Devil's Backbone

"The Devil's Backbone" (2001)
Produced by Pedro Almodovar and shot entirely on a micro-budget in Spain, "The Devil's Backbone" marked a return to del Toro's roots after the studio clusterfuck that was "Mimic" (an experience del Toro was wary to repeat) and would serve as the precursor to his most widely accepted film, "Pan's Labyrinth." What nobody dares acknowledge, however, is that "The Devil's Backbone" is just as good as "Pan's Labyrinth," a deeply existential meditation on the nature of war that takes place in a orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. As a piece of imagery so on-the-nose that it can't help but resonate, an unexploded aerial bomb sits in the courtyard of the orphanage, forcefully lodged in the earth, waiting to go off. And since the words "directed by Guillermo del Toro" appear on "The Devil's Backbone," it should also be noted that there is a ghost, supposedly the spectral remains of a young boy who went missing on the day that the bomb landed. "The Devil's Backbone" is a deeply uneasy movie, with a palpable atmosphere so thick you could carve it into slices, smash it between two pieces of bread, and have it for lunch, beautifully shot by del Toro's frequent collaborator Guillermo Navarro and featuring the kind of moments that aren't just memorable; they're downright haunting. Hopefully some of "The Devil's Backbone's" cred will be restored when a deluxe edition comes out later this month courtesy of our friends at the Criterion Collection. It might not be as ornate or magical as "Pan's Labyrinth," but it's every bit as emotionally powerful and visually stunning. The two are obvious companion pieces, set at roughly the same place at roughly the same historical point, and equals in terms of quality as well. Those who have never seen it are best served by waiting for this new edition. It'll be worth it. [A]    

"Pan's Labyrinth"
"Pan's Labyrinth"

Pan's Labyrinth” (2006) 
If Guillermo del Toro were to suddenly die tomorrow, sad as that would be, he’d have a strong legacy simply because of this film, his masterpiece. This is the film where the writer/director, whose style has always been a delicate balance between arthouse and mainstream, found that sweet spot between cool genre exercise and deeply affecting, hard-earned emotional drama, and it proves to be the perfect melding for his talents. Closest in tone and style to “The Devil’s Backbone,” but in place of ghosts there’s a brooding fairy tale adventure with memorable monsters and brutal violence (as far as memorable head smashing scenes in cinema go, there’s “Irreversible,” “Drive” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” at the top). Del Toro has said in interviews that he’s dreamed of the faun character since he was a boy, and that personal touch is noticeable even amidst a grand narrative set against the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war in 1944. While most English speaking moviegoers seem afraid of subtitles, this is a film we feel confident in saying could be enjoyed by even those folks who swear they don’t like reading at the movies. There’s an elegance to the filmmaking we’ve not seen from del Toro, before or after, that is a joy to behold. The gorgeous visuals truly transport the viewer to another place and time, and we’d be lying if we didn’t admit the ending completely destroys us every time, wholly satisfying yet leaving us with a puddle of tears to mop up. Cliched as it is to use the term movie magic, it feels apt when talking about “Pan’s Labyrinth.” [A]

While these are the only movies del Toro has technically directed, his distinct hand has been hard at work elsewhere, producing and supervising a number of projects, most recently this year's sleeper horror hit "Mama" and serving as a creative consultant on DreamWorks Animation's "The Croods" (where del Toro has a standing contract as a "creative consultant" and executive producer for all of the studios' animated films). Del Toro also had a huge hand in 2011's remake of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," which he co-wrote and produced and along with Joel Silver helped the wonderful sci-fi oddity "Splice" get distributed. In between "Hellboy" features, del Toro oversaw a pair of pretty decent animated follow-ups that featured most of the movie's cast ("Hellboy: Sword of Storms" and "Hellboy: Blood and Iron"). Del Toro also served as a producer on Alejandro González Iñárritu's genuinely amazing "Biutiful" and (along with Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón) produced Spanish-language sports comedy "Rudo Y Cursi." In a more nebulous "creative consultant" capacity, del Toro also contributed to George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" and Jon Favreau's multi-million-dollar whats-it "Cowboys & Aliens." He can also be heard, for some reason, as the voice of a partygoer in the James Bond outing "Quantum of Solace." So there's also that. - Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor