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: Moxy Früvous

I’ve been watching The Sing-Off lately, which is NBC’s a cappella singing competition, and it’s reminded me of one of my favorite a cappella groups: Moxy Früvous.

Well, okay, they’re not exactly an a cappella group, though they had many a cappella songs. And I’m not even sure they really belong in Forgotten Friday, because I’m sure up in their native Canada they’re not at all forgotten. However, Moxy Früvous was never really well known down here in the States, and therefore I feel they’re worth writing about.

Moxy Früvous formed in 1989 and was very active in the 1990s before finally calling it quits in 2000. The group had four members, Jian Ghomeshi, Murray Foster, David Matheson and Mike Ford, and came together in Toronto. They released their first album, Bargainville, in 1993 and followed it up with a new album nearly every year.

It’s very easy to compare Moxy Früvous to their fellow Canadians, the Barenaked Ladies. After all, both groups were known for their folk pop sound and their quirky sense of humor. Certainly, Moxy Früvous were often unapologetically silly onstage, recording songs about Spanish kings living undercover in Canada and setting Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to music. But Früvous had a political side as well. They had no problem criticizing Canadian politicians in songs like “Big Fish” or examining the futility of war in the beautiful “Gulf War Song.”

But for my money, where they really shined was in their harmonizing. It’s rare that pop groups can harmonize flawlessly, but Moxy Früvous could layer their songs like a barbershop quartet, and frequently did, bringing warmth and texture to their sound…and fun.

It’s a shame I didn’t discover the group until well after they broke up. Consider me one of the many hoping that they’ll reunite one of these days. Can you blame me? After all, this is what they sounded like…

The nearly a cappella “King of Spain” was their first hit. Just try getting it out of your head!

The other side of Früvous. The haunting, tragic “Drinking Song.”

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…