Horror films, rich in texture, are capable of interpretatively referencing specific national contexts. Using the supernatural, these stories can aid in understanding national themes by correlating particular social ills or historical periods with the uncanny: the film's meaning-making, acting as a mechanism for cathartic release; for discussion rather than the distance of simply memorializing. Guillermo del Toro's 2001 film, The Devil's Backbone, as this paper will argue, is one such film, which in its simplicity of narrative vision, provides a political clarity, a cathartic viewing experience and a negotiation of the boundaries of the spectral and the historical. Via allegory, the film maker is attempting to make sense of fascism in symbolic terms through evoking the world through a kind of magic-realist style, where the tropes of the horror film can be used to distinguish heroism from villainy.
In an article by Elizabeth Cowie, the author notes that well known New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, in a review of a 1959 French horror film Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face), deftly articulates the paradox that the enjoyment of the horror film has posed to critics and theorists in her contrast between the film's intellectual pretensions and its “exquisite dread images” whose power she cannot “throw off.” (Cowie: 25-26) Del Toro's film does not present this paradox. The horror of the presence of the ghost, Santi, haunting the isolated country orphanage of Santa Lucia, as an image of ‘exquisite dread', does not insistently interrupt a surface of ‘intellectual pretensions'; the events of the civil war are seamlessly interwoven, and tell a simple, gripping narrative of the grand sweep of history.
[...] Creed suggests that for Kristeva the horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous- feminine) in order, finally to eject the abject and re-draw the boundaries between the human and the non-human.” (Creed on Kristeva: 75) The radical nature of del Toro's films lies in the fact that he does not bring about the re-establishment of the symbolic, patriarchal order through positive closure; instead, he maintains the horror at the end by asserting that the rise of real demons, in the form of fascism, is a beginning point, not an end; resistance will continue, but the just order of defiance against the traditional and the authoritarian is merely emergent; not fully formed or operative. [...]
[...] Shindo Kaneto's film Onibaba (1964) which deals with the bombing of Hiroshima, by presenting Hiroshima through a narrative set in the 14th century, uses some of the same devices and achieves similar layered effects. As Lowenstein writes, the film's strengths lie in its “means of refiguring how cinematic representations of Hiroshima are legislated theoretically, with particular attention to the political issues of victim consciousness, war responsibility, and the construction of gendered models of Japanese national identity.” (Lowenstein: 83) The Devil's Backbone envisions parallel constructions. [...]
[...] these two worlds become intertwined so that both the ghost story and the war story participate in a representation of haunting that allow the viewers a cathartic confrontation with the traumatic past of the Spanish civil war.” (Hardcastle: 119) By using tropes of horror, del Toro explores the political past that still haunts Spain; the ghost child and the ghost of fascism remain in an unsettling embrace; everywhere the betrayal of republican ideals haunts mid-20th century with real horrors. It is not difficult to see how the uncanny and the fantastic can come, in del Toro's work, to represent what is so very difficult to grasp the emergence and domination of military, patriarchal fascism in Spain through much of the 2nd half of the 20th century. [...]
[...] The ghost child Santi is the monstrous restless ghost progeny of the civil war itself, and Jacinto is the civil war's King without a throne; he is a representative of a damaged child from a damaged generation that enabled the Fascists to emerge triumphant and rule through money, greed, technology, Western capitalist support and military brutality. Fascist power is the ultimate expression of the male fantasy of patriarchal power taken to its extreme; it produces monsters and invites resistance from women and from children who are, in both of del Toro's films, its unfortunate, often heroic, victims. [...]
[...] His destruction of the entire orphanage, which leads to the death of both Carmen, the doctor, and many of the children, is an allegory of fascist destructiveness unleashed on the innocence of the generation it will come to rule over. As a character type in his historical context, Jacinto represents the man out for himself who will betray everyone and anyone to get what he wants. His brutality and cruelty also make him a prime candidate for embracing the Fascist cause. [...]
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