Absent since his entry with Mimic in 1997, Guillermo del Toro returns with a simplistic ghost story (“a tragedy condemned to repeat itself”) during the Spanish Civil War; he is a wonder at turning the prosaic and platitudinous into the bone-chillingly frightening.A young boy’s tutor abandons him at a boarding school in order to take up arms. The staff already consists of some shifty people, but as the boy finds out, that will take a backseat to a local ghost rumored to be one of the missing boys after a bombshell was dropped. Part of what I find most appealing in del Toro’s style, since he co-writes his projects as well, is that he restrains from exaggeration. He may suggest that, for the boys, the ghost is a terrifying possibility; more so than the war inasmuch as it is palpable to them. The adults would tend to look at it the other way, but that, too, is a scary situation — either is a measure of fright, carefully graphed by the calculating del Toro. By understating the role that either horror will play (or whatever third tier may come in as a whirlwind segue), it allows the maximum amount of potential in all areas. Del Toro is a director who understands the key of showing — not just telling — and in turn, that provides for some spectacular details: the smoke rising from the hole in the head of the fatidic ghost (not to mention the low-key usage of CGI in general); the flinch-worthy vehicle explosion; the deafening drone following the explosion and the crimson blood pouring out of the doctor’s ear, etc. It goes to show that the small individual pieces can all fit into a big, satisfying whole, that style can be dictated without camera trickery, that fear can be instilled with pacing and simple lore, that understatement is far more effective than overstatement, and that it has been too long since del Toro had made a film.
Written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz. With Íñigo Garcés, Eduardo Noriega and Junio Valverde.[Absolutely to be seen.]