It is hard to imagine two recent movies that advance the art of the horror film more than Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Danel Olson’s newest contribution to Centipede Press’ Studies in Horror Film series unwraps these two films with the love and care of an archeologist unrolling a rare scroll for the first time. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth: Studies in the Horror Film provides a panoramic review of these now iconic films. Guillermo Del Toro opens the volume by describing his two films of horror relating to the Spanish Civil War in a most humble manner:
“They are not triumphant chronicles – they are small tales of loss and melancholy.”
The tales may be small by the nature of the story being told, but the manner in which the tales were told is on an epic level. Anna Taborska’s To Capture a Ghost early in the book begins with the premise that “The ghost story is…the hardest subgenre of horror to write and direct.” Tracing the history of ghost films she brings the reader to the conclusion that The Devil’s Backbone may be one of the best films in the genre ever filmed. From the script to the point of view of the camera she relates how this “small tale” set in the grand cataclysm of the Spanish Civil War earns this status.
Dylan Trigg’s article “An Insect Trapped in Amber” explores how Del Toro’s treatment of the ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone “sheds light on the nature of hauntings more broadly.” Trigg describes the physical status of a ghost as similar to an insect trapped in amber. Neither real nor unreal; trapped between the realities of life and existence after life. William Rankin, in his article Defusing the Mythology of World War II discusses both films and how both the Spanish Civil War, with its Ernest Hemingway romanticism, and World War Two, with its stark demarcation of good and evil, have been portrayed in the cinema. Del Toro’s films focus on the lesser known war, but a war that most historians consider the precursor to the larger conflict. The films depict the innocence of children facing an unimaginable horror. They have no ability to understand the greater conflict around them. Trigg also discusses in fascinating detail the imagery used in Pan's Labyrinth as allegories of the purveyors of evil to come. The hand-eyed Pale Man who pursues Ophelia for the theft of a single grape, Trigg suggests, is a representation of the foreboding power of the Third Reich.
Olson’s tome, which appears to have had the loving approval and encouragement of Mr. Del Toro offers strong analysis of the music and art of both films. Olson’s own article Pleasing Fathers asks “How does a malefactor from cinema take a place in our imaginations, memories and nightmares?” While we all have grown to love the archetypal female villains of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, male villains create a different set of memories. With comparisons to the character Dr. Szell (portrayed by Laurence Olivier) in Marathon Man and Schindler’s List’s Anon Goeth (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) Olson studies
the villain Captain Vidal. The one common element of these villains Olson suggests is that they all possess “an absolute assurance that what he is doing is right.” They are the worst kind of evil – the righteous man who commits atrocities in the name of his righteousness. Vidal goes into the heart of darkness and like the infamous Mr. Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, is consumed by his destination.
Also in the book are wonderful interviews by Olson, Mari-Carmen Marin and others of the cast and crew. In the interviews we don’t just learn what each of the actors or crew members were thinking when they took part in the film. We also hear from their point of view how Del Toro crafted and created these marvelous films. In the end, Centipede’s Studies in Horror series is not a collection of thoughts on any particular movie. The series is an exploration of the art of film and the impact on society from the best made horror films. Olson’s book is a wonderful addition to the series and deserving of praise.