Supposedly, during the production of The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick once called Stephen King and asked him, “Don’t you think ghost stories are inherently optimistic, because it means we continue to exist after we die?” King sounded unsure. But something of that essential optimism is very much at work in the first few films of Guillermo del Toro.
Del Toro is at home in the world of monsters—a walking encyclopedia of filmdom’s strange abominations, and a true acolyte of the idea that “the creature” could be the misunderstood hero of every movie it’s in. His reputation (a “visionary”, said the trailer for Crimson Peak (2015)) got knocked to the IMDb stratosphere by Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the rare pop masterpiece that felt equally at home at the Cannes Film Festival, the Oscar stage, and Comic-Con. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is its predecessor: a young boy gets sent to an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, where adult trouble brews while a ghostly child wanders the halls.
It is, more or less, a straightforward ghost story, done with del Toro’s visual sense for quasi-surreal proportions and super-saturated colors. Almost nothing in the narrative should scare or surprise you. But on the way home, you might find yourself thinking about how richly del Toro layered his characters, how much he feels for them, and how much the movie is about the hope that there’s something more lasting to human life than just what’s physical. In its own morbidly, bittersweet way, it is an optimistic film. Perhaps because, when del Toro shows you a ghost at night, he doesn’t want you to jump. He wants you to find it beautiful.
Fingers crossed that this year’s The Shape of Water can keep up with the hype.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.