Features and Columns · Movies

The Ticking Time Bomb of ‘The Devil’s Backbone’

(and it’s /not/ the bomb)
The Devil's Backbone Bomb
By  · Published on May 19th, 2023

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explores the ticking time bomb that propels Guillermo del Toro’s movie, The Devil’s Backbone.

When it comes to weapons-based movie metaphors, two ticking time bombs reign supreme.

One analogy comes courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock, who famously used a metaphor of a bomb concealed under a table as a way to describe the difference between surprise and suspense. If you’re watching a scene in a restaurant and — without warning — a bomb goes off under a table, the audience will be surprised. However, if you show the audience the bomb before it goes off (and cut to it intermittently ticking away to remind them of its presence), you’re going to create suspense.

The other explosives-based metaphor comes to us from the world of the stage (ooh, how fancy). Named for the Russian playwright who used/abused the device frequently, Chekov’s Gun refers to the dramatic principle that if you introduce something on-screen (or on the stage), it will come back and affect the narrative later down the line. For instance, if a character has a very cool sword hanging on the wall of their office, dramatically, we’re all expecting that sucker to play some part in the story down the line. It’s Uncut Gems’ “Why would you show it to me if I can’t have it” but for mise en scene.

This brings us to the topic of today’s video essay: Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone, a film featuring multiple ticking time bombs (including a literal ticking time bomb) peppered throughout the story of children caught in the crossfire of an adult war. And as the essay notes, the bomb doesn’t literally have to go off for everything to explode.

My greatest critics (it’s me, I’m my greatest critic) have pointed out that I have a tendency to recommend super-duper long video essays on this column. So in the interest of erring a bit more on the snappy side, I present the following self-described micro-essay, which is so short you could probably watch it in the time it takes your toast to pop. Enjoy.

Watch “Chekov’s Backbone”

Who made this?

This video essay on the ticking time bomb at the heart of The Devil’s Backbone is by the YouTuber max teeth. Their work runs a broad and fascinating gamut from the relation of German philosopher Walter Benjamin to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village to what Hitch can teach us about the performance of masculinity. They only started their account in December of last year, so get on the ground floor and support their work by subscribing to them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.