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THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Fernando Tielve, I˝igo GarcÚs, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Audio: Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: July 27, 2004

"What is a ghost?  A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time again?  An instant of pain, perhaps?"

Film *** 1/2

In the mid-1990's, director Guillermo del Toro burst upon the international stage with his horror tale, Cronos.  It was a witty, modern revision of the familiar vampire tale, featuring a magical artifact that transforms a gentile old man into a vampire.  While somewhat uneven, Cronos was nevertheless a critical success, paving the way for del Toro's later films.  American audiences will probably be acquainted with his subsequent mainstream efforts (Mimic, Blade 2).  However, del Toro's most accomplished work to date remains his third film, a delicate European supernatural chiller - El Espinazo del Diablo (a.k.a. The Devil's Backbone).

Released in 2001 in America, this award-winning horror film came and went without much fanfare.  Nevertheless, it left an undeniable impression upon those fortunate enough to catch it in the theaters.  While not solely a horror film, The Devil's Backbone incorporated many elements of the ghost story into its tale, as unfolded through the point of view of a young child.

That child is Carlos (Tielve, in his first film role), and he is utterly alone in the world, having been orphaned by the ravages of the Spanish Civil War.  Men sympathetic to the Republican cause have spirited Carlos away to the Santa Lucia School, a lone bastille situated in the vast emptiness of barren fields far removed from most other settlements.  The school is secretly a refuge for orphans of the war, yet it hides even darker mysteries.  Somewhere on its grounds lies a treasure trove of gold, the wealth of the Republican militia.  The head mistress knows of its location but refuses to divulge her knowledge.  The most mysterious secret of all, as Carlos quickly learns, is the rumor of a ghost - the restless spirit of a lost child.  The other children refer to him only as "one who sighs."  Though they do not know his exact identity, they hesitantly point out that Carlos now occupies what was once the bed of a child named Santi, who disappeared around the time the ghost first appeared.  One older child in particular, the initially antagonistic Jaime (GarcÚs), seems to know more about Santi's disappearance and the ghost than he will reveal.

Other dangers abound.  In the school's courtyard, battered and half-buried into the earth, rests a huge bomb.  An intruder one night from the darkened skies above, it lies un-detonated in the courtyard.  Too bulky to move, too dangerous to disassemble, it is a constant remainder of the death that follows the children's every footsteps, here within the school and beyond in the distant fighting.  The greed of men will trouble them too, for fortune hunters, made aware of the Republican treasure, seek it for their own, and they do not mean to let a few teachers or malnourished children stand in their way.

Sanction within the confines of this orphanage school, then, is not truly safe.  One evening, Carlos wonders from the dormitory to fill a pitcher of water, though it is forbidden to wander out after curfew.  When Jacinto (Noriega), the school's young handyman, enters the kitchen after hearing suspicious noises in the courtyard, Carlos is forced to hide.  And from the kitchen, there only one place to run - down the stairs into the cellar.

A cellar is a good place to find a ghost!  Carlos wanders down and comes within a hair's breath of encountering the ghost.  It is actually his second near run-in with the ghost, which has been observing him carefully since his arrival.  Soon enough, the ghost will materialize for real and will offer a chilly prophetic warning: "Many of you will die."

As the days pass, Carlos begins to suspect the truth about this ghost.  The signs seem to point to Jaime's involvement.  Did Santi run away?  Or was he murdered?  And if so, how did he die?  Are Santi and the ghost one and the same?  If Jaime knows the answer, he will not reveal it.

In a mysterious way, Santi's disappearance, the hauntings, and the search for the hidden fortune are all somehow linked.  Some of the characters are not what they seem, either; friends may become villains, while enemies may become allies in the end.

In general, the film derives its narrative impulse from the children.  They create the legend surrounding the ghost, and events which transpire throughout the film are often seen or interpreted through their eyes.  Even Jacinto, the young handyman, was once an orphan himself at this school not too long ago.  His sad past and his tormented inner feelings make him in many ways the tragic character of the film, even though Carlos is its central character.

The other adults in the film are supporting characters, but they are well developed and well-portrayed.  The school mistress, as played by Marisa Paredes, is a world-weary woman, caught in the struggles of this Civil War despite her better judgment.  Federico Luppi (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Lee) plays the head professor, an emotionally impotent man who nevertheless provides a key father figure for the young children.

The Devil's Backbone will trace the final days of some of these characters.  True to its warning, the ghost's prophecy will be horribly realized, though perhaps not in a way that is expected.  In fact, the film may be considered a dramatic film with horror overtones, rather than a straight-forward fright fest.  There are certainly a number of frightening scenes, but the essence of the film is in its involving storyline and its sympathetic characters.  Even the ghost, as horrible as its appearance may be, is not the wholly evil creature it initially seems.

In a sense, the film is about abandonment or the loneliness of the path not taken.  Much of the despair in the film involves the loss of loved ones or even betrayal by loved ones.  This emotional depth provides a tragic resonance that most horror films lack.  Furthermore, the film's emphasis upon the children draws the audience closer to these characters, as though by a collective empathy we may spirit them away to safety.

The Devil's Backbone was a labor of love for del Toro.  Written fifteen years prior to its eventual filming, it is a mature and intelligent movie that is not afraid to mix in drama or a dash of childhood adventure into its horror.  For viewers who enjoy European-style horror, The Devil's Backbone may be a film well worth discovering.

Video ***

Horror films depend a lot upon their cinematography for the proper atmosphere.  Fortunately, this DVD reproduces the film's bold contrasts in light and dark very well.  The film has many scenes in near darkness, and the transfer carries them off quite nicely, with solid color fidelity.  The photography is generally soft but there are no glaring marks of dust or degradation for this relatively new film.  There is a slight trace of grain in some of the dark scenes, otherwise this is a fine-looking film.

Audio  *** 1/2

Well, what a nice surprise here.  Presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, The Devil's Backbone sounds great!  Although the film is fairly dialogue-driven, the surround speakers seem to be in frequent use.  The film's eerie soundscape is constantly in motion, either by the softly swirling winds, the patter of unseen footsteps, or even the roar of occasional explosions or gunshots.  The score is also fairly evocative and complements the moody film images quite well.

Features ***

It is so wonderful that Columbia Tri Star decided to pay some attention to this international film in the features department.  The extras on this DVD are not too many in number, but they are still a pleasant surprise.  First, there is the commentary track by director Guillermo del Toro and his cinematographer Guillermo Navarro.  They provide a bit of history into the Spanish Civil War that serves as the setting for the film.  They also discuss at length the look of the film (and some of its digital effects) as well as their experiences with the young actors as well.  Del Toro eventually explains the symbolism of the film's enigmatic title, too, and its application to some of the characters.  This commentary is spoken in English.

Following that, there is a 13-minute featurette that shows some footage covering the production of the film.  It also provides many of the cast members an opportunity to describe their characters.  This featurette is presented entirely in Spanish, but English subtitles are available.

Next, a storyboard section allows us to view side-by-side comparisons of the pre-production storyboards to the final sequences as seen in the film.  Five scenes are included in this section - the opening credits, Carlos's arrival in the dormitory, two eerie appearances by the ghost, and the air raid that harkens the arrival of the bomb in the courtyard.

Rounding out are 6 deleted scenes with optional commentary and excerpts from the director's notebook.

Summary:

A chilling supernatural tale in the recent tradition of The Others and The Sixth Sense, this stylish film deserves wider recognition.  If you like your horror served up with European-style ambience and flair, check out this film!