DEVIL'S BACKBONE, THE
During the Spanish Civil War, 10 year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is left at Santa Lucia, a school for orphaned boys when his father is killed at the front. A large unexploded bomb stand leaning in the yard of the school, which is run with an iron rule by one-legged widowed headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and science professor Dr Casares (Federico Luppi), who stores foetuses in jars of alcohol. Former student Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) now works there and shares his nights with Carmen and the maid Conchita (Irene Visedo), but is viciously cruel to the boys, preferring to dream about the gold he suspects is stored in the safe. Carlos soon clashes with the orphan leader Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), who bullies all the boys. One night as a dare, Carlos sneaks into the kitchen, and realises the school is haunted.
Review by Louise Keller:
Ghosts are like insects trapped in amber, we are told. A haunting thought. A tense and gripping story with supernatural elements, The Devil’s Backbone is an extraordinarily powerful film, filled with chilling moments and evocative characters. Guillermo del Toro has structured this moody tale in superb fashion and we immediately become involved in all the characters’ lives; has his own frustrations – from the impotent professor, sexually hungry headmistress to the bitterness of the former student who has no sense of worth. Carlos is a good natured child, who has been protected from the horrors of war and resulting truths. There’s a war of different sorts at the orphanage and everyone is on edge. When he is abandoned at the remote school outpost, we meet the other orphans through Carlos’ eyes and the revelations of the missing boy who once slept in Carlos’ bed are genuinely creepy. The supernatural theme is developed by suggestive, eerie sounds, but are never overdone. The performances are all marvellous, with special mention to the exceptional young boys. This is an outstanding film that grows on you. The characters become very real and I guarantee that you will be thinking about them long after the credits have rolled. Stark locations and the austere surroundings of the school add additional chills. Be warned, there are some graphically disturbing scenes in this intelligently told film, and without giving too much away, I especially like how Jacinto’s fate is sealed – all the boys have an input. There’s no joy in revenge, just survival. Richly potent and hugely effecting, The Devil’s Backbone is powerful filmmaking full of imagery.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It’s such a pleasure to be instantly transported from the cinema to an unfamiliar place, and kept there, perhaps intrigued, moved and entertained, while a storyteller amazes us with their strange tale. The Devil’s Backbone provides such pleasures, combining all the elements at a filmmaker’s disposal to turn your cinema seat into a magic carpet. Guillermo del Toro sets up a classic ghost story with a totally original approach, and adds a twist or two (but you’ll have to discover those for yourselves). The film’s success lies in the execution, and there are no weaknesses, from the performances to the camerawork to the music and the sensational production design. The title refers to a birth defect, graphically illustrated on a preserved embryo in the principal’s study, which is said to mark children who were never meant to be born. The significance is an elliptical reference to the bad guy of the story. Apart from some excellent stunt work, the film is also impressive for its use of digital effects in a subtle yet effective departure from mainstream ‘ghost’ effects. It’s to be hoped that audiences who like movies with some depth as well as width will overcome any resistance to subtitles and do themselves favour. The Devil’s Backbone is truly haunting stuff.
Email this article
DEVIL'S BACKBONE, THE (M15+)
Espinazo del Diablo, El
CAST: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Íñigo Garcés, Fernando Tielve, Irene Visedo
PRODUCER: Pedro Almodóvar, Guillermo del Toro
DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
SCRIPT: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Guillermo Navarro
EDITOR: Luis De La Madrid
MUSIC: Javier Navarrete
PRODUCTION DESIGN: César Macarrón
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 16, 2002 (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth); August 1, 2002: Adelaide
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: December 2, 2002