- David Thompson

Welcome to the blog for FROM OUT OF THE SHADOWS a season of films celebrating the Gothic on film. Below you'll find more information on the films themselves, and why we think they're worth your attention. Click on the titles in the 'WHAT'S ON' section to see write-ups on each of the films that we're showing, while if you look back in the Archive Section, you'll find a little more about the Gothic in relation to the city where we're screening and the odd extra tidbit that we couldn't quite fit in anywhere else. Have a good look around. We hope you find it interesting. With any luck we'll see you there... it's going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, 21 September 2009


DIR: Guillermo Del Toro
SPAIN 2001 108mins

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is Guillermo Del Toro’s finest film to date. Better even than the much lauded PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006). It is – to all intents and purpose – a perfect feature film. Faultless. It doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Why then does it seem almost overlooked?

Perhaps because the year the film came out was the year of 9/11, and after that, everything that the film had to say about fear and terror, changed. Perhaps...

Perhaps it is because the film, though undoubtedly a Horror film, is not so much a ghost story, as a story with a ghost in it. You could almost take the supernatural out of the film and it would still function as a drama.

But I have a feeling it is because the film is so poetic and people are not always, or perhaps were not at the time, so open to Del Toro’s particular brand of poetic horror.

‘The poetry works better in the garage,’ Jean Cocteau once said in response to critics of his film L’ETERNAL RETOUR (1943) who though the lover’s castle more poetic. But like Cocteau, Del Toro knows the value of placing his poetry amidst more mundane/realist settings, the better to make his audience connect with it.

Like Mario Bava (MASK OF SATAN (1960), BLACK SABBATH (1963), KILL BABY KILL (1966)) and Georges Franju (EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)) before him, Del Toro deals in a variety of Horror that is not so much about making us jump, or grossing us out as it is about getting underneath our skins. His is a cinema that finds beauty in the monstrous and poetry in shadows. He makes films that are ‘uncanny’, images that create a frisson of dreadful excitement and deeply felt emotion. His is a cinema, of the Sublime.

Set in an isolated orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Del Toro marshals all the elements of the Gothic Romance (begun in Walpole’s CASTLE OF OTRANTO, and continued and perfected through Maturin’s MELMOTH THE WANDERER, Beckford’s VATHEK, Mathew Lewis’ THE MONK etc) to tell his tale.

Walpole’s Otranto began with the helmet from a suit of armour falling to the patio of the titular castle, where it would remain for the rest of the book; a sudden eruption and constant reminder of the past; of things hidden, part forgotten, but demanding to be dealt with. Del Toro uses a bomb.

On the night that a young boy disappeared from the orphanage the bomb fell, but did not explode. Since everyone is too busy fighting the war, there is no-one to take the thing away. So it sits, there, like a statue, in the middle of the school yard: a reminder, a threat, waiting to go off.

And go off it will, as the secrets of the past, that simmer beneath the surface of the story’s present, boil over and erupt by its end.

The innocent hero who must venture into darkness; a hidden treasure; the bomb; the cave/world beneath – here represented by the basement of the orphanage which is (literally and metaphorically) the gut/heart of the building and ultimately the mystery, the place where the tragic event of the past took place...

All of these elements are core to the Gothic as a genre, and core to THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE as a film.

The use of a single main location, a building that almost seems to have a soul – the castles and cathedrals and doom laden homes of the literary Gothic, is here an orphanage. An orphanage that, if one looks carefully, bares architectural resemblance to the locations of Mario Bava’s Gothic masterpiece KILL BABY...KILL, much the way that the interior of the main location in PAN’S LABYRINTH resembles that of the ‘Wurdulak’ segment of Bava’s portmanteau horror film BLACK SABBATH (AKA THREE FACES OF FEAR), as if Del Toro is paying his respects not only to the masters of the literary form, but to the cinematic descendents that have followed it, and preceded him; acutely aware that he is part of a storytelling heritage. And an extraordinarily rich one at that.

Watch out for the way he delineates day and night in the film. They are almost two different worlds. Day is brightly lit, baked dry, sweltering. Night is cool and not only filled with shadows, but also with a highly stylised use of colour: cold blues contrast with warm yellow/browns and splashes of green and red.

As Del Toro described it to Pedro Almodovar, the producer of the film: ‘We’re going to shoot Sergio Leone days and Mario Bava nights’... and that’s exactly what he did.

For those not familiar with Bava’s work - and he’s not exactly a mainstream figure – his films were typified by an extremely stylised, expressionistic use of colour. Colour which may not be logical in terms of available source, but which contributed enormously to the emotional impact of his films. He had a painter’s sense of light and colour, and used it accordingly to evoke feelings in his audience. Del Toro - with his cinematographer of choice Guillermo Navarro – does the same.


Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH...

More from BLACK SABBATH...

Mario Bava's KILL BABY...KILL!

You can see this sensibility at work in all of his films. Even the ostensibly ‘light weight’ comic book adaptation HELLBOY (2004) and its sequel HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008) (though of course they are nothing of the sort if you’re willing to delve a little deeper) are suffused with an incredibly sophisticated use of colour as a means of conveying narrative and emotional information.

It is my firm belief that Del Toro is one of the finest film makers working today. Not just because he is a consummate craftsman in terms of his visual style, but because he cares passionately about his films in their totality. He is not flashy for the sake of it. He is determined that his films be as satisfying emotionally as they are intellectually – they are more complex than simple allegory, as befits a man obsessed by symbolist painters, folk lore, fairy tales and late Victorian/early Edwardian writers of ‘weird’ tales such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and MR James, as well as the later authors of cosmic horror like H.P Lovecraft.

What is so refreshing about Del Toro is the care and attention to the writing as well as the images...

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is structured to rhyme and echo; certain elements deliberately reflect and comment on each other. It is also a circular narrative, it ends with much the same set of images with which it begins, but by the time we get there, we have a whole new understanding of what we are seeing. A whole new perspective.

In the course of the film, pay attention to the details: for instance, the way the ghost looks like a cracked porcelain doll. It is frightening to see it at first, but we are meant to feel sorry for this ghost, not just afraid. It is at once an image of beauty and fragility, as well as one of tragedy and fear.

The kitchen when the boys sneak in at night to get more water, looks like an ogre’s kitchen; the hanging knives and scissors seem oversized and threatening.

To return to the colours, notice how almost nothing is truly white. White, as a symbol of purity is rarely allowed in the film – look closely and you’ll see that almost everything that seems white is in fact off-white, yellowed and stained, as if tainted. Nothing is quite what it seems, nothing is simply one thing or the other. Nothing is entirely pure... the war taints everything, and everybody’s actions.

There’s so much in this film, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Discovery is part of the joy. It is such a well made film, such a perfectly paced, perfectly judged film... I just want you to sit back and enjoy it. Be moved as I was. As indeed, I am every time I see it. Because every time I see it, I find something new. Something more...

As an example of the Gothic onscreen this is superlative, demonstrating beyond doubt that the Gothic is about more than creaking doors and looming castles. It is a style that can be applied almost anywhere, a mode that can still – despite the clichés – produce stories of great depth, intelligence and terrible beauty.

The Gothic is still relevant, still powerful, still very much alive. You’re going to fall in love with this film. Just wait and see...

Text by Neil Snowdon

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