Ghost Worlds


Working against generic convention, The Devil’s Backbone and In the Bedroom—two offbeat movies with interchangeable titles—conjure up the most emotionally devastating situations and, overly considerate of their viewers, attempt to exorcise loss with vengeance. In The Devil’s Backbone, a child is abandoned by his parents amid an atrocious civil war; in In the Bedroom, parents are bereft after the senseless murder of their only son.

The Devil’s Backbone—directed by the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, best known for his arty vampire flick Cronos and overblown genetic-horror tract Mimic—is an experiment in anti-fascist supernaturalism set late in the Spanish Civil War, shortly before the fall of Catalonia. Largely confined to a single, crumbling location, the movie is an expert, sunlit chiller audaciously predicated on an unquiet historical memory: “What is a ghost?” an introductory title asks. “A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again.” Different folks may find different tragic recurrences in the fall of the Spanish Republic. Del Toro is concerned mainly with the massacre of the innocent.

The movie opens with the newly (and unknowingly) orphaned Carlos, 12, deposited in a boys’ boarding school on a dusty, golden plain. This isolated institution, apparently run by leftists for the children of the Republican militia, is not exactly the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Still, the place is creaky with guilty secrets, hidden treasure, whispered warnings, and superstitious lore. Indeed, it’s transfixed by the miracle of its own existence—having miraculously survived a direct hit during an air raid. For all its dank basements and sinister corridors, the school is oriented around the unexploded shell partially buried in the central courtyard. The kids imagine the bomb to be alive, just as they know that their school is haunted by a pale little poltergeist—the restless spirit of a boy who died during the raid.

Less excessive and more atmospheric than del Toro’s earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone is bathed in an amber light that burnishes the image to a fine surface gloss. Its agenda is ambitious. Del Toro’s screenplay is a discomfiting mix of gothic thriller, boy’s adventure story, and political allegory. This visually coherent but thematically cacophonous universe seems analogous to the queasy clash of elements in a painting like Dalí’s Soft Construction With Boiled Beans (itself a reflection of the Spanish Civil War), with its lurid combination of representational and biomorphic forms positioned in a deep, desolate space. The elements can never completely be reconciled; the movie is uncanny primarily in its disjunction.

Searching for an appropriately mythic vocabulary for this material, del Toro has not abandoned his fondness for pulp. Rather than Cronenbergian body horror and insect fear, however, The Devil’s Backbone is well furnished with Buñuelian touches. In addition to some anti-clerical gibes, these range from the school’s one-legged headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and the jars of deformed stillborn babies that the kindly old school doctor, Cásares (Federico Luppi), keeps pickled in rum to the sadomasochistic oedipal triangle between these two parental figures and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the virile former student who serves as the school caretaker.

Is the filmmaker looking for a way to resuscitate the horror genre with new meaning, or is he trying to reanimate the nightmare of history? The correspondences between The Devil’s Backbone and Spain’s agony are far more general than specific—evidently, del Toro originally wanted to set the movie during a Mexican upheaval—but as the Republic disintegrates, the horror grows increasingly political. The movie’s scariest scene has Cásares witness Franco’s victorious forces summarily executing captured members of the international brigade. Once it becomes obvious that Spanish democracy is doomed, Carmen and Cásares seek to escape—not least from the increasingly fascistic Jacinto.

In the end, the school—long poised on the edge of extinction—comes to seem the Republic’s mournful ghost. Struggling against the dead hand of the past, The Devil’s Backbone naturally devolves into a revenge story, albeit a quasi-Marxist one. As the weak unite against the strong, history is not so much rewritten as reimagined.

The opening scene of Todd Field’s highly regarded first feature, In the Bedroom, has a pair of young lovers frisking in a dappled meadow, oblivious to unhappy fate. The movie, set in a coastal town in Maine, initially seems like a family idyll. The summer before Frank (Nick Stahl) leaves for college, he gets involved in a torrid affair with Nathalie (winsome Marisa Tomei), an older woman with two kids and a violently unstable ex-husband (William Mapother). Frank’s father (Tom Wilkinson), the local doctor, seems pleased to have Nathalie sashaying around the house; Frank’s disapproving mother (Sissy Spacek), a music teacher, has premonitions of disaster, and she’s right.

Dealing with the death of a child, In the Bedroom invokes and even dwells upon the heaviest of all emotional situations. Imprisoned in their respective solitudes—and the too cozy social mores of their small town—Frank’s parents can barely converse, let alone offer any consolation to each other. Their pain is complicated by the fact that the well-connected, insolently frosted-hair killer is clearly going to get off lightly for his crime. (Proof that the movie takes place in a parallel universe: No one ever mentions O.J. Simpson.)

At one point, The Devil’s Backbone defines a ghost as “an emotion suspended in time,” and so it is here. Frank’s parents are simultaneously haunted by the spaces their son once inhabited and taunted by the flagrant thereness of his killer. In the Bedroom has a flair for visual metaphor, but unsurprisingly (since Field is himself an actor), the movie is primarily performance-driven. Spacek is particularly skillful at etching her grief and anger on the screen; Wilkinson (last seen as a supercilious British general in The Patriot) is even more nuanced in evoking his character’s weary denial.

Field takes his time arriving at the couple’s inevitable orgy of mutual accusation. In the Bedroom feels long-winded, but only in retrospect. Having front-loaded his adaptation of Andre Dubus’s story “Killings” with emotional baggage, Field shifts gears abruptly to pick up Dubus’s tale and let the good doctor go beyond the law. Increasingly unconvincing, In the Bedroom turns genteel rabble-rouser. Field’s leisurely buildup forestalls but doesn’t prevent his movie’s mutation into a granola Death Wish.

There’s another sort of ghost exorcised in Greed: A Reconstruction, the 243-minute DV approximation of Erich von Stroheim’s legendary 1924 masterpiece, showing twice this weekend at the American Museum of the Moving Image. Originally said to be eight-plus hours, cut in half by the filmmaker and in half again by his studio, MGM, Greed is the most celebrated aesthetic mutilation in movie history—”the skeleton of my dead child,” in Stroheim’s colorful phrase.

Rick Schmidlin’s reconstruction, financed by Turner Classic Movies and screening in video, restores nearly two and a half hours—taking us back to Stroheim’s second cut. The missing scenes have been fashioned from surviving production stills (some published 30 years ago in Herman Weinberg’s picture book, The Complete Greed). On one hand, these sequences serve to deepen the narrative with background material on the protagonists: the brutish dentist McTeague and his miserly wife, Trina. On the other, they broaden the movie’s sweep with a host of missing subplots, mainly concerning two parallel couples—the demented rag-picker Maria and crazy junk-dealer Zerkow, and the elderly lovers, Old Grannis and Miss Baker.

Thanks to the miracle of DV, the image has been digitally cleaned up and Schmidlin has restored Stroheim’s original color scheme—selectively flecking bits of gold throughout the movie to tint coins, teeth, and even canaries. In the famous Death Valley finale, the entire world is bathed in a malevolent yellow. Here, as in some of the re-created material, Schmidlin retrieves a lost expressionistic component in counterpoint to Greed‘s justly celebrated naturalism. Watching this reconstruction, one can appreciate how brutal Stroheim’s film originally was and how brutally it was butchered.

Related Stories:

Scenes From a Marriage: First-Time Filmmaker Todd Field Goes Behind Closed Doors” by Dennis Lim

Into the Dark: Guillermo del Toro Drinks Deep” by Ed Morales