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Empathy for the Bedeviled

'Devil's Backbone' director Guillermo del Toro prefers horror films: They show outcasts sympathetically.


Director Guillermo del Toro is one of those lucky people whose childhood passion has become their life's work.

Fascinated by the horror genre since he was a child growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, he has developed during the past decade into one of the most innovative horror directors in contemporary cinema. At the 1993 Cannes International Film Festival, he won the critics' prize for his vampire thriller "Cronos," and he followed that up with his first American production, the sci-fi thriller "Mimic." His latest, "The Devil's Backbone," a Spanish-language ghost story set in an orphanage, opens Friday.

A big teddy bear of a man, Del Toro, 37, says he was attracted to horror films not just for the visceral experience, but because he felt that they spoke to him. "Part of me felt even at a young age spiritually different," Del Toro says during a recent interview at his office in Burbank, where he is busy in post-production on his next release, the vampire action-thriller "Blade 2."

"I felt at the age of 7 or 8 or even earlier I didn't really belong with the other kids that perfectly. I felt like an outsider. The horror genre seemed to show me other outcasts I could sympathize with. That is why I can't help but love the ghost in 'The Devil's Backbone,' why I loved the bugs in 'Mimic' and why I love the vampires in 'Blade 2.' I am in favor of the monster."

"What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? Something dead which appears at times alive. A sentiment suspended in time ... like a blurry photograph ... like an insect trapped in amber."

These words, spoken by an elderly professor, Casares (Federico Luppi), open "The Devil's Backbone," which is set at the desolate Santa Lucia School during the last days of the Spanish Civil War of the '30s. The forbidding stone building shelters orphans of the Republican militia and other children who lost their parents in the conflict.

The latest arrival is 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is immediately confronted by the bully Jaime (Inigo Garces), the biggest and oldest of the orphans. Other residents include headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the widow of a leftist poet. She is having a secret affair with greedy young caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who harbors a great hatred for the school and the teachers who raised him.

Carlos quickly learns about the deep dark secrets of the school and the ghost that can be seen walking the halls with blood oozing from his skull--the ghost of Santi (Junio Valverde), a student who was brutally murdered and thrown into a pool in the basement. Santi's pale ghost keeps appearing to Carlos, warning that death will await those who remain at the school.

As with producer Val Lewton's '40s atmospheric horror films, such as "Cat People" and "I Walked With a Zombie," and Robert Wise's 1963 classic ghost story "The Haunting," the thrills in "Devil's Backbone" are subtle, emphasizing fear and suspense rather than gore.

"Fear is anticipation," says Del Toro, who studied special effects and makeup with the legendary makeup artist Dick Smith ("Little Big Man," the first two "Godfather" movies, among others) before he did "Cronos," "the capacity of an audience to feel anticipation for something. The other word would be dread. I understand when to show something and when not to show something."

In "Devil's Backbone," however, he broke one of his own rules. "But I break it on purpose," Del Toro explains, chuckling huskily. "The more you show something, the less scary it is. I tried to do that with the ghost in the movie, not only showing it more and more often, but showing it in different lights until we arrive at the moment where basically he is a kid standing in daylight. You should, through the course of the movie, stop fearing the dead and start fearing the living."

Del Toro wrote "The Devil's Backbone" 16 years ago. "I wanted to do this before 'Cronos.' I always wanted to talk of my childhood with a tale that was not directly related to my childhood. Without becoming metaphoric. There is a really violent universe with children. We try to sort of shelter and isolate childhood by idealizing it in the movies or neglecting to deal with childhood and violence. One of the most horrifying moments in my life was when I was probably 8 or 9 to 10, and I knew I dreaded going to school because I knew the degree they would torture my soul and the degree they would torture my body. I learned to defend myself."

Not everybody at his school was so adept. Del Toro recalls one particularly vicious fight: "I saw kids fighting with each other with wood boards and one of them had a rusty nail. One of the kids tried to stop the other kid's board and his hand was perforated by the nail. There was all of this blood. We all ran away."

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