As Above, So Below may not be the first film to go into the catacombs underneath Paris but this version of subterranean terror certainly keeps the audience tensely on the edge of their seats throughout the entire movie experience. The Legendary Pictures and Universal Studios marriage has not delivered the scariest film of the year, however, and their POV type of filming, a la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, et al, was not the filmmakers best idea by a long-shot.
To paraphrase Lorne Malvo, “I have two questions and one comment.” Firstly, why pick Billy Bob Thornton to play the gleefully malevolent chap who takes on an entire town in Fargo and secondly why not someone else, like Ray Wise, who is well known for playing this type of character and finally, now that the questions have been asked, it seems the reason Thornton was picked is that the role of the devil was obviously tailor-made for the actor. And friends, if that isn’t the truth, it should be.
Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) The Devil’s Backbone is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.
Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.
The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.
The narration continues. “An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.” While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.
This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.
Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.
Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool.
It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.
Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.
The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.
While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.
This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.
The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.
I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.
If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.
- The Abandoned (2006): An American in Russian Doppelgäng-land (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Comic-Con Q&A: Guillermo Del Toro On ‘Pacific Rim,’ An Obsession With Japanese Movie Monsters, And Hard Lessons Learned From ‘The Hobbit’ And ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ (m.deadline.com)
- Comic-Con Q&A: Guillermo Del Toro On ‘Pacific Rim,’ An Obsession With Japanese Movie Monsters, And Hard Lessons Learned From ‘The Hobbit’ And ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ (deadline.com)
- Pan’s Labyrinth – J Roald Smeets (jroaldsmeets.wordpress.com)
- Guillermo Del Toro: WTF (rikrawling.wordpress.com)
- Comic-Con: Guillermo Del Toro and Charlie Hunnam Talk PACIFIC RIM, Giving the Robots a Personality, Ghost Stories, PROMETHEUS, and More (collider.com)
- The Biggest Movie Ever? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Ghostly Goings On at the Royal Park. Melbourne (suellewellyn2011.wordpress.com)
Directed by William Brent Bell (Stay Alive , Sparkle and Charm) who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Peterman (Stay Alive) The Devil Inside is the latest in a long run of ‘found footage films’ which have been presented as ‘documentaries.’
Considering that this film opened theatrically on 6 January 2012, it is pretty amazing that the film has garnered over 101 millions dollars gross profit to date. The film was made on a budget of 1 million dollars. By anyone’s calculations, that is an excellent return of investment.
The producers of The Devil Inside, were very clever in their marketing campaign and ‘lack’ of preview screenings for critics. This ensured a strong opening, so strong in fact that they knocked Tom Cruize’s latest Mission Impossible sequel off it’s three week run at first place. Despite the strong opening, word of mouth soon decimated the numbers of folks who wanted to see the film. They dropped a very impressive 76% in their audience viewing figures by the following weekend.
I downloaded the film and watched it this afternoon. I was surprised to find that I rather liked it. After the bad press this film got from critic’s retroactive reviews, I was expecting a complete mess of a film. It was a little disorganised, to be sure, but it wasn’t that bad.
The film opens with with a 9-1-1 call and footage from a 1989 murder scene. The first few moments deal with a multiple murder that is covered by local television news and we get to see the police comb the area for clues. The film then jumps forward about twenty-one years and we meet the daughter of the woman who murdered the three people whose corpses we met at the very beginning of the film.
Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) is the daughter of Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley). Maria, we learn, killed the people who were from the Catholic Church and were attempting to exorcise her. It went, obviously, very wrong. Maria is moved to Rome to be cared for by the Church’s medical facilities.
Isabella is taking part in a documentary being shot by Michael Schaefer (Ionut Grama) and they are going to Rome to meet momma Maria. After arriving in the Vatican city, Isabella joins an exorcism theory class being taught by a Priest to a roomful of theological and psychiatric students. In a move that can only be translated as a huge sign post, the padre circles the last category of his lesson which is Multiple Demonic Possession.
The only thing the priest did not do was to smack the circled word with a pointer and yell, “This is important! I will be asking questions after the class.” We, the audience, see that this ‘important’ possession is going to feature later in the film.
After the theology class, Isabella joins a small group of novice priests and other theology students and they talk about Exorcism‘s and how you cannot really learn anything about them in a classroom setting. Two of the priests, Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) are best described as ‘renegade” men of the clergy. Both the men feel that the Church doesn’t do enough in helping folks who are possessed.
Father’s Ben and David have already performed a number of Exorcism’s that the Church had turned down. Both men have the strength of their convictions and take Isabella with them to an on-going exorcism that they have been doing. While they are performing the ritual on the possessed girl, Michael is filming it and the possessed girl knows Isabella’s name. The girl also walks on the wall and suspends herself over the bed.
Convinced that Ben and David know what they are doing, she asks them to look at her mother as the Church is refusing to perform the ritual on her. After tricking their way into the medical wing where Maria is being held, they set up their equipment and start the ritual.
Maria is possessed by more than one demon and she reacts very badly to the exorcism. After things calm down, they are thrown out of the hospital. Both Ben and David are excited about their ‘findings.’ Ben says that the Vatican can’t deny Maria help now.
Unfortunately that is precisely what the Church does and now they want Maria to be taken back to the US. Meanwhile, David is acting very strangely, eating in the dark dining room and baptizing a baby a little too long in the holy water. Isobella is acting strangely and everyone is upset and stressed out.
The police are after David for attempted murder and he kills himself, Isobella goes into some sort of fit and Michael and Ben rush her to the hospital. While Isobella is ‘resting’ in her room, Ben and Michael are talking to a nurse about how she is doing, the nurse replies that Isabella is stable and resting.
While the nurse is talking to Ben, we see staff rushing to Isabella’s room. She has attacked a nurse and it is taking several members of staff to try and control her. She eventually fights her way out of the room, only to be brought down to the floor. While she is lying face down on the floor, she gets bent so far backwards that it’s amazing that she isn’t broken in half.
Ben and Michael get Isabella in the car and drive to get help to exorcise her. While Isabella attacks Ben, Michael takes his seatbelt off and deliberately crashes the car at high speed.
Fade to black.
Reading various reviews on this film, I noticed quite a few critics slammed the ‘very quick ending’ and pretty much panned the entire film. I felt the ending worked well with what was going at that point in the film.
My problems with the film were many, but, not enough for me to not enjoy it. One problem I’ve already written about and that was the ‘this is important’ clue about Multiple Demonic Possession. A little too obvious for my tastes, something akin to killing a fly with a sledgehammer.
It was also obvious from the first time we meet Father’s Ben and David, that their motives for helping Isabella aren’t for the most selfless reasons in the world. Ben wanted to prove the Church wrong and David wanted to show that they, he and Ben were right. I know that at first glance, it seems like they want the same thing, but there is a difference between the two men and their hidden agendas.
At the end of the film, after they attempted to drive Maria’s demons out, everyone who was in the room became ‘infected’ so to speak. David, Isobella, and Michael all begin changing, with David bring the most obvious and quickest. The film makers also deviated from the ‘verse’ of exorcism films.
From the very first Exorcist in 1973, the demon (or demons) attack only the people directly performing the ritual, the priests. In The Devil Inside the demon attacks everyone in the room with a primary target of death for each person it possesses.
The film was meant to look like a documentary cobbled together from ‘found footage’ and it is to the film’s detriment. Too many other films have used this format and it is rapidly turning into a stilted cliché. It is also just one more film to add to the growing list of Exorcist films already out there.
The Last Exorcism (which actually did the documentary theme a hell of a lot better), The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Rite. All of which were, in my humble opinion, better films.
The Devil Inside was choppy, uneven and the ending did indeed feel a bit rushed, but that did not bother me as much as the illogical direction that the film veered off into. It did have a fair share of scares and creepy scenes in it, but not enough to warrant any further viewings.
The cynic in me believes that the producers decided to abstain from critic previews and teaser trailers to hype up the films opening weekend. This strategy appeared to have worked very well by their box office receipts. I can see why audiences were ultimately disappointed by this film. But really, it doesn’t come near qualifying as the worst film in 2012.
Of course I could be wrong.
- A Movie Review: THE DEVIL INSIDE – Godzilla versus the Smurfs (marjoriekayesbookblog.com)
- As Bad As You Thought?: The Devil Inside (houseofgeekery.com)
- The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel (wolfslair88.wordpress.com)
- The Devil Inside explore the realities of exorcism (ghostvids.wordpress.com)
- The Devil Inside – 20012 (jdcwitherton.com)
- Bad Movie Tuesday: The Devil Inside (moviesfilmsandflix.com)
- Mark Kermode’s DVD round-up (guardian.co.uk)