its people. Produced by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, this film provided the ideal springboard for Del Toro’s future, more popular and more complex films.  Just like his other films, The Devil’s Backbone is influenced by the director’s fascination for classical horror, the macabre and popular fiction. With its carefully crafted dark scenes and violent events, it masterfully offers a painful, yet highly attractive, portrayal of how people react to the threat of others in times of raging political and social instability.

The film tells the story of Carlos, a newly arrived boy at Doña Carmen’s and Dr Casares’s orphanage and refuge for children whose Republican parents fight or have died in the Spanish Civil War.  Shortly after his arrival, Carlos sees a ghost, which the rest of the children – who cannot see him, but apparently have heard his voice – call ‘the one who sighs’. Determined to find out who this spectre is, Carlos slowly uncovers disturbing secrets about the adults and other boys who live there: Carmen is a widowed woman who has decided to keep on running the school her late husband had opened, even though it has become a heavy burden for her; Dr Casares is an Argentinean who has decided to stay in Spain because he is madly in love with Carmen; Jaime is the leader of the boys, who takes to bullying Carlos, yet is obviously afraid of someone else in the complex. Finally, there is Jacinto, the caretaker, who does not bother to hide his disdain for the school and its residents. After being persistently haunted, Carlos discovers that Jacinto has been trying to steal gold hidden in the building’s grounds.  When the Civil War gets too close to the walls of the orphanage, prompting Carmen and Casares to escape with the children, Jacinto decides to take more drastic measures to get what he wants. After a violent fight that shatters the orphanage and kills the adults, Carlos learns of the identity and the origin of the ghost. Once the mystery of the haunting has been solved, Carlos, Jaime and a group of children decide to put matters to rest once and for all in a climatic, spectacular and bloodstained finale.

In The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro works with the traditional conventions of the ghost story: in an old building there resides a spectral figure that haunts the current inhabitants of the place and this figure will not rest until the circumstances of his untimely death, a mystery or a secret for the haunted characters, are uncovered and avenged. Del Toro heightens these haunting sensations through the isolated setting and by enhancing the otherworldliness of the ghostly apparition with low-key lighting and unearthly tones. Carlos usually encounters the spectre at night and always when he is alone. The ghost also leaves terrifying signs of his passing, such as footsteps on wet floors and an eerie trail of blood in the air. An unsettling sensation of being observed is established as the spectre is always seen looking at Carlos from dark thresholds, keyholes and basements. The camerawork is also remarkably effective in generating unease: most of The Devil’s Backbone is filmed using dolly shots – seamless and very smooth camera movements – that glide through every part of the orphanage like a silent and invisible otherworldly observer.  By using such simple techniques, the film reinforces in the audience that shuddering sensation of something ghostly watching the characters’ every movement and action.

These floating camera movements, combined with the implied presence of the ghost in the shadows, establish the impression that the spectre always stands at physical borders, aware of his non-corporeal state. But at the same time, he slowly begins to incorporate himself into the physical world as the film develops. Initially, the ghost is perceived only for a brief instant, but as the story and plot unfold, he increasingly manifests as a more concrete and material being to Carlos. Having been haunted since he first arrived at the school, Carlos decides to confront the spectre to try to understand what he wants. The ghostly child expresses a need to wreak revenge on the one who took his life. Significantly, the ghost has chosen to appear only to Carlos, casting doubt over whether he is real: in the end, he might just be a figure that came to exist in Carlos’s mind after his traumatic experiences and hardships in and outside the school.

That the main characters in the film live under the constant fear of a war raging on outside the walls of the school is highlighted by an artefact that looms over the very centre of the building’s courtyard: a deactivated bomb that fell on the night that a young boy disappeared.  The children believe the dormant bomb is really alive and that it whispers and echoes secrets and truths, if you ask the right questions. Del Toro chose the historical era of the Spanish Civil War as a constrictive and stressful setting in which to develop this compelling ghost story. Considered to be one of the most devastating events in European history, the Spanish Civil War has left its imprint by defining Spain’s culture as one marked by the haunting resonances of the people who died and disappeared during the conflict. The Devil’s Backbone not only reflects on the conditions of war and violence that affect individuals, but also society at large. The characters in the film all represent a political faction of the Civil War.  Most obviously, Carmen and Dr Casares represent the liberals; Jacinto, the military fascists and the children, the Spanish people themselves. Paired with the spectral presence of the ghost, personal grudges and interactions between all the characters establish the focal message of the film: war is traumatic, and more than that, it is culturally haunting; repeating itself in memories, actions and reactions that seek to speak of silences and secrets that demand to be told, avenged and laid to rest.  Mirroring the ghost’s appeals to Carlos to avenge his death, Spanish culture is haunted by those who died and disappeared during the Civil War.

The main appeal of The Devil’s Backbone is its masterful balance of horrifying ghost story and traumatic war drama. Guillermo del Toro draws on his considerable knowledge of the history of horror cinema, admitting in interviews to have been greatly influenced by horror classics from the sixties and seventies, such as the Hammer Studio films and Italian directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento, when he created this haunting narrative. These influences are clearly discernible in the film’s setting as well as the development of the characters. Several scenes are evocative of classic Italian gialli such as The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Suspiria and Inferno: the unsolved horror mystery is infused with a palette of bright colours, excessive violence and copious amounts of blood and wounded flesh, just like its Italian counterparts. Del Toro has also confessed to have been influenced by classic Hollywood Western films such as The Searchers and those directed by Anthony Mann; the desert landscape in The Devil’s Backbone is reminiscent of the isolated settings of the Old West. With convincing and outstanding performances from the young actors, and with the participation of notable film and television stars from both Spain and Argentina, del Toro’s film lives up to the director’s very own personal goal: to create an appealing spaghetti western/horror hybrid. The Devil’s Backbone is a successful horror ghost story because it keeps reminding us of the universal appeal of the ghost: how it comes to culturally stay and permanently haunt us with such traumatic delight.


Enrique Ajuria Ibarra is a doctoral candidate at Lancaster University. His thesis project analyses the social and political criticism found in fantasy and horror films from Mexico and Spain, and he has particularly done extensive research on the films of Guillermo del Toro. He has participated in several conferences both in the UK and abroad and has published book and film reviews for The Gothic Imagination and Re/Action Magazine websites. His main interests lie in the use of fantasy, horror and gothic theories to explore particular examples from film and literature, both in Spanish and English.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on this blog are moderated. We will have them posted up as soon as possible, thank you for your patience.