‘The Devil’s Backbone’ Validated as the First Masterpiece from Guillermo del Toro

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Sixteen years after its release, The Devil’s Backbone finally gets its due with Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams’ coffee table tome.

I first saw The Devil’s Backbone at Georgetown’s West End Cinema in the fall of 2001. The “big screen” there was, and still is, little more than a glorified television and its vistas barely stretched beyond my own wingspan. West End has always housed a small crowd, but just months after 9/11 it seemed like no one wanted to go out to the movies and I practically had the place to myself. A family sat in the second row, which basically made them part of the film’s foreground, and I plonked myself in the fifth row next to the concrete pillar that supposedly supported the basement auditorium. This sunken box may be the most claustrophobic setting in all of Washington DC, but it provided an exquisite experience that’s impossible to separate from my enthusiasm for the film itself. Trapped in that cinema I felt like one of those lost boys trying to keep my head down, avoiding the attention of the bully Jacinto, and the specter of “the one who sighs.” Idel too was a kid who collected bugs and got his classic literature through comic books, and did his best to ignore the war brewing just outside his doorstep.

The Devil’s Backbone is a sorrowful dream of a film that I’ve never fully awoken from. Having grown up in the 1980s aligning myself with The Monster Squad, Little Monsters, and Clive Barker’s affection for the Nightbreed, I never wanted to be a part of this grotesque human race. We’re the freaks to be feared, not those that go bump in the night. Ghost stories that make demons out of the spooks are wishful thinking. Guillermo del Toro is our geek champion of the macabre and absolutely understands the true terror of humanity. He uses the dead to remind us not only of our wretched past, but also the never-ending threat we pose to each other. In The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro gives an impassioned plea for the innocent and the lost. If enough of us listen to the sighs of our history, maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat it.

The Devil's Backbone Santi FloatingHowever, the film never got its proper due. Del Toro practically walked off the set of The Devil’s Backbone and right into filming Blade II, which was the necessary step to getting Hellboy financed. From there his fanboy status was triumphantly coronated. When he returned to the Spanish Civil War for the grief-soaked fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth, a proper fandom was finally ready to assign labels like “genius” and “masterpiece.” And here I was, this little hipster cineaste chirping, “I loved him first with The Devil’s Backbone.” Someone would inevitably out-cool me with, “Yeah, well, I was there at Cronos.” We’d high-five each other and attend every premiere screening of the next del Toro film, but we were always ready to chime in after the credits, “Gosh, it’s good, but it’s no Devil’s Backbone.” It’s hard to shut up about your first love. What’s the difference between passionate and obnoxious? Sure, we got our Criterion discs with their rad Mike Mignola covers, but that was pretty much the only recognition us OG fans ever got. Until now.

Devil’s Backbone fanatics, you are not alone. Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams have partnered up in celebration of Guillermo del Toro’s third feature film with their massive new coffee table book. Here are 160 pages of interviews, production art, character bios, storyboards, behind the scenes photos, and deep dive analysis from the cast and crew that crafted the film. This is no mere collection of DVD special features. It’s not just a tribute, or a library addition to impress your friends. This book is concocted with as much love as any other piece of art. Here is a confident proclamation that The Devil’s Backbone belongs next to cinema’s grandest achievements. Sit down, crack it open, pay attention.

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“The Devil’s Backbone is director Guillermo del Toro’s first masterpiece. It also marks the moment when del Toro truly became del Toro, a filmmaker who knows popular genres inside and out but is never content just to work within their conventions.”

In the forward, Guillermo del Toro describes the period after making Mimic over at Miramax as a state of limbo. The book hints but never revels in the gory details of his dealings with The Weinsteins. The juicy gossip can be found elsewhere, but the pertinent point is that there was a brick wall he couldn’t quite scale in Hollywood. He describes himself as “too weird for full-on summer fare, too in love with pop culture for the art house world, and too esoteric for hardcore fandom.” He’s a proud weirdo, as worthy of a Basil Gogos painting as Frankenstein’s monster, but could the market support such a portrait?

Seitz and Abrams spend a good chunk of their book setting the scene for the film’s creation. Before The Devil’s Backbone pulled him from oblivion, del Toro was facing the end of a career that had barely begun. In swoops Pedro Almódovar (Talk To Her, All About My Mother) to supply some confidence and much needed funding. Artist saved by artist. Del Toro simultaneously tackled his spook story alongside a Western adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and as his father’s kidnapping…yes, you read that right…his father’s kidnapping. That mad story is held till the end of the book, but the details of which will not only give you a greater appreciation for the final product, but also a damn good, terrifying laugh.

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“If you are a humanistic filmmaker – if you are ultimately in favor of individuals – it comes across in your films. If you see every John Carpenter movie, they are misanthropic meditations, all of them. They are ultimately the work of a very deeply disillusioned but very angry, two-fisted, red-blooded American. He has a feistiness in him that is undomesticated.”

Del Toro enjoys discussing the films of others as much as his own, probably even more so. He’s thrilled to pull you down the rabbit hole of his influences, tittering at the adventurous and repressed sexuality found within the work of Hitchcock and Buñuel, or the rage boiling beneath every frame of Carpenter and Romero. For him, every film is a political statement. Yes, even Blade II. The simple act of where you place a camera to shoot a moment of violence reveals your political leanings. Shall we relish in the blood or recoil? You may have come to The Devil’s Backbone looking for a good fright, but you’ll walk away from the ordeal suffering the ache of regret. Here is a ghost that is sometimes scary, but never evil. The Other is not your enemy, it’s the The Known you have to worry about.

To say that every piece of The Devil’s Backbone is a bite torn from del Toro’s being would be a disservice to the countless others that contributed to the film. We meet them all here in the book: Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz, Javier Navarrete, Luis De La Madrid, Guillermo Navarro, Federico Luppi, Junio Valverde, Fernando Tielve, Marisa Paredes, and an army of others. Seitz and Abrams excel in giving witness to their profound efforts. Yet, not one of these artists would deny that they existed to realize their director’s vision. From the authors to the creators, this book is ultimately an exhaustive and loving appreciation of del Toro’s mad weirdo mind.

The conversation had between Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Zoller Seitz, and Simon Abrams represented within this book is the late night/early A.M. dinner you’ve always dreamed of being invited to but never will be. It’s also a massive validation to the fans who’ve idolized The Devil’s Backbone above all other ghost stories. You can quit being a jerk about your love, here’s all the proof that you’ll ever need.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.