As a self-described film geek, I have tried a little bit from every genre. And, as any film geek will tell you, there are certain genre affiliations that separate the professionals from the amateurs. One of the universally agreed upon biggies is foreign films.
The foreign films I usually enjoy tend to fall in line with mainstream popularity. (Top Five Foreign Films: Amelie, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Requiem, and The Vanishing) I've seen a few of the more "outsider" subtitled flicks, but I usually don't "get" them. This is especially true of foreign horror films. In America, we've been trained to expect maximum shock, gore, and scares. From what I've seen of foreign horror, this is not how the rest of the world operates.
Eddie Izzard explains the difference between English and American movies.
(WARNING: some bad language)
Foreign horror films are all about the build up of suspense. The exposition is usually slow, focusing more on the story than the scares. The intent is to make the ending the culmination of the viewer's fear. Because they spend the majority of the film building suspense, the final scare doesn't have to be overly gory or terrifying. At least, this is how it's supposed to work. More often, American audiences see the exposition as boring and the ending as a let-down. I have been guilty of this, myself, especially with Asian horror films, which take the suspense building to an extreme. Probably because I've seen the Americanized versions first, the original Asian horror films seem to drag. That's not to say that Asian flicks aren't scary, however. One of the most terrifying (and disgusting) films I've ever seen was Takashi Miike's Audition. The last half hour scarred me for life (but it did take an hour and a half to get there). It was so horrifying, I didn't even want in the house. I gave it to a fellow horror-lover and breathed a sigh of relief.
Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is not really a horror movie. As he himself says, it is more of a dark fairy tale with horror characteristics. The film is set during the Spanish Civil War in a rural orphanage. An undetonated bomb is embedded in the center of the orphanage's courtyard, a constant reminder of what is going on in the outside world. The story begins as Carlos, a young boy, is left at the orphanage by his tutor and bodyguard. He believes he will only be staying temporarily while his father is fighting in the war. In reality, his father has been killed and the orphanage is his new home. He is given bed #12, which causes the other boys to whisper about "the one who sighs". Carlos begins to see and hear the ghost of a young boy. He is determined to find out what happened to the boy and what he wants.
Del Toro is the master of creating believable settings and characters and infusing them with fantastical elements. The reality of the orphanage and the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War is offset by the inclusion of the undetonated bomb, a secretly planned gold heist, and the ghost. Even the headmistress's wooden leg, a beautiful contraption made of polished wood and metal joints, seems surreal when surrounded by the drab poverty of the setting.
The film's best feature is the ghost itself. It is unlike any other film ghost I have ever seen. Along with the pallid skin and sunken eyes, the ghost, Santi, has several unusual qualities. His forehead has a spider webbed crack as if he was made from porcelain. From this crack, a torrent of scarlet blood billows straight in the air. Del Toro takes great care to show that Santi's cause of death pervades his continued presence on earth. The air around him shimmers and particles float around him as he walks. His skeleton becomes visible when he walks through a shaft of light. Del Toro and his FX crew managed to make their ghost both beautifully ethereal and terrifying.
Santi from The Devil's Backbone
Occasionally, a foreign film is able to transcend cultural differences and appeal to American sensibilities. I believe that The Devil's Backbone is one of these films. it has something for everyone: ghosts, suspense, beautiful cinematic work, a period piece aesthetic, and a fairy tale feel.