The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
“What is a ghost?”
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi
Synopsis: After Carlos, a 12-year-old whose father has died in the Spanish Civil War, arrives at an ominous boy’s orphanage he discovers the school is haunted and has many dark secrets that he must uncover.
Although it’s generally described as a horror movie, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, doesn’t really fit easily into any single category. Like the same director’s later Pan’s Labyrinth which forms a companion piece to this movie, The Devil’s Backbone straddles a number of genres: thriller, drama, war, supernatural and horror. Its story takes place in a secluded orphanage during the dying days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, and is, in fact, an allegory of that war and its various factions.
Fernando Tielve (Pan’s Labyrinth) plays 12-year-old Carlos, who’s brought to the orphanage by comrades of his father whom, unknown to Carlos, recently died in combat with the Fascists. The orphanage is sympathetic to their cause, having already taken in a number of other boys, but defeat is only a matter of weeks away, and the school’s headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is not only reluctant to take on another mouth to feed but also keen to offload the gold ingots the orphanage has been storing for the cause. However, after Dr Casares (Federico Luppi — Pan’s Labyrinth) has talked Carmen around, the men depart, leaving a distraught Carlos in the care of the orphanage.
Almost immediately, he’s targeted by two of its residents. The first is the bully Jaime (Pan’s Labyrinth) who, for some reason, takes an instant dislike to Carlos; the second is the ghost of Santi (Junio Valverde), a former resident who disappeared some months before, on the same night that a bomb, which still remains vertically lodged in the yard, fell on the orphanage but failed to explode. However, the threat from Jaime is diminished after Carlos saves him from drowning in a cistern under the orphanage, only to be replaced by a more ominous danger from Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega – Blackthorn), the orphanage’s handyman who was himself once a ward of the orphanage, and who uses the loveless affair he’s conducting with the much older Carmen to give him access to her keys, one of which opens the safe in which all that gold is stashed.
The Devil’s Backbone might disappoint fans of more conventional horror movies thanks to its languid pace and dependence on atmosphere rather than jump shots to generate its scares. However, this thoughtful approach to the sinister side of its story proves to be one of The Devil’s Backbones strengths, calling upon the audience to immerse itself in the horror of the moment rather than simply shoving dismembered limbs at the screen to get a reaction. For example, the dreamlike way in which blood rises from the wound of the ghostly child, as if he is still sinking into the waters that claimed his life even as he stalks the corridors of the orphanage, is truly unsettling. The film’s similarities to Pan’s Labyrinth — which Del Toro refers to as the sister movie of this one — are unmistakable, and yet they are each distinctive movies in their own rights, both alike and unalike. The visuals are lush, with rich and vivid use of colour, and while del Toro’s labyrinthine screenplay might sometimes take the long route to tell its tale, there is always something going on to keep the attentive viewer absorbed. The Devil’s Backbone might not be a conventional horror film, but it’s certainly a superior one.