The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

18 Oct


Carlos' beatific reaction to seeing a bomb stuck in the courtyard of his new home is beyond weird.


The Devil’s Backbone” is another genre-bender from visionary director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro’s films tend to be beautiful and poignant while at the same time suspenseful and terrifying, an uneasy marriage of art and horror. With this film, he adds another layer — a coming-of-age story — and creates an altogether different interpretation of what at first appears to be a traditional ghost story.

In the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is taken by his tutor to live at an orphanage which houses much more than unfortunate boys behind its walls. Upon entering the courtyard, Carlos sees an unexploded bomb, which he’s told has been defused. The towering, nearly sculptural object serves both as a reminder to the outside war, but also as a mark of a more personal tragedy for the orphanage. On the night it fell, one of the boys, Santi (Junio Valverde) went missing. The teachers, including principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and science professor Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) believe Santi was frightened and ran away. Maybe he made it to a town, they say.

As is typical for boys of that age, Carlos is tested early by his peers. He awakes in the middle of the night his first night at the orphanage, having heard his name whispered. When he looks and finds no one there, he gets up to investigate and, in the process, spills water from pitchers left for the boys. Tough guy Jaime (Inigo Garces) challenges Carlos to go and retrieve more water from the kitchen. Carlos agrees, with the caveat that Jaime must join him. The pair make their way to the kitchen, and Jaime succeeds at the task. Carlos, however, is trapped when the noise from the intrusion causes handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) to investigate. Carlos hides in the basement, where he encounters a spectral being who warns of coming death for many. In order to understand the ghostly message, Carlos must draw upon his own courage to discover the true story of what happened the night the bomb fell, and he must learn the heartbreak of misplaced trust.

At first, I was a little worried “The Devil’s Backbone” would turn out to be another predictable entry in the “creepy kid” sub-genre of horror movies. Fortunately, I felt like this film gave me just enough of what I expected to lull me into comfort before ramping up the suspense with some excellent creature design and a few good jump scares before delivering a genre-subverting twist that’s a knock-out punch. “The Devil’s Backbone” predates Del Toro’s highly regarded “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it shares a similar theme: The idea that the evils of reality are more threatening and terrifying than anything of the supernatural realm. While the ghostly Santi is certainly unsettling, it doesn’t take too long to realize he’s not the only person the orphanage’s residents should fear.

The design of the spectral Santi is just amazing. The imagery becomes even more effective the more we see it and the more we know of the child’s backstory. The first few times we see fleeting glimpses of the ghost, we don’t yet understand what we’re seeing, and so the boy appears no more or less unsettling than any other ghost. It’s fairly uncommon for a horror element to up its scare factor the more it’s onscreen, but such is the case for this phantom. The effects used to give the ghostly little boy his terrifying look hold up under scrutiny and become more powerful as the audience’s perception of the ghost changes.

Even when the ghostly Santi stops being scary, he never ceases to be creepy, and that's something.

“The Devil’s Backbone” relies heavily on the performances of the orphaned boys, which is a dicey measure. I feel like Tielve’s Carlos and Garces’ Jaime were above average performances for actors of such a young age, and the other children were fine. Some of the reactions and emotions I felt were a bit underplayed, but a case can also be made that the boys hide behind a facade of machismo to bolster their social standing as young adolescents. If that’s the case, then the detachment is understandable but still feels ultimately a bit odd.

The adults in this film also get the job done. Noriega’s performance as Jacinto stands out as the most demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and he does a solid job. Paredes and Luppi simply aren’t given much to do, so, while they’re perfectly capable in their roles, they don’t make too much of an impression. Likewise with Irene Visedo who portrays Conchita. Her job at the orphanage isn’t well defined; I was never sure if she was a teacher or a cook or what. She’s also Jacinto’s lover/fiancee and an object of affection for the youngsters at the orphanage. She’s intriguing and shows sparks of passion in her few scenes, but she’s under-utilized.

Story is a bit of a concern in “The Devil’s Backbone.” While the core plot is fully developed and well executed, there a few too many story tendrils that seem unnecessary to the film as a whole. They do provide the adult characters with a little extra development, but it’s not really enough to warrant bringing the central action to a halt to convey the complexity of the miniature society within the orphanage walls. I’m just not sure the reveals late in the story really gain all that much from the addition of such scenes. I suppose on an obvious level these little extras work with the larger theme of secrecy, but I felt the sequences dragged the story down more than bolstering it. More successful are the sequences with the children emphasizing how the actions of adults — both in the world outside of the orphanage walls and the one within the orphanage walls — have brought about the loss of innocence.

When “The Devil’s Backbone” sticks to its larger themes of the danger that is real vs. the danger you imagine and the heartbreak of children forced to grow up too quickly, it’s exceptionally moving. By acknowledging certain mainstays of the typical haunted house story, del Toro succeeds in disarming his audience so that the real horror of the movie — the horror that humanity will inflict upon itself when given the slightest initiative to do so — can resonate with real power. Three stars out of four.

The Devil’s Backbone” (“El espinazo del diablo”): Rated R. Starring Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Irene Visedo, Jose Manuel Lorenzo, Francisco Maestre, Junio Valvede, Berta Ojea, Adrian Lamana and Daniel Esparza. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz. Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro. Art direction by Cesar Macarron. Original music by Javier Navarrete.

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