The Devil's Backbone is one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen. The irony is that the man who wrote and directed it is one of the sweetest guys I've ever met. Guillermo del Toro is a large man who reminds you of a Mexican Jerry Garcia. He's entertaining, has an astounding knowledge of film lore and, at his core, is a horror movie/comic book geek.
"I have a schizophrenic career," says del Toro, in town during last year's Toronto International Film Festival to talk about The Devil's Backbone. "I make one movie for Hollywood and one movie for myself."
He grew up in a strict Catholic environment in Guadalajara, Mexico. By the time he was 21, he had produced a film (Doña Herlinda And Her Son), and by the time he was 25, he was working as a makeup/special effects artist (and owned his own special effects company), producer and director for a Mexican TV series.
His first feature film, Cronos (1993), was a knockout Mexican vampire flick, but his follow-up, Mimic (1997), was a disappointing Hollywood horror film. He fought the studio to allow him to make Mimic scarier and less predictable, but was thwarted; licking his wounds, he returned to Mexico to make the amazing The Devil's Backbone (see review, page 77). Then he went back to Hollywood to helm this year's Blade 2.
"After I made Cronos, I agreed to do Mimic, and I thought, "What if Hollywood fucks with me?' And you know, they did fuck with me! But I learned a lot and I survived. I like both my careers. I like to operate heavy machinery and lose a couple of fingers and then go do my little handcrafted movies."
The Devil's Backbone is a very personal film for del Toro. Set in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, it focuses on a group of orphans living in a desolate desert orphanage.
The children have been abandoned by the rest of the world and are haunted by a ghost and terrorized by the handyman, when suddenly they discover that a treasure is hidden somewhere in the orphanage.
"One of the horrible memories from my childhood is seeing a child stabbed in a bathroom with the sharp end of a compass," remembers del Toro. "And I saw a child smashed against a pillar so he lost most of his front teeth. When the kids who did it were asked what happened, they said, "We were just playing.'
"This gave me a sense of mortality. I thought, "If these kids kill me, they won't even be punished. They'll say they were playing, and that's it.'
"I realized that there was a world of violence among children that adults don't legislate. That's one of the things I wanted to put in the movie, how the children end up legislating themselves."
What's amazing about del Toro is that he finds beauty in horror. His films are full of lyrical images; the ghost in The Devil's Backbone is a watery apparition whose bloody corpse shimmers and sparkles.
"I wanted him to be a beautiful, like a religious icon," says del Toro, taking out his journal. It's a leather-bound notebook full of his stunning drawings, mind-blowing pictures of the monsters and ghosts that inhabit his movies.
He's obviously enamoured of these creatures, so I want to know what actually scares him.
"The moment I met my wife in high school 19 years ago I learned what it meant to be afraid again," says del Toro. "As a child, what scared me was the death of my parents, and by the time I turned 16 I started not to give a fuck about anyone but me. Then I met my wife, and I began to feel really afraid of losing her.
"Love has that power." firstname.lastname@example.org
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz, produced by del Toro and Pedro Almodvar, with Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes. 106 minutes. A TVA Films release. Opens Friday (July 5) at the Royal Cinema. For review, see page 77. For complete schedule, see Rep Cinemas, page 87. Rating: NNNNN