Monday, October 20, 2014

Comparison: The Devil's Backbone & Pan's Labyrinth

Halloween, my favourite holiday, is just around the bend. In honour of the age old end-of-harvest festival, I decided to watch a horror movie—for you, dear readers, for you. I, er...I don't like that particular film genre. At all. Bit of a wuss, when it comes right down to it. Being that the film in question was Guillermo del Toro’s The Devils's Backbone, though, I was more than willing to make an exception.

[Tangent: The same was true for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark when it first came out in cinemas back in 2010, and that turned out to be a big steaming pile of...well, it wasn't very good. The whole thing with the teeth supplied a week's worth of nightmare fuel. Still, it might be worth writing about the sheer fairy tale-esqueness present in a lot of del Toro's works. For instance, remember my "Ofelia & Little Red Riding Hood" post? Couldn't help but notice Sally fulfills the same role, as does Carlos from TDB. Another blog for another time, perhaps.]

During my viewing of The Devil's Backbone (2001), I noticed how many similarities it shares with Pan's Labyrinth (2006), so onto the comparison! Spoilers ahoy. Also, see my original post on PL here.

Both rated R for violence, language, and (in TDB) some sexuality.

Plot Overview

The Devil's Backbone: The story revolves around a young orphaned boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) whose father was recently killed during the ongoing Spanish Civil War. Forced to stay at a destitute orphanage, Carlos comes across "The One Who Sighs," AKA the ghost of the drowned Santi (Junio Valverde) who warns that "many of you will die." Uncovering Santi's murderer and a plot to steal Republican gold, Carlos bands together with his teachers and fellow orphans to rid the place of evil.

Pan's Labyrinth: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) where they will stay with her new stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Once there, she encounters a fantastical world and her true identity as Princess Moanna. She must undergo trials both real and figmental in order to make her way back to the Underworld Kingdom.

Notable similarities: Both plots have to do with children thrown into worlds with which they are unfamiliar and unhappy. Carlos and Ofelia's fathers are dead, each child exists in a world with supernatural tendencies, and both are made to do 'adult' things on their own. Each film carries a not-so-subtle dose of political and religious conflict, as well.


The Devil's Backbone: An orphanage in the middle of what looks like a desert in Spain during the civil war. The place is run down and spectacularly eerie, especially in the Pit where Santi hangs out, or even the courtyard with the big ol' defunct missile planted nose-first in the dirt. Everything has an amber tone, calling back the title sequence where Santi's blood fills the clay-rich water deposit and makes it look as though he is either frozen in amber or floating in amniotic fluid (like Dr. Casares' 'limbo water'). Gross, del Toro, gross.

Pan's Labyrinth: This one takes place just after the war. Ofelia is taken to an old mill house situated in a lush forest that is also home to an ancient labyrinth and, via a chalk-drawn door, the Pale Man's lair. One word: disturbing. Most every scene is tinted with green which helps get across a feeling of almost sacred nature. You should have left that part of the world untouched, Vidal.

Notable similarities: Carlos and Ofelia are driven to their respective new homes; you know, in a car. With the former there is a sense of entering into utter isolation while the latter gives audiences the impression that there are plenty of creatures hiding just out of sight.

Jacinto & Vidal looking a bit the worse for wear.


The Devil's Backbone: Apart from Carlos and Santi, there are a slew of other parentless boys including opponent-turned-friend Jaime (Íñigo Garcés). Other important characters include the amputee mistress of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the incredibly loyal and poetic Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), ever-dedicated Conchita (Irena Visedo), and the dubious Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). ♪ Guess which one's the baaaadie... ♫

Pan's Labyrinth: The guerrillas who fight against the Captain and his men are themselves like orphans, in a way. As for main characters, who can forget Mercedes (Maribel Verdú)? Once Ofelia's mother dies, this strong woman steps in and shows her true colours as a rebel loyalist. Then there are the preternatural beings of the film, including the faun and the Pale Man (both portrayed by Doug Jones). Ofelia's baby brother also plays a pivotal role.

Notable similarities: There is not one character lacking complexity. Oddly, the matriarchal figures in both stories are named Carmen, each film contains a kindhearted doctor, and the villainous arseholes are off the scale when it comes to acts of evil.


Notable similarities: The set design is accurate for each respective time period and does its job in supplying shivers. The same goes for costuming and the incredible makeup. Santi is a truly terrifying little kid given his zombie-like appearance, cracked skull, and, er...blood plume. Don't even get me started on why the Pale Man is one of the scariest movie monsters of all time. As for SFX, Pan's Labyrinth has a bit of a leg up given that it came out five years after TDB, but del Toro was smart and did not overdo anything so as to make it look campy. The musical score ups the creep factor in every way imaginable.

Jesus H Christ.


Notable similarities: Containing not so much iconic imagery as meaningful actions, both films feature a 'descent' by the protagonist into the unknown. Audiences' hearts race with the characters as there are two distinct 'My sole salvation lies just...out of...reach!' scenes, seemingly miles of dark, horrifying hallways, and main baddies who are brought down by their own egos and greed.


The Devil's Backbone: Happy/sad, highlighting the happy. The villain gets his and, while Santi's death toll predictions were correct, the remaining survivors leave the orphanage. Waving goodbye is the ghost of an old ally... "Europe is sick with fear, and fear sickens the soul." Dr. Casares

Pan's Labyrinth: Happy/sad, highlighting the sad. Vidal meets his end, but so does Ofelia. While she makes it to her Underground Kingdom and is surrounded by those she loves, the audience is left wondering if it was all just in her head.

Tearjerker Moments

The Devil's Backbone:
"Stay by my side as my light grows dim / as my blood slows down and my nerves shatter with stabbing pain / as my heart grows weak / and the wheels of my being turn slowly / Stay by my side / as my fragile body is racked by pain / which verges on truth / and manic time / continues scattering dust / and furious life bursts out in flames / Stay by my side / as I fade / so you can point to the end of my struggle / and the twilight of eternal days / at the low, dark edge of life..."
Pan's Labyrinth: When the Doctor (Álex Angulo) euthanizes the stutterer El Tarta (Ivan Massagué).

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