CASE STUDY BY ELIZABETH HOWLETT
This essay will discuss how the horror genre has been used in national cinema to reach a transnational audience, focusing on Guillermo del Toro’s El Espinazo del Diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001). This film will be analyzed to identify how codes and conventions of the Horror genre are used to appeal to a transnational audience. It will also explore ideas of national cinema and transnational audiences and the Horror genre in El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) in comparison to Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena/ The Spirit of The Beehive (1973).
The place of genre in world cinema is often difficult to grasp, as the very concept of genre is a westernised practice that developed in the Hollywood Studio Era. Genre theorists such as Rick Altman refer to the ‘Hollywood Genre’ as a basis of audience recognition and audience expectations (Altman, 1984, pp.7). It is therefore reasonable to argue that the entire foundation of genre is a Hollywood made function and that the concept of genre in World Cinema is not always clear, as Altman points out, most critics are: “Comfortable in the seemingly uncomplicated world of Hollywood classics” (Altman, 1984, pp.7). This study will explore how Guillermo del Toro has used elements of the Hollywood Horror genre and applied it to texts focusing on Spanish historical events, more specifically, The Spanish Civil War and the rebellion movements that occurred in the early Franco regime. The Devils Backbone uses typical codes and conventions and strong iconography usually found within a Horror film, however this film is an example of transnational cinema and del Toro is a director that has achieved a transnational audience. Furthermore, this essay will explore the place of genre within world cinema, focusing on Guillermo del Toro’s, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.
The Devil’s Backbone is set in 1939, the final year of the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s Nationalists are soon to defeat the Republican forces. A ten year old boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is orphaned when his father, a Republican war hero is killed. His tutor sends him to a remote boy’s orphanage run by the headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Parades) and, Professor Casares (Federico Luppi) who both try to help the Republican cause. Carlos befriends the orphanages bully and quickly makes friends, however the spirit of a young boy called Santi (Junio Valverde)haunts Carlos and warns him that ‘many of you will die’. The physical appearance of Santi is that of a ghoulish child that appears to be submersed in water and as such blood flows out of his head as if it would in water.
The image of a dead child and the paranormal is commonplace iconography found in the Horror genre and Santi’s appearance only at night or through shadow when Carlos is sleeping are standard codes and conventions expected within a Horror film. Sarah Thomas notes that Santi is viewed as ‘ghostly’: “Santi is presented as an archetypal spectre (in the traditional western sense) – killed maliciously and before his time, he remains at the scene of the crime hoping to avenge his wrongful death.” (Thomas, 2011, pp.3). Thomas views Santi as a traditional representation of a ghost, this film depicts moments from Spanish history using ‘traditional western’ Horror iconography to portray a graphic and violent period of Spanish history and communicates with the audience using Santi as a manifestation of such historical events. Thomas goes on to evaluate the use of a child as the main protagonist in both The Devil’s Backbone and The Spirit of The Beehive and how the use of a minor enables the audience to see the child as a symbol and argues that these techniques made the film appealing to transnational audiences.
“We can foreground the child as subject rather than symbol, and come to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the issues of subjectivity, viewpoint, and the spectator’s response in the two films. Such an approach also helps explain why these two films were hugely successful with international audiences, who did not necessarily have detailed knowledge of Spain’s political history.” (Thomas, 2011, pp.3).
Thomas is referring to the main child protagonists of both Backbone and Beehive and aspects of child subjectivity, however it is worth noting that Santi is a child ghost who is portrayed as such, he cowers and hides when Carlos tries to confront him in the basement and seems more scared of the ‘normal’ child, this automatically makes the audience view him as vulnerable, so it is arguable that the use of a child ghost and the excitement of Horror conventions made the historical content in Backbone accessible to wider audiences.
Beehive uses a less direct form of Horror by using a known character from gothic literature and Horror movies, but appears as, James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Ana’s spirit is bodiless and takes on imagined forms, which pushes the viewer to see this as a child’s daydream rather than a horrific or scary apparition. Thomas notes how the mise-en-scene in both films, especially Backbone are similar to Horror conventions but are also used to represent war: “In the Western imaginary, monsters and ghosts are banished to the periphery of society – to haunted houses, forests, and graveyards, places that the living don’t visit, and that the sunlight doesn’t reach – places like Ana’s crumbling house and the isolated orphanage.” (Thomas, 2011, pp.10).
Thomas recognises that Backbone’s narrative attracts a Spanish audience, it is set in the Spanish Civil War, the mise-en-scene depict ruined buildings as a result of war, the majority of actors used are native to Spain, and the spoken language is Spanish. It is therefore sensible to say that this film will appeal directly to a Spanish audience. Thomas also notes that the iconography of a Spanish Civil war film is clearly spliced with codes and conventions of the popular Western Horror genre and that this can account for why the film is successful with an international audience because the Horror genre gives the viewer a set of codes and conventions that are expected, familiar, and furthermore accessible when discussing Spanish history. Steve Neale discusses the appeal of genre familiarity by stating:
“Genres do not consist only of films; they consist also, and equally, of specific systems of expectation and hypothesis that spectators bring with them to the cinema and that interact with films themselves during the course of the viewing process. These systems provide spectators with a means of recognition and understanding. They help render films, and the elements within them, intelligible and therefore explicable.” (Neale, 2000, pp.158).
This theory can be applied to any recognized genre, for example Western or Musical because the iconography, much like Horror is universally familiar regardless of nationality. Although The Devil’s Backbone does not adhere strictly to the expected filmic style of a Horror ‘flick’, it most definitely follows the literature conventions of a Gothic text as Santi is trying to make Carlos realise a truth either about himself, the people around him and/or the nature of his death. When viewed as a Spanish national film and a ‘Western Gothic Horror’ The Devil’s Backbone opens many new interpretations for the place of genre within world cinema, and raises questions into whether genre makes del Toro’s work transnational or whether other factors such as nationality and funding classify this film, Núria Triana-Toribio attempts to answer these questions:
“It is increasingly usual to find films which do not fit neatly into the label of ‘national’ films because they cannot be ascribed to one nation state in their subject matter, or because the financing comes from disparate origins or the talent is multinational.” (Toribio, 2007, pp.9).
Toribio’s theory is applicable to del Toro as a director and Backbone because of the subject matter and production factors, it can be argued that although it does not fit neatly within being part of Spanish national cinema it is a film that targets a Spanish audience, but has gained transnational audiences because of genre. Another del Toro film that may not fit neatly into the Spanish national cinema category but attracts transnational audiences and gained critical acclaim, arguably due to its use of genre is El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth.
Set in 1944 the story follows another child, Ophelia (Ivana Baquero), and her heavily pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) are travelling to live with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez) who is hunting rebellion fighters. Ophelia meets a faun (Doug Jones) who believes her to be a reincarnated princess and promises her a place with her real father on the throne of the underworld, but she has to complete three dangerous tasks.
The opening scenes of Pans show Ophelia and her mother Carmen travelling to Captain Vidal’s mill, Carmen has to stop to be sick and Ophelia wanders away from the car and into the overgrowth, which is where she first meets the stick bug and begins her journey into fantasy. The backdrop for this Fantasy/Horror hybrid is rural countryside similar to that of the locations for both Backbone and Beehive. Jordan and Tamosunas note that this setting is commonplace in Spanish Rural genre films that can be characterised by their: “proximity to nature, separation from urban life, cultural and economic underdevelopment and the traditional conservatism of its communities.” (Jordan and Tamosunas 1998, pp. 46). Ophelia beginning her quest in the forest and communing with spirits in other remote locations is reminiscent to Ana first meeting her spirit in an abandoned building across a vast field in El espíritu de la colmena/ The Spirit of The Beehive, both films depict children leaving reality and journeying into fantasy through the use of rural locations, Jordan and Tamosunas explain that the aforementioned characteristics make the rural genre: “A suitable location for various articulations of the ambiguous relationship between reality and fantasy and between linear time and atemporality.” (Jordan and Tamosunas, 1998, pp. 46).
When comparing similarities to both films it is clear to see that del Toro is giving a subtle nod to other ‘true’ Spanish national films surrounding the Civil War and again making his film appeal to a Spanish audience, for example the use of eyes in both Pan’s and Beehive. Both children confront a statue with eyes missing that they must replace, in stylistically similar scenes, Ophelia does so amongst the trees when she meets the stick insect and Ana does in school when she is identifying parts of the human body. Paul Julian Smith also notices this similarity, and offers comment to the scenes: “Del Toro thus not only replays Spanish history in a Mexican mode he has perfected elsewhere; he also remakes Spanish cinema by transforming Erice’s austere and minimalistic drama with gorgeously crafted mise en scene and deliriously inventive camerawork.” (Smith, 2007, pp.5).
When considering Backbone and the gothic horror iconography which the spirit, Santi embodies, Pan’s Labyrinth conforms to traditional ‘monster movie’ horror with the mythical characters Ophelia encounters, such as the Faun and more famously The Pale Man. These characters are not entirely different to Ana’s projections of Frankenstein in Beehive, both Ophelia and Ana react to the supernatural without fear but instead are drawn toward the monstrous figures of the supernatural rather than face adults in normal life. Ophelia decides to ‘dine’ with The Pale Man in the underworld realm and risk her life rather than sitting with her violent step-father and sick mother and is shown to have more physical affection to the Faun whom she hugs than her step-father who greets her with a crushing hand grip. In similar circumstances, Ana puts her absent father figure at risk with the police and instead of confiding in him, it is suggested she eats a poisonous mushroom and is reunited with Frankenstein, once she recovers she refuses to speak to either of her parents. Jacob Hodgen comments on Ophelia’s relationship with the supernatural as displaying childish innocence:
“Ophelia encounters horror without knowing any better and-without any adults telling her she should be afraid or repulsed-finds herself fascinated and attracted to those things which might otherwise instil terror and revulsion in the adults around her.” (Hodgen, 2007, pp. 20).
When considering the similarities between The Spirit of The Beehive which is a famous example of Spanish national cinema to Pan’s Labyrinth, it is noticeable that Guillermo del Toro took influence from Victor Erice’s subtle comment on the Spanish Civil war by adding Horror iconography to the brother and sister films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth to create a more accessible representation of the war and Franco’s regime for transnational audiences, as Higbee and Lim note:
“Cinema can be defined as transnational in the sense that it brings into question how fixed ideas of a national film culture are constantly being transformed by the presence of protagonists (and indeed film-makers) who have a presence within the nation, even if they exist on its margins, but find their origins quite clearly beyond it.” (Higbee and Lim, 2010 pp.11).
To conclude, when evaluating case studies on FILM2007 to evaluate the concept of the place of genre, focusing on Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth the research shows that these films focus on the history of The Spanish Civil War and the Guerrilla rebellions during the early years of Francisco Franco’s regime. These films heavily draw on anti-fascist emotions and show through mise-en-scene how the rural areas of Spain were affected.
Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican director and works with transnational artists and production companies and has already achieved a transnational audience, therefore according to Higbee and Lim, these films are not examples of Spanish national cinema but alternatively are examples of del Toro’s transnational art-house productions. The place of genre in these films is predominantly Horror, however when considering Pan’s Labyrinth there are hybrid elements of fantasy and as Jordan and Tamosunas add there are examples of Spanish Rural cinema, also seen in The Spirit of the Beehive.
The Devil’s Backbone uses clear Horror iconography by using the spirit of a dead boy, Santi as the catalyst of events to come, del Toro uses this as a precursor to the violence depicted. Steve Neale argues that alongside Musical and Western, the Horror genre has the same level of audience expectations, which makes this film accessible to audiences from any nationality regardless of their knowledge of Spanish history. This reasoning also applies to Pan’s Labyrinth, which uses monsters to create the Horror element, such as The Pale Man but it is arguably hybrid with Fantasy and Spanish Rural genres, some scenes and characters are similar to The Spirit of the Beehive and therefore show that genre in World Cinema can have typically western codes, conventions and iconography because typically the idea of genre is a western concept that has happened because of Hollywood’s Studio System, world cinema is not always recognised as having such clear distinctions.
The Spirit of the Beehive/ El espíritu de la colmena (1973) Film. Directed by VICTOR ERICE. SPAIN: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas S.L.
The Devil’s Backbone/ El Espinazo del Diablo (2001) Film. Directed by GUILLERMO DEL TORO. SPAIN: El Deseo.
Pan’s Labyrinth/ El Laberinto Del Fauno (2006) Film. Directed by GUILLERMO DEL TORO. SPAIN: Estudios Picasso.
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