It’s an old cliche that Hollywood takes the hard work of creative people and squeezes all of the originality and innovation and intelligence out of it, to dumb it down for the mass market. I never really believed it, though: instead of this big, faceless, creativity-sucking entity, isn’t it easier just to assume that some people just aren’t as talented as others? If a movie like National Treasure is all Hollywood’s fault, then how do movies like The Life Aquatic and Adaptation and Miller’s Crossing get made?
But I’m starting to think that cliche might have something to it, the more movies I see from Guillermo del Toro. This weekend I watched The Devil’s Backbone. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it was made in Spain. And unlike Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy, it was very good. Original, innovative, intelligent, and above all, uncompromising. So either del Toro’s talent has been wasted by Hollywood, or he only knows how to make movies set around the Spanish Civil War.
The movie’s weird, not even so much for what it shows but for how it kept turning into something other than what I’d expected. Before it started, I’d thought it was going to be like The Orphanage, another Spanish movie set in a haunted orphanage. But it’s much more interesting than The Orphanage, and it’s a period piece, and it’s not really a ghost story. Except it kind of is, except for when it veers off into melodrama, or character study, or coming-of-age tale. Plus, there’s an explosion.
You can tell that del Toro’s a fan of Mike Mignola, or at least why he’s a fan if he weren’t already before making this movie, because there’s that same feeling of simple stories interwoven with the gothic and gruesome and just plain strange. If I were to describe just the plot, it wouldn’t sound all that compelling, but then you watch the movie and there’s something interesting going on in just about every scene.
The new kid at the orphanage meets the principal — who’s got a half-wooden, half-metal prosthetic leg. He finds a father figure in the kindly old science teacher — who keeps fetuses in glass jars and drinks the liquid when no one’s looking. And he runs into the orphanage’s spooky ghost — who’s called “the one who sighs” by the other kids, and who has a constantly-bleeding wound from the crack in his skull, and is always surrounded by particulate matter as if he were still underwater.
The Devil’s Backbone turned me into a bona fide fan of Guillermo del Toro, and I wish I’d seen it sooner, and now I’m really, really looking forward to Hellboy II this summer. The best I can say about the first Hellboy movie is that it was clear del Toro was a big fan, and while the movie didn’t add much to the character or even really capture the spirit of the comics, it had some good ideas and didn’t do anything awful. But the trailers for the sequel seem to have a better feel for what it is that makes Hellboy cool.
Plus, del Toro’s riding on the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, so I’m thinking he’s got enough clout that he can stand up to the nefarious Hollywood talent-suppression field, and make an American Big Summer Blockbuster that’s as cool as the ones he’s made in Spanish.
Devil’s Backbone is a great movie, we stumbled across it at some artsy small theater in San Francisco. It got me all excited about the first Hellboy, only to be disappointed. Now Pan’s Labyrinth has me excited about Hellboy 2. Maybe Hellboy 2 will cause him to go back to Spain and make another cool Spanish Civil War horror film before he makes the Hobbit. ( still hoping that Hellboy 2 will be fun )
I would recommend listening to the commentary, if you are into such things…and if you haven’t mailed it back to Netflix yet. Hearing the reasons behind Del Toro’s choices adds a whole new level of enjoyment (same goes for the Pan’s Labyrinth commentary, too).
Hey I loved Hellboy and Blade II! Hellboy actually felt like a comic which most of these Hollywood comic movies fail at miserably. I also agree with Jeff, Del Toro’s DVD commentaries are probably the best out there. I particularly loved him making fun of David Goyer’s writing on the Blade II DVD.