THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is a stylish and unpredictable supernatural chiller from director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade 2) which deftly mixes horror, suspense and dark humor. Twelve-year-old Carlos is the latest arrival to Santa Lucia School, an imposing stone building that shelters the orphans of the Republican militia and politicians during the last days of the Spanish Civil War. Carlos gradually uncovers the dark ties that bind the inhabitants of the school: hidden riches, sexual intrigue and the restless ghost of a murdered student. Presented by Pedro and Agustin Almodovar (All About My Mother) and starring Marisa Paredes (The Flower of My Secret), Federico Luppi (Men with Guns) and Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes), THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is a richly atmospheric, genuinely thrilling ride in the tradition of The Others and The Sixth Sense.
eyelights: the sharp direction. the multi-facetted story. the children actors.
eyesores: the narrator’s curious perception of ghosts. the contrived dialogues.
‘El espinazo del diablo’ is a Spanish suspense film that takes place in the final year of the Spanish Civil War. It revolves around the inhabitants of an orphanage, with its key protagonist being Carlos, a pre-teen boy whose sudden arrival will bring the ghost of another young boy out from the shadows.
What is this ghost doing in the orphanage? What does it want? And why is it that only Carlos seems to see it?
This was Guillermo del Toro’s second Spanish-language film, after ‘Cronos’, and is the predecessor to his masterpiece ‘El laberinto del fauno‘ – which he considers a “sibling”, or related, film. Based on his recollections of his uncle ( who apparently returned as a ghost), he considers it his most personal film. It took him 16 years to make.
‘El espinazo del diablo’ is composed of three intertwining stories:
- Carlos, the sheltered boy who finds himself left behind in the orphanage, all alone to fend off a few bullies and escape the creepy ghostly apparition.
- Carmen and Dr. Casares, the orphanage’s administrator and doctor. Theirs is a relation somewhat akin to the one in ‘The Remains of the Day’ – except that there is more warmth and acknowledgement here.
- Jacinto, who has been at the orphanage for most of the last 15 years and who, embarrassed to be an orphan, is trying to leave it all behind him – once he gets into the safe, thereby ensuring his financial future.
I loved how ‘El espinazo del diablo’ is built (and marketed) as a scary movie, and does everything to put the heebie-jeebies in us, but it’s not actually a horror film proper. In fact, the ghost is the least scary thing in the whole picture: if anything, this is more about the impact of war and poverty on human hearts.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
This is where tension comes from: when you first see the film, it’s nail-biting because danger comes from outside, in the form of the soldiers and the rebellion, and it also lurks inside, in the form of Jacinto and (at first) Jaime. And then there’s the apparent danger of Santi. Between the lot of them, it’s an unrelenting experience.
What was great about this film is that the “clear” dangers weren’t real and the true danger came from elsewhere. For instance, Santi, the ghost boy, is actually not scary at all aside from being dead; he’s just misunderstood. I also thought it was a nice touch that Jaime is redeemed in the end, as we get to understand him better.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
What’s amazing is just how good the child actors were – a rare feat in any film, but especially in this quantity. I’ve seen better, but we are treated to subtle performances from many of them, in particular Fernando Tielve and Íñigo Garcés as Carlos and Jaime (del Toro personally picked out Tielve, who was originally supposed to be an extra).
The adults were quite good too:
- Marisa Paredes was excellent as Carmen. I loved the quiet dignity that she gave the character, an aging woman who must have been very lovely once, but is worn out by time and political strife. She commands respect.
- Federico Luppi made Dr. Casares endearing. He had a quiet resolve, was reflective, and also pained by his unconditional love for Carmen because he couldn’t be with her. He looked a little bit like an older Christopher Lee.
- Irene Visedo was terrific as Conchita, Jacinto’s fiancée, who stoically swallowed her heartache to go get help. I was impressed with how she braved, even confronted, her tormentor – and refused to let him win, even if she had to pay with her life. Nice.
The only weak point was Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, who overstated many of his lines. I suppose that he was overshadowed by the rest of the cast, and he would have been quite alright in a b movie, but in a production such as this one he simply didn’t pass muster; one gets the impression that he rides on his good looks.
Otherwise, the film is near-perfect. The pace is absolutely delicious; it’s an appropriate translation of the era and you really get the time to understand the characters, their motivations and their secret fears. Where the script falls down is in that some of the dialogues are slightly contrived, making them unrealistic. But it’s mostly pretty good.
del Toro obviously paid a lot of attention to the look of his picture (even though it pales in comparison to the intricate beauty of ‘El laberinto del fauno’). One gets the impression that every moment was carefully considered by the director from a visual and atmospheric standpoint, making a dry, dusty setting look utterly captivating.
There are a few superb visual touches, of course, such as the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, which has been defused but remains planted there, statuesque, and the look of Santi, the ghost boy, who walked around with a haze of murky water around him and with blood flowing from a wound on his skull. These images are unforgettable.
By the time one gets to the ending, we are entirely committed. Even though it wraps up in a simple and unassuming way, we are satisfied: del Toro manages to make it the only possible result of the turns of events and leaves us sated, fulfilled as few other films could; we simply couldn’t ask for more.
‘El espinazo del diablo’ is far less visual, brutal or scary than ‘El laberinto del fauno’, and will likely always remain in its shadow. And yet it’s quite an excellent picture, weaving drama, suspense and a smidge of horror with such finesse that it’s inarguably one of the best ghost stories in decades. This is cinema at its most potent.
Date of viewing: December 1, 2013