The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo]
by Joe Steiff
Director Guillermo del Toro gives us a truly frightening little ghost story.
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Abandoned at an isolated orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) finds himself in an eerie world on the brink of destruction. His new home is an imposing though deteriorating compound of buildings that encircle a dusty courtyard, the cool darkness of its interiors offering little sanctuary from the desert sun or the violence that men do in the name of politics or greed.
In the hands of director Guillermo del Toro (who co-wrote the script with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz), The Devil’s Backbone is not a political treatise or history lesson, but rather a ghost story. A classic ghost story, filled with atmosphere, longing and revenge. In that sense, the film slides nicely alongside The Others, What Lies Beneath and even The Sixth Sense.
As Carlos slowly begins to make friends and explore his new home, he becomes aware of “The One Who Sighs,” a ghost (Junio Valverde) that many of the children have heard if not seen.
But ghosts are not the only secret or threat to safety for those living within the orphanage’s walls. Food and resources are running out. The headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and the teacher Casares (Federico Luppi) fear for their lives as former comrades are executed in the neighboring town. The brooding caretaker (Eduardo Noriega) secretly searches for hidden gold. And as one would expect from such an insular world, love and sex have become complicated to say the least.
The Devil’s Backbone weaves these threads and setting into a surreal landscape with many of its most haunting scenes taking place in daylight, albeit the shadowed daylight of high-ceilinged hallways and cellars. The cinematography and production design work hand in hand to create an almost timeless sense of peril. There are no jump-in-your-seat kind of jolts, but rather the film slowly and methodically builds an atmosphere of threat and retribution wherein secrets can be revealed and ghosts laid to rest.
Íñigo Garcés is exceptional as Carlos’ bully-turned-friend Jaime, and Noriega steams the screen as Jacinth, the caretaker. As the adults in charge, Paredes and Luppi are compelling to watch. Fine acting all around. Del Toro has created a memorable and classic ghost story on film.
Though best known for his 1993 film, Cronos (AKA Chronos), most English-speaking American audiences are probably more familiar with del Toro’s last film, 1997’s Mimic, which happened to be his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking. He makes the journey again this spring with the release of Blade II. Now, I’ll definitely see Blade II, and I’m a fan of Mimic, but neither is in the same league as The Devil’s Backbone which is not just a well-made ghost story but an exceptional film as well.
Joe Steiff teaches film at Columbia College in Chicago, and is surprised to hear that Kris Kristofferson will be appearing in Blade II (didn’t he kill himself in the first one?) and saddened to hear that Stephen Dorff won’t be.
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