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Ever since witnessing The Devil’s Backbone (2001) many years ago, it has become a very personal favourite of mine. Not only because of its outstanding direction, beautiful cinematography and genuine performances, but because of the haunting but very human message at its heart.

After spotting a showing hosted by the new independent pop-up Snowcat Cinema I knew I couldn’t miss the chance to see one of my favourite films on the big screen for the first time.

Frustrated by his experience in Hollywood with Mimic, Del Toro returned to the fantastical roots found in his debut feature Cronos with The Devil’s Backbone. As with his critically acclaimed offering; Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro sets his story against the context of the Spanish Civil War. Here the narrative develops through the eyes of the war’s abandoned children at an orphanage, the last refuge from the violence which has engulfed the countryside outside.

With his opening sequence, the director conjures an atmosphere which haunts the individual arcs of its characters and the audience’s own viewing experience alike. Through this sequence, Del Toro also awaken’s the film’s core message. This is a message which is emphasised throughout the film by the director’s masterful use of imagery and it is this; The ghosts to which humanity is blind, are those which doom us to repeat its bloody and tragic history. Tellingly Marisa Paredes’s character, Carmen, comments early in the film “Sometimes I think we are the ghosts”.

 

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As the narrative develops we gradually begin to learn more about the orphanages’ dark past and the ‘one that sighs’ through the eyes of our main character Carlos. This is expertly balanced with the anxieties of our main character as he struggles to fit into his new surroundings. We also come to learn about the tragic and intertwined pasts of our other characters, including Carmen, the Orphanage’s headmistress, doctor Cásares and her lover and the orphanage’s bitter caretaker, Jacinto. As with any good filmmaker, Del Toro achieves excellent and sincere performances from the whole of the cast to bring these characters and their individual stories to life, including Fernando Tielve as our protagonist Carlos.

Equally, using his composure behind the camera and with the help of cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and composer Javier Navarrete, Del Toro crafts many scenes to impress and capture the viewer. This includes gothic-tinged images of Santi walking the corridors of the orphanage at night. Santi himself is an equally fantastical and horrifying creation, an unseen but haunting reminder for our characters of the escalating civil war and of their own personal regrets and demons.

At the centre of many of these images is the unexploded bomb in the middle of the orphanage’s courtyard which we witness descend from a plane at the start of the film. This also becomes an important visual element to the story. In many ways, it is just as much a ghost as Santi, simply another looming spectre of the war.

Though not as well-known as his most celebrated work; Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone offers an equally powerful message about the monsters which hide within men. Much like in Pan’s Labyrinth, the most disturbing and powerful scenes found within the film are those where there are no ghosts, only man’s inhumanity.

To this end, The Devil’s Backbone is a truly timeless piece of filmmaking and one which we can all learn.

Snowcat Cinema’s next genre offering will be Philip’s Kaufman’s own excellent 1978 take on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers later this month on the 29th March. You can found out more info about them and future screenings in Penarth and at the Crafty Devil Bar in Cardiff on their Facebook page here.

This is an article I have written for Buzz Magazine which was featured in the October Halloween 2016 issue. 

Even to those outside of the horror fan community Bram Stoker and Stephen King are recognisable names. Yet, peer below the surface of the genre and you will find many who are hiding in the shadows waiting to be discovered and deserving of equal praise. Among them is the influential Welsh writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947).

Machen was born in the small Welsh community of Caerleon. Such was the beauty of the welsh landscape where he was born, from the looming mass of Wentwood and other mountain ridges, that he wrote within own autobiography, Far Off Things;

“the older I grow the more firmly am I convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.”

In a society gripped by Christian Zeal Machen drew on pagan and occult ideology to conjure the themes within his writing. His ambition was to write novels that would emulate the same joys, terrors and awe he had experienced in his walks along the hillside pathways of Gwent as a child. This was a period when scientific rationalism was coming more and more influential, yet Machen firmly believed mystical experience was essential to society in the modern world.

 

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The Great God Pan is perhaps, his most important work, a tale of strange experiments and unholy communion in the Welsh hills. Unsurprisingly, as demonstrated by mainstream society’s reaction to the genre throughout its history, most recently the ‘Video Nasty’ scandal of the 1980’s, such themes were met with fear and misunderstanding by critics. The Manchester Guardian called it ‘the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable book … yet seen in English’ In comparison the great Oscar Wilde described it as ‘Un succés fou! Un succés fou!’ – a raving success. HP Lovecraft, particularly his signature Cthulhu mythos, was also heavily influenced by Machen’s acclaimed masterpiece The Hill of Dreams and his own words praised Machen as a creator of ‘cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch’.

Today such revered and respected authors as the aforementioned Stephen King and Clive Barker also cite Machen as an inspiration.

Machen’s admirers are not only found in literature. Guillermo Del Toro is one director who counts himself as a fan. Take a closer look at his own most acclaimed work, Pans Labyrinth and you will find some notable similarities between aspects of its own story and Machen’s tale of The White People. These include both their focus on a young girl’s escape from a dark forest into a fantastical but dangerous otherworld and their symbolism surrounding maternalism and magic. As such, both hark back to the dark origins behind the contemporary versions of classic fairytales, such as those originally published by the Grimm Brothers in the early 18th century.

The Welsh landscape has not only provided writers with inspiration but has appeared in some notable examples within cinema too, including some of this writer’s very own favourites.

The rugged hills of North Wales provide a suitably foreboding setting for James Whales’s excellent The Old Dark House (1932). The director’s unique streak of black humour combines here with such a backdrop to create a quintessential gothic atmosphere, setting the blueprint for many of the creepy-old-house movies that have followed but that has rarely been emulated since. Its tale concerns the Femm family who reluctantly take in a stranded group of strangers unaware of the their dangerous secrets and features the genre icon Boris Karloff in a small but significant role as the family butler Morgan.

 

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Another classic Universal horror picture set in Wales, specifically in the fictional village of Llanwelly, is George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941). As Bela Lugosi will always be remembered by horror fans for Dracula this is the role that will always define Lon Chaney Jr for most horror fans. Though Chaney never reached the genre heights of his father, the infamous man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney Sr, he gives a powerhouse performance as Larry Talbot, tortured by his transformations into the creature. As in The Old Dark House the setting is key to creating a gothic atmosphere as the Wolf Man creeps through beautiful mist strewn forest sets.

One of my favourite actor’s of any genre was born in the Welsh capital itself. Ray Milland’s first venture into the genre after leaving Wales for America in 1930 was the 1944 Paramount picture The Uninvited, a horror tale in the classic ghost story template. One of his best performances came with his collaboration with the ‘king of the b-movies’, Roger Corman, on the director’s science fiction tale The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963). Here he plays a scientist who in his desire to create a serum to improve human vision experiments on himself with catastrophic results; the title gives a clue. Just a year before he also appeared in Corman’s The Premature Burial in place of Vincent Price. This film was one of Corman’s many Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, including The Fall of The House of Usher in 1960. Around the same period Welsh-born Jimmy Sangster penned the scripts to the hugely successful Hammer Film adaptions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Both films were key in changing the studios fortunes and ushered in its heyday as the premier British horror and science fiction film studio and exporter to international audiences until it’s demise in the mid 70’s.

In 1981 Wales saw another werewolf stalk the countryside when the opening scenes to John Landis’s genre classic An American Werewolf in London were filmed near Hay in the Brecon Beacons. The small hamlet of Crickadarn also doubled as the fictional village where the film’s travellers, David and Jack, visit the ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub.

 

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More recently, the Brecon Beacons provided the locations for 2014’s Soulmate, directed by Hollywood-based, Belgium-born director Axelle Carolyn. Other notable recent genre entries from Wales include the Bafta award-winning sc-fi story The Machine (2013) from Caradog James and the Neil Marshall produced Dark Signal (2016).

To finish this story, however, let me leave you with a fun fact to chew your brains over; Hannibal Lector actor Anthony Hopkins also came from Wales. Just make sure you have some Welsh cakes ready to if he comes round for something to eat.