Forgotten Friday: The Devil’s Backbone

What I recall about The Devil’s Backbone is how much its release surprised me. This curiously overlooked flick was the third film directed by Guillermo del Toro, and after the disappointing performance of his debut English-language film, Mimic, it found the director returning to his native language of Spanish.

However, that’s only part of the story. At the time The Devil’s Backbone was released, it had been announced that Guillermo del Toro was directing the sequel to Blade and was also attempting to bring the popular comic Hellboy to the big screen. In other words, in geek circles, Guillermo del Toro was about as hot as you can get. He had a stellar reputation for horror and science fiction, and was about to apply it to two beloved comic book franchises. So when this deeply personal, subtitled ghost story hit theaters in the midst of all that, it kind of came as a surprise. It was unheralded, and I’m not sure the fanboys knew what to make of it. Why was del Toro filming low budget movies with unknown actors in foreign languages when he had just hit the big leagues?

Certainly, del Toro has his reasons. And we’re all the better for them as The Devil’s Backbone is one of the best films he’s ever directed. Watching it now, it serves as an excellent companion film to the far more popular and critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. Both films are set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and are told from the point of view of a child (a boy in The Devil’s Backbone and a girl in Pan’s Labyrinth—a
compelling difference). Both feature themes of innocence lost to the horror and desperation of war and both build their stories around supernatural elements. Therefore, it’s strange that far more people have seen and enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth than The Devil’s Backbone. It’s possible that Labyrinth’s highly original fantasy elements just caught the public’s attention in a way that Backbone’s more traditional ghosts could not. Certainly, the film wasn’t marketed anywhere near as well as del Toro’s later one. It’s also possible that filmgoers’ appetites for period ghost stories had been sated by The Others, the ghostly Nicole Kidman blockbuster that came out earlier the same year. (A shame, as it’s nowhere near as original, scary or emotionally moving del Toro’s flick.)

Whatever the reason, Pan’s Labyrinth grossed nearly $40,000,000 in its theatrical run, while The Devil’s Backbone couldn’t even muster up a million.

If you haven’t seen the film and you consider yourself a fan of del Toro’s work, you really owe it to yourself to rent it. Especially if you consider Pan’s Labyrinth one of his best films, because as much as I love the imagination and human terror that movie brought to the screen, I think The Devil’s Backbone works far better as a story. Centered around a young boy who is brought to an orphanage after his father is killed in the war, The Devil’s Backbone is a story about coming of age in an environment that demands it as soon as possible, but offers absolutely no reward for doing so. No hope. No family. No future. All the boys at the orphanage really have is each other, and their friendship helps get them through some extremely trying circumstances, while righting a wrong that has been haunting one of the boys his entire life—and literally haunting the orphanage.

It’s not an easy film to sit through at times. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from revealing the horrors of war and the sort of human monsters it can create (who, like with Pan’s Labyrinth, are far scarier than any of the supernatural horrors shown in the film). However, the most uneasy element is simply the tone and atmosphere of the movie. This is an orphanage that could be utterly destroyed in conflict or by the cruel whim of a fascist general at any moment, and the silent, darkened, dead corridors and corners on display throughout the movie serve as a constant reminder of this. But no visual illustrates it better than the sight of a lone, unexploded bomb that sits half-buried in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard—a frightening weapon of mass destruction that was defused yet left to rust in the midst of playing children because the war effort couldn’t spare the time or effort it would take to haul it away.

The Devil’s Backbone is full of chilling images like this one, though for my money, none are better than the very final one. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say it’s nothing horrific or terrifying, and certainly nothing supernatural. It’s an image of youth heading into the unknown… Well, at least, it’s unknown for them. It’s a haunting image rather than a hopeful one because we know all too well what most likely awaits for them at the end of their journey.

It’s a final image that stays with you for weeks after you’ve seen it, much like the film as a whole.

You can check out the trailer for The Devil’s Backbone below:

Forgotten Friday: The Fisher King

I made a reference to The Fisher King in my last Forgotten Friday, and it occurred to me that it’s something of a “forgotten” film itself. The Fisher King was directed by Terry Gilliam in 1991, after he directed a string of high-budget, high-concept genre films that met with varying levels of success (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and he’s gone on record as saying he directed it because he wanted to do something smaller and with a more commercial script written by someone other than him. As a result, it’s probably the most grounded film he’s ever directed, which may be why many people seem to have forgotten about it. But that’s a shame because while it may be more entrenched in reality than many of his films, it’s still very much an example of Gilliam at his imaginative best.

The movie stars Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a former shock jock dealing professionally and mentally with the fact that some pointed comments he made to a caller on his show motivated the caller to go on a shooting spree in Manhattan, killing many innocent people…one of whom happens to be the wife of Williams’ character, Parry. After the death of his wife, Parry became catatonic and when he emerged, he’d lost grip with reality and now lives homeless on the streets of New York. After he saves Jack from being mugged, the pair strike up an unlikely relationship that begins out of a sense of obligation Jack feels he owes to Parry, but soon develops into true friendship.

Where Gilliam’s unmistakable touch comes in is in the way Parry views the world. He sees himself as a modern knight out to retrieve the Holy Grail from the man he believes has taken it. He’s also tormented by a terrifying Red Knight who reveals himself to Parry every time he does something brave or confident. It’s the Red Knight, a stunning visual representation of the guilt and grief Parry feels over his wife’s death, that’s responsible for Parry’s inability to reenter society.

The Fisher King is a true dramatic comedy. There are moments of pure hilarity and moments of true poignancy and pathos, and I still can’t watch the last act without tearing up. True, it does idealize the problem of homelessness. The homeless characters in the film seem like playful deviants who are homeless simply because they live their lives a little differently than others, and to be honest, at times it makes their lives look more appealing than the characters who don’t live on the streets. But this isn’t meant to be a breakdown of our nation’s homeless problem. This is a movie about grief, friendship and forgiveness, and at that it’s a stunning success. It features two knockout performances from Bridges and Williams and it ends with them lying naked in Central Park. What more could you want?

Check out the trailer to The Fisher King below:

Forgotten Friday: Dreamchild

It’s been a while since my last edition of Forgotten Friday, so let’s take another trip down the rabbit hole…

It surprises me how many Jim Henson fans have never heard of Dreamchild. While technically not a Jim Henson film, Dreamchild arrived in 1985, right in between Jim Henson’s two seminal works of fantasy, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and it represents an important step between the two.

As everyone familiar with his work knows, Jim Henson really began pushing the limits of puppet technology in the 1980s, which resulted in a Renaissance of creativity from Jim Henson and his team that continued even after his death. Much of this is due to the formation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the workshop that Jim Henson created in the wake of The Dark Crystal to design and fabricate puppet-based characters that were far more elaborate than the Muppet and Fraggle-like hand puppets which most people were familiar with at that time.

Dreamchild was the first movie the Creature Shop worked on that was not a Jim Henson film (they would later move on to contribute puppets and animatronics to movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Where the Wild Things Are, among many others). And is notable in that it’s actually the first time any of Jim Henson’s fantasy characters interacted believably with human actors, a process he would go on to perfect with Labyrinth.

Dreamchild is inspired by the work and life of Lewis Carroll, but it’s not a retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Rather, it’s a fictionalized account of the life of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Lewis’ Alice. Set primarily in New York in the 1930s, the now elderly Alice has arrived to receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University on behalf of Charles Dodgson (the real-life Reverend who wrote under the pen name, Carroll). It proves to be a challenging trip for Alice, who is overwhelmed by the pace and size of the city and frequently finds herself escaping into memories of her life with Rev. Dodgson.

But that’s not all. Alice also occasionally slips into moments of fantasy where she’s confronted by many of Carroll’s creations, and as the film goes on, you must wonder if the distinction between reality and fantasy is starting to slip in Alice’s mind. I don’t want to give anything else away, but suffice to say that Dreamchild is a complex, occasionally uncomfortable film that deals with a very complicated relationship and the equally complicated task of maturing and accepting faults in yourself and others.

Of course, it’s the Wonderland creatures for which Jim Henson’s team is responsible, and they’re every bit as engaging, bizarre and fun as anything in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – but with a bite that’s uniquely their own. The creatures in Dreamchild lack the humor and warmth of the ones in Labyrinth, or the intricate societies of the ones in The Dark Crystal. They’re actually pretty malevolent – Carroll’s creations turned even more nightmarish – and serve as an interesting set of demons for Alice to overcome.

I worry about taking the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth comparisons too far, however. Dreamchild is a very different film from either of them. I’d compare it more to a movie like Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. It uses fantasy to illustrate one character’s disassociation from reality (and if you haven’t heard of The Fisher King…well, maybe that should be a topic of a future Forgotten Friday). However, differences aside, it’s a film that fans of The Jim Henson Company, Lewis Carroll, or good character-based drama shouldn’t miss.

Check out the trailer below…

Scott Pilgrim vs. Uninterested Moviegoers

So Scott Pilgrim bombed…?

You know, I can’t really say I’m surprised. After the perceived failure of Kick-Ass earlier this year, I figured the equally quirky and unique Scott Pilgrim would also be doomed to cult status. I have friends at Oni Press and great respect for Bryan Lee O’Malley, so I kept those thoughts largely to myself lest I be seen as a faith-lacking naysayer, but I gotta be honest…I saw this coming.

And I have a pretty good idea what’s coming next. After the underperformance of so many comic book movies based on lesser known titles this year (in addition to Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass, we also had The Losers and Jonah Hex…we’re yet to see how Red performs, which releases next month), Hollywood’s going to start losing interest in any graphic novel title that isn’t Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. At least until one of studios down the line takes a risk and manages to turn a profit adapting one of them, and then the cycle will gradually start all over again.

I have no doubt the comic book blogs and discussion boards are going to have a field day with this over the course of the week, pointing out that moviegoers prefer their comic book flicks old fashioned and comfortable rather than challenging, stylish, deconstructive or satirical. I’ll let them handle that discussion. To me, what’s more interesting is that they feel a need for the discussion in the first place. When it comes to popcorn flicks, dumb and formulaic always wins out. And I say that as someone who often enjoys the hell out of dumb and formulaic movies. When I want to see stuff blow up on screen accompanied by predictable twists and familiar dialogue, it really doesn’t matter if the source material is a comic book, an animated series, an old TV show or movie, or an original story.

In fact, it doesn’t even matter if it’s based on a bestselling novel. The Road was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah Winfrey-endorsed Cormac McCarthy book, and it grossed less domestically in its entire run than Scott Pilgrim grossed this weekend. The Kite Runner made just a little more than $15 million despite an awards push from its distributor, while Everything is Illuminated grossed less than $2 million. When you look at the numbers, you see that moviegoers don’t strictly ignore movies based on acclaimed graphic novels, they’re just as keen to ignore ones based on highly praised novels as well. (And I do find it amusing that no one questions the validity of prose novels as cinematic source material when a movie based on a book bombs. I’m not sure why that spotlight is currently directed at comics.)

The problem isn’t with the source material and it’s not with the medium it was derived from. The problem is the audience, and Hollywood’s continual inability to understand what they respond to. Readers react to different things than filmgoers. They’re drawn to different material. And it’s really not that difficult to figure out when a novel has film potential—it reads like a movie. Harry Potter is remarkably visual and cinematic, The Da Vinci Code all but includes slug lines, Michael Crichton used to work as a screenwriter and director, and his books read like they were written by someone envisioning them on the big screen. And of course, comic books like Iron Man and The Avengers are all really visual.

Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe studio execs, who have been so blinded by dollar signs I think their vision may have degraded to the point where actual reading is impossible, hear the words “comic book” and assume that what they’re optioning is ready made for the big screen. After all, comic book pages are kinda like storyboards, right?

Well, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t read like a movie. It reads like a comic book. And judging by the comic’s current placement on Amazon and the New York Times Graphic Novel list, that’s the way most people out there would prefer to experience it.

That said, did any of you see the movie? What did you think? I’m particularly curious about anyone who hasn’t read the comic book, or possibly went to see it unaware that it was based on one.