On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
by NIR SHALEV
In the middle of a desert and surrounded by mountains lies a gothic orphanage. It is run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). All of the kids in it are boys of varying ages and the latest newcomer is Carlos (Fernando Tielve). Dumped there by his tutor, Carlos immediately feels alone and is also, almost immediately picked on by the tallest and, probably, oldest kid there, Jaime (Inigo Garces). Jaime eventually picks on Carlos less and less because Carlos isn’t afraid. Carlos even tries to buddy up to him more and more as the film progresses.
The film takes place in 1939, during the last year of the Spanish Civil War. There is a, supposedly, deactivated bomb standing erect in the front yard of the orphanage; it is symbolic of a ticking time bomb. It showcases that the film not only takes place during wartime but also reminds us that there is a ghost in the orphanage. Oh, right. I forgot to mention the ghost. It is of a pale boy with a crack at the top left part of his forehead and it has a stream of phantasmal blood that leaks upwards and out of it.
The gothic aesthetics of the orphanage in collaboration with “the one who sighs” (the ghost) make for a deliciously creepy film. The Devil’s Backbone is advertised as a gothic horror/ghost film and visually it is. But the ghost isn’t the focus of it. Much like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the doctor is not nearly as fascinating as his creature. And in this film, the ghost isn’t a threat to the kids. Sometimes at night it says things like “everyone will die” or that “a lot of death is going to happen”, but what it does is warn those who listen because it’s referring to the evil that is incarnate within the orphanage. There is a person who’s responsible for creating that malevolent spirit and that person still walks those halls.
While watching the film I was reminded of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, in which the protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is adamantly convinced that there’s a person controlling the supernatural Headless Horseman. And he was right. In The Devil’s Backbone, there is a monster in human form and it has a truly despicable personality. And that is the focus of the film. Not the war, not the internal demons that haunt the film’s elder characters, and not even the ghost, for the most part. Here, the ghost is a useful plot device but it’s used in a manner of misdirection, and by the end of the film everything comes full circle and the audience knows who everybody is, and was, and why everything had happened.
Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro had purposely crammed all of the exposition at the start of the film and throughout its first act so that he’d be able to insert many slow, quiet moments throughout the rest of the film and focus properly on the characters. He took a gamble but it worked. I hadn’t watched The Devil’s Backbone before writing this review, but I’m now glad that I have because I finally understand why this is del Toro’s personal favorite film of his.
Lastly, not only did I finally get to watch and enjoy this wonderful, haunting film but the main reason in which I mention it here, and highly recommend it, is because it’s being released by The Criterion Collection. It has the suitable spine number 666 and has a slew of special features that can be found on Criterion’s website.
Rent it, buy, or do what you will, but make sure to watch The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a wonderful film.
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