Now, far be it from me to say that Jackie’s in a rut, but two weeks in a row she brings us two Guillermo Del Toro movies and two shorts from Short of the Week! Then again, some ruts are worse than others, and this particular rut worked out pretty well.
The short (Tenacious D: To Be the Best) turned out to be a bit of a promotional video for Tenacious D’s upcoming album “The Rise of the Fenix”. Tenacious D, for those who don’t know, is a two-man faux raunch-rock “band” comprised of Jack Black and the far-less-famous Kyle Gass, who probably reached their peak on their first album with the metal parody “Tribute“. The short itself is funny, and it has Val Kilmer in it (at least briefly) but it won’t change your life. Feel free to confirm or deny that assertion below. Also feel free to check out the incredibly suggestive “Fenix” cover, but you’ll have to wait to the end.
As for the feature film. The first thing I can say from watching El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) is that in combination with Pan’s Labyrinth, it appears that director Guillermo Del Toro has a bizarre Spanish Civil War fetish. In fact, I’m kind of relieved that he stepped away from the Hobbit project, lest Bilbo find Generalissimo Francisco Franco sleeping upon a mound of treasure inside the Lonely Mountain.
The film starts with a voiceover:
What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.
I suppose it’s not the most profound narration but at least it sets us up for the ghost story (as opposed to the “horror film” it is sometimes billed as) that follows, where we get not one but two ghosts!
From there we see the “confusing opening montage” which involves the dropping of a bomb, the death of a child and the deposition of a body in some water, all of which we know perfectly well will get explained eventually.
The bomb, it turns out, is a part of the Spanish Civil War and happened to land in the middle of an orphanage, and then not explode. In the end, the bomb is problematic. First off, outside of a prominent visual presence, it plays no actual role in the film. Second, while it’s certainly plausible that during a bombing campaign a stray bomb might find its way into the courtyard of an orphanage in the middle of a city, it’s later revealed that the orphanage is 20 miles from the nearest town. That’s a big miss. You’re forced to conclude that somebody was intentionally bombing an orphanage, which really makes no sense from a strategic point of view.
The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares and his wooden-legged and widowed assistant Carmen. These two love each other, but like overshy teenagers they don’t do anything about it until it’s too late. Casares poses here next to rum-filled bottles of babies, victims of the titular disease wherein their spines are exposed at birth. Casares sells the rum in town as a cure for impotence, and partakes of it himself. Perhaps that’s a part of the star-crossed love, because I kind of doubt it works.
Early in the film, Carlos (the son of a combatant in the Spanish Civil War) is dropped off at the orphanage, not exactly knowing that he is an orphan. And really, if you’re just a soldier and you never intend to interact with the kid again, maybe it’s better NOT to tell him that daddy is dead before you drop him off. Could save you a lot hassle dealing with crying and emotions and stuff.
Every orphanage needs an orphantagonist, and the one here is Jaime. We eventually find out that he has a reason, but for starters he spends most of his time taking aggressions out on the befuddled Carlos, who has been assigned the bunk formerly belonging to the disappeared Santi. For instance, despite the fact that everybody knows that the orphanage is haunted by the mysterious Sospiro (“the one who sighs”), Jaime accuses Carlos of knocking over some water pitchers in the night and makes him go to the locked and haunted kitchen to replenish the supply.
There Carlos encounters the ghost of Santi (not exactly a spoiler as there aren’t any other missing kids who might be dead). Santi creeps Carlos out and says ominously, “Many of you will die!”. OK, first rule of being a ghost: If you want to warn people about impending doom that you can see coming, you should remember your two “S”es – be Soothing, and be Specific. Compare the utility of these two attempts. 1) “Booooo! Maaaany of youuuuu will dieeeee!” 2) “Hey, I’m not here to hurt you, but I thought you should know that Jacinto is going to burn down the orphanage and you really ought to try to stop him.” See? See how the second one might work a little better?
“Who is Jacinto?”, you might ask. Jacinto is a former denizen of the orphanage who has returned as a worker despite the fact that he has nothing but bad memories about the place. Why should that be? Incidentally, his fianceé Conchita is also helping out at the orpahange.
Jacinto also happens to be “making the beast with three legs” with orphanage-mistress Carmen despite the presence of his fianceé. Why in the world could that be? Well, it turns out that the orphanage acts as some sort of rebel gold clearinghouse, and has several bars of gold deposited in a safe. During their whoopee sessions, Jacinto steals key after key trying to find the one that actually works the safe. It’s the kind of arrangement that could go on until he finds the right key, except that Dr. Casares witnesses the execution of the soldiers who dropped off Carlos and, convinced that they’ve been ratted out, sets in motion preparations to abandon orphanage. Like the next morning.
Jacinto no longer has time to get the safe key through patience, so he blows up the orphanage in a Hollywoodesque fuel explosion. Sensible plan? I don’t know, but it’s what he does. He’s interrupted in the process by Conchita, who to her credit is not willing to countenance the deaths of the children regardless of everything else she’s been going along with all this time. She confronts him with a shotgun, accidentally wings him, and he flees as the place blows up.
Long story short – a bunch of orphans die, but I think only ones we didn’t meet, Carmen dies, Dr. Casares is heavily wounded and succumbs while on rifle vigil waiting for Jacinto’s inevitable return, and Conchita goes on the long walk for help only to be found and killed by Jacinto.
Somewhere along the line, Jaime admits that he saw Santi killed and thrown into a basement cistern by Jacinto after Santi found Jacinto trying the lock on the safe. So that whole opening montage is explained. Carlos makes some sort of peace with the ghost of Santi, who wants Jacinto brought to him in the basement.
When Jacinto finally does return, he and his buddies lock up the remaining orphans and search for the safe. The orphans, assuming that Jacinto will eventually kill them, set about sharpening sticks with broken glass, and their escape is effected when the ghost of Dr. Casares opens the locked door for them.
In the meantime, Jacinto has found the gold, hidden in a secret compartment in Carmen’s wooden leg. He fills his pockets with the heavy, heavy gold and then goes to check on the children. Finding them escaped, he is lured down into the basement, where he is stabbed with a pointed stick then shoved into the cistern. The gold weighs him down and he comes face to face with the decomposing body of Santi, which grips him tightly until he drowns. Ghosts getting revenge (if not release, as Casares’ ghost is still hanging around after the kids trek off alone to close the film).
The funny thing about this movie is that in retrospect, the plot is equal measures obvious and silly. But it’s such a well-done movie, so perfectly paced, and the screenplay is structured so well (outside of the problematic bomb), that it turns into a great movie despite the story maybe falling a bit short.