Review: Danel Olson’s Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth: Studies in the Horror Film

Posted by Timothy Jones on January 11, 2017 in Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth: Studies in the Horror Film, edited by Danel Olson. Publisher: Centipede Press (2016). ISBN 978 1 61347 101 2 (paperback).


Review by Ann Davies


Danel Olson’s new edited volume offers a compendium on the two Spanish-language horror/fantasy classics by Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Beautifully produced, with a wealth of illustrations, it also contains not only academic essays on the two films but interviews with a good range of cast and crew involved in the two productions, including with del Toro himself, who also provides an introduction.


The first half of the volume contains ten academic essays, most of which are new though a few have been previously published. To kick things off, Anna Taborska talks of the role of the ghost in horror film before analysing the ghosts of Devil’s Backbone in terms of theme, style, structure and film technique. Dylan Trigg takes the same film and a similar theme to approach the ghost from the viewpoints of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, in order to think about the material – or immaterial – body of the ghost and how this informs our sense of ourselves as human.  Walter Rankin takes a more familiar scholarly approach to both films to talk about how the Spanish Civil War and World War II are recuperated in tales told from a child’s eye view. There follow a series of essays focusing on the more successful Pan’s Labyrinth, starting with James’s Cortese’s meditation on the two levels of reality (fantasy and history), Romana Cortese’s gender analysis of the film, and Christine Gengaro’s exploration Javier Navarrete’s musical score. The editor himself, Danel Olson, returns us to James Cortese’s motif of different levels of reality, but this time to unpick the ways in which the trajectories of the heroine Ofelia and the villain Vidal are intricately entwined. A pair of collaborative essays – first by Jonathan Ellis and Ana María Sánchez-Arce, then Christopher Hartney and Sarah Penicka – return us to the historical elements of Pan’s Labyrinth, again well-trodden territory although the latter essay stresses both high art and folk art references in a way that is original. Jacob Hodgen brings up the rear of this section by focusing on how intertextual references inform del Toro’s approach to trauma.


In these essays I found much to illuminate and much to infuriate, fresh ideas and also ideas with which I profoundly disagree. To save an exhaustive analysis of each essay, perhaps Romana Cortese’s chapter can stand for the mixed feelings of the del Toro scholar when confronted by the myriad interpretations that these essays offer. Cortese’s claim that Pan’s Labyrinth offers Ofelia no escape from patriarchal society, given that her destiny is either to die at the hands of her stepfather or, in her alternate reality, submit herself to the rule of her father in her fantasy kingdom, is fascinating, as is her emphasis on the role of the doctor in the film, a character much neglected by del Toro scholarship. I take issue, though, with Cortese’s description of Mercedes as ‘inept’: if her efforts ultimately cannot allow an escape from patriarchy, nonetheless the portrait of Mercedes as incompetent and selfish seems to me to be a complete misreading. Both she and Ofelia offer effective resistance within the very gender confines that Cortese talks of. In a volume such as this, any del Toro fan or scholar is likely to have similar experiences, rapidly moving from enjoyment to irritation and back again; and to say so is meant as no disservice to the book but simply to highlight that del Toro’s work – and the writings about him – tend to encompass this sort of passionate response.


As regards the interviews that comprise the latter half of the volume, Olson has garnered an impressive roster of interviewees. Most of the principal actors in both films are included (a sad exception inevitably being Álex Ángulo who played the doctor in Pan’s Labyrinth, and who died in 2014); but many supporting and minor players also feature. Some of these interviews lead to the inevitable vague statements of how lovely it is to work on such films and with such a director, safe statements that tell us little; but we also gain insight into how del Toro works as a director, of how bad-tempered he can get, and how committed he is to the filmmaking process. As regards the actors who were then children we gain additional insight into how making the relevant film affected their subsequent acting careers, now that they are adults. There are also interviews with director of photography Guillermo Navarro, composer Javier Navarrete and make-up/SFX artist David Martí, which also provide illuminating detail about del Toro’s working methods. And taken as a whole, we are reminded that behind del Toro’s exceptional filmmaking there stands the support of others who have made their own significant contribution to del Toro’s reputation as a maker of high-quality cinema, something the director himself would be the first to acknowledge.


Both interviews and essays, then, give the del Toro aficionado or scholar a mixed bag of offerings that nonetheless contain plenty of worthwhile treasure to peruse and to draw from. Excellent and exasperating by turns, the volume thus consistently engages the reader: as such – for scholarship, for intellectual passion and for sheer entertainment – it is a valuable addition to the increasing library on del Toro’s work.

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