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October 25, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

the-devil's-backbone

From comic book films like “Hellboy” to the blockbuster action of “Pacific Rim” to the majestic fantasy of his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” Guillermo Del Toro has proven himself to be one of the best genre directors of the 21st Century. It was certainly difficult to pick one film for Del Toro for the book as most of his films have some horror element. Yes, even his Academy Award-winning feature “The Shape of Water” has a touch of horror about it even although it is mainly a romantic-fantasy.

Del Toro frequent mixing of genre also makes it difficult to establish which of his films you consider to be horror. From his 21st Century filmography, there is two that stand out as being horror films this film and “Crimson Peak.” Between these two it was easy to pick which one should be included on the list. Your writer here would like to state before continuing that I consider “Crimson Peak” to be nowhere near as bad as many people claim. There is much fun to be had with that films brand of overblown Gothic horror, and performance-wise Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston make for an impressive triumvirate.  However, suffice to say it is nowhere near as good as “The Devil’s Backbone.”

Tragic to think then the movie was nearly never made. The reason for this was partly that Del Toro was considering giving up filmmaking after his bruising first Hollywood experience on the Weinstein produced “Mimic.” On that movie, he frequently clashed with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and felt the film had been taken out from under him. The other reason was he could not getting fund for the story in its original form (then set during the Mexican Revolution) which he pitched to the Mexican Film Institute. The film institute rejected it on the grounds it was “too big” of a film. The movie was however saved with the intervention of Pedro Almovodar. Almovodar had admired Del Toro’s work and had passingly said to the director if he ever wanted to make a film in Spain he would produce. In 1997, Del Toro “took a chance and wrote to Pedro and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’”[1].. He did indeed, and the rest as they say is his history.

 

The change of filming location did not alter the plot too much, but the backdrop of the story did move from being the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. The plot focuses on Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who finds himself at a leftist orphanage following the death of his father. Carlos soon discovers that the orphanage is haunted and hides some dark secrets.

Given a quick synopsis “The Devils Backbone” may seem like a regular ghost story but this is Del Toro we are talking about and as is usual with his films things are not that straightforward. Far from being your regulation haunted house pic, this films mixes horror with drama, coming-of-age and Western elements with John Ford’s “The Searchers” being one of Del Toro’s touchstones during the film. The Western influence is strong throughout with many of the outdoor shots being composed like a Western, and the orphanage itself is made to look like one of those barricaded forts seen in so many Westerns.

Like with many a Del Toro it is not the supposed monster, in this case, the ghost that is the villain here but human cruelty, the cruelest character being Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Even this character though is not without his sympathies. His actions are frequently despicable and grow more so as the film goes so you actively cheer on his demise, but there are also times you can see Jacinto is a man still viciously lashing out against festering childhood wounds. That is one of the critical strengths of the movie all the key players are given psychological depth and believable motivations in a way often missing in mainstream horror.

Jacinto not the ghost child Santi (Andreas Munoz) may be the real threat in the movie, but that does not mean the ghost doesn’t look creepy, far from it. The design of Santi is very creepy indeed with his ashen white complexion (inspired by Sadako in “Ringu”), cracked porcelain-like face and the blood that emanates from a head wound like a mist. There also some eerily atmospheric scenes involving the ghost before we, the audience, realise he does not pose a threat. Particularly in an early scene where Carlos first catches sight of him in lower reaches of the Orphanage building.

As well as the design of the ghost being outstanding the overall design of the movie is equally gorgeous and gothic. The film’s budget was actually only 3-4 million Euros, but from the look of it, you would imagine that the budget was far higher than that which is a testament to both Del Toro as a filmmaker and the skill of his crew.

The design is not the only outstanding element though as there also many great performances here. Notably from Del Toro favourite Federico Lupe as the kindly Professor Casare. Also in fine form is Marissa Paredes as head of the orphanage Carmen, Eduardo Noriega as the aforementioned Jacinto as well as Fernando Tielves who is excellent as the young protagonist Carlos.

Upon release the film was not met with quite the same adulation as its sister picture “Pans Labyrinth“ (Which Del Toro recommends you watch with this film) it was still met overwhelmingly positive reviews and was a modest box office success. As mentioned earlier Del Toro’s career would go from strength to strength from here culminating, of course, in his Oscar win for “The Shape of Water.” However, this film still ranks as one of the visionary filmmakers finest and up until recently was the one that Del Toro himself cited as his favourite amongst his works.


[1] All Guillermo Del Toro quotes taken from “Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone” by Matt Zoller and Simon Abrams

October 11, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: American Psycho (2000)

Christian-Bale_American_Psycho_hip-to-be-square

​When the novel “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis was released in 1991 it came out to a hailstorm of controversy. As it would turn out the cinematic version would be no different. In fact long before it was released in cinemas in 2000 the project went through various controversies. In some ways it is surprising it reached the screen at all with producer Edward R. Pressman originally buying the property in 1992 and turning various scripts over the years before settling on the script of eventual director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. This process included a script by Ellis himself which Pressman described as “completely pornographic and ending with a musical number”[1] and as interesting as that sounds it is easy to see why they did not go in that direction.

Settling on script, director and lead star Christian Bale did not end the productions troubles. First there was the wrangling with studio who thought the project needed a starrier lead which led to Leonardo Dicaprio been thrust on to the director much to her annoyance. It is easy see why as while in his current vintage it is possible envisage DiCaprio in the part, let’s face it his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a thousand miles away, back then in his post-Titanic period  he would have been ridiculous in the part. Harron well knew this but her objections only led to her being sidelined, and Oliver Stone put in her place as director. Again as great a director as Stone is satire is not really his forte and given the usual standard of his female characters you figure the film might have ended up in even more hot water than it eventually did. Both Harron and Bale held tight as they felt this version would inevitably fall through which it duly did and saw them both return to the project.

Given the events leading up to the shoot it is not surprising that the shoot itself was set with difficulty. Not that this had to do with on-set issues but more to do with outside factors such as brands mentioned in the movie pulling out or distancing themselves from it or various people trying to have the production shut down with feminist icon Gloria Steinman prominent amongst them. Another prominent thorn in the side of Harron during production was C-CAVE (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) who linked the novel to the case of notorious Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo. This was due to a copy of the novel being discovered on his bedside table upon his arrest. Although the copy of the novel was later thought to be owned by his wife rather than the barely literate Bernardo. The group also threatened to protest the filming throughout. In the end these protests never came to fruition however that did not stop the protests becoming part of the films myth. As Harron wryly points out “As so often happens, a tabloid frenzy had been mistaken for real life.” [2]

The tabloid frenzy did not abate when the movie was released. This frenzy is more connected with the times than the movie itself as this was 2000 and Post-Columbine there had been much debate about the influence of certain movies and musicians. The movie itself is not the gorefest or the exercise in torture porn you would expect if you were just reading the headlines of the time. For one up until near the end there is not a great deal of gore. Also while there are bloody set-pieces that is not the main thrust here. The movie is more focused on satirising the vanity, greed and obliviousness of this gilded class of Wall Street traders. The central joke being Bateman could get away with committing these murders under everyone’s nose as long as he follows the social conventions of high society. Then again did he commit the murders? While the novel makes it very ambiguous whether he is a murderer or just a sociopath with homicidal tendencies the movie seems to explicitly state it is latter before confusing things with the final scene. Whether or not the murders happen has been a matter of keen debate amongst horror fans ever since.

In the end it does really matter what side of the debate you fall down on as it does little to take away from this excellent. There are several stand-out moments but this personal favourite is the “Hip to Be Square” scene in which Bateman bloodily butchers Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News. This is a scene of perfectly pitched black comedy and is emblematic of the film generally with it mixtures of nasty violence and jet-black. Not an easy balancing act but one that Harron manages exceedingly well. It is a great scene for Bale to show off his acting chops too as he progressively becomes more unhinged during his monologue on Huey Lewis before going completely beserk at the end, only to casually sort himself and light a cigar once the deed is done.

It is ironic that many movie insiders had told Bale the film would be “career suicide” as it turned out to be quite the opposite. As while the feature itself got a mixed critical reception Bale was unanimously praised his performance and, as you will know, went on to much bigger things on the back of it. Most of the criticism focused on the ironic gaze of the violence, misogyny and the satire being repetitive. The latter element is partially true as the story does make some of the same points about 80s materialism and greed culture repeatedly. In terms of the other criticism this seems unfair as the view of the violence is dispassionate as we the viewer are seeing these act through the lens of Bateman but never does the film empathise with that view and there is still scenes that are properly shocking. Similarly while there is a lot of misogyny on display the film never feels itself misogynistic. In fact Harron is clearly satirising misogyny.

In terms of legacy “American Psycho” spawned a truly terrible direct-to-video sequel and there was a mooted TV series that never got made. Funnily enough the former initially had nothing to do with “American Psycho” and was then retconned into being a sequel which is only notable for starring a young Mila Kunis and weirdly William Shatner. Thankfully not many people know about the sequel leaving the films real legacy as being one of the first great horrors of the 21st Century as well being a great snapshot on male narcissism (something that feels even more relevant now).


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/mar/24/fiction.breteastonellis

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/09/movies/film-the-risky-territory-of-american-psycho.html


October 9, 2019

Review: In Search of Darkness

In Search of Darkness

Given the current cultural obsession with the 1980s and the amount of 80s throwback horror movies that have come out in the last few years, it feels like there is no better time to look back on the decade that many (although should be said not all) consider as horror's finest.

​This is precisely what this documentary sets out to do over its gargantuan 258-minute running time as it goes chronologically through each year of the decade, highlighting a number of the most notable horror films of each year. Director David Weiner tells this story through an impressive array of talking heads including iconic horror directors (John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon etc.) and stars (Babara Crampton, Doug Bradley, Heather Langenkamp, Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley etc, etc.) as well as other luminaries from the horror business. Plus, several horror pundits culled from a host of horror magazines, websites, TV shows, and podcasts and, somewhat randomly, Slipknot lead singer, Corey Taylor. 

​The talking head format can often feel a bit rote nowadays, but when the roster of talking head is this impressive, then it is hard to quibble, and the vast majority of contributors are insightful and interesting. Some particular standouts are Tom Atkins, who ​provides the possible highlight of the documentary with his rendition of the Silver Shamrock theme from Halloween III and Larry Cohen, who undoubtedly has the funniest on-set stories.

​Not only does the film tell the story of 80s horror by going through films from each year but also goes is into many side topics, including why we watch horror? The most iconic villains of the 80s, the role of special effects in horror, how the genre reflected the times, and much more. Ironically given the length of the documentary, it feels like none of these topics are given enough time to breathe fully, and each topic could have probably filled a documentary on their own. ​Despite this, each is interestingly dealt with by the assembled contributors. And listening to the likes of Crampton, Langenkamp, Caroline Williams (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet), Lori Cardille (Day of The Dead) and Robbi Morgan (Friday the 13th) debate the role of women in horror and whether 80s horror nudity went too far makes for particularly fascinating viewing.

The undoubted attraction of the film, though, is the discussion of ​ the decades' classics ​ from The Shining to The Thing to Hellraiser to Re-Animator to Evil Dead II, etc. from many of the people who made them. Plus, we get all of the 80's entries in the Halloween, Friday the 13th (bar Part 5), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (bar Part 2) franchises. The film selection overall highlights the most iconic pictures of the decade, but sometimes the choices seem a little screwy or at least in part influenced by the talking heads they have brought together.

Of course, drawing up a definitive list is difficult, and there will always be quibbles over what's included and what's not. But there are some notable absentees such as "The Hitcher," "Street Trash," "Maniac Cop," "Bad Taste" ​and "Prince of Darkness" (Particularly odd given we have Carpenter talking about every other horror he made in the 80s) to name a few. Also, it would be fair to say this is a mostly US-centric look at the genre of this era. As all of the great Italian horrors of the 80s' is completely ignored, as are other European classics such as "Possession."

None of which discredits the project but simply highlights just how impossible a task it is to cover all of 80s horror and its cultural underpinnings in a single documentary. But as impossible as it may be, Weiner and his assembled cast of contributors have made a more than admirable attempt at it. And in the end, it mostly does what it sets out to do in providing us with quite probably the most comprehensive look at 80s horror to date.

Overall: ​A thoroughly entertaining documentary that provides a treasure trove of fun anecdotes and insightful analysis for hardened horror hounds. The only real downside is it would have been better as 10-part miniseries. 

​7/10

​"In Search of Darkness" is available for pre-order here

​You can also watch the trailer for it here