"What is a ghost? A terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over & over… a sentiment suspended in time."
So opens The Devil’s Backbone, director Guillermo del Toro’s chilling Spanish Civil War ghost story. His first two features had been slightly compromised – first Cronos with it’s budgetary restrictions, & then Mimic had studio interference. But The Devil’s Backbone, a Spanish-Latin American co-production, sees the director with more freedom to fully realise the film as he’d like it to be. The result is a beautifully crafted, intelligent, visually stunning & clearly very personal film.
It’s 1939 & the last days of the Spanish Civil War. 10 year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at a Republican orphanage run by Argentine professor Casares (Frederico Luppi) & widowed schoolmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Also on the staff are brutal caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), & his fiancé Conchita (Irene Visedo). However, it’s not the War that frightens the boys, but rather the ghostly figure that they dub "He who sighs", who haunts the corridors & basement of the orphanage.
Del Toro attended an all-male Jesuit school in Mexico, & he draws on a lot of that experience in creating the relationships among the boys. There is some nasty bullying that occurs, but the director has claimed that they’re all based on actual events from his school days. Not only that, one of the scariest moments, with Carlos in bed, comes directly from a ghostly experience he had himself as a child. These are just a couple of examples of how personal the film is, & they help to give the film an authority & emotional force that makes it stand out.
The biggest problem with ghost stories of course, is that once we discover who the ghost is & what they want, they’re no longer scary. Del Toro realises this, & responds by making the ghost just one element in the overall film, which also takes in such diverse elements as infidelity, politics, & a stash of gold in the safe. Del Toro & co-screenwriters Antonio Trashorras & David Munoz brilliantly weave all these threads together for a shattering final act that, whilst not really frightening per se, is compelling, extremely tense, & quite painful to watch (but in the best possible way).
The narrative echoes (& can be read as a metaphor for) the Civil War itself. If you know much about the conflict, then there are plenty of parallels within the film that increases your understanding, appreciation & admiration of del Toro’s achievement. Which could have been a problem if you know nothing about the war, but there’s enough background knowledge provided to enable you to enjoy the film as a stand-alone narrative. Although of course it may make you want to go out & find out more about the war – if only to understand the film more deeply – which is no bad thing.
Drawing from a range of influences, including the likes of The Spirit of the Beehive & Night of the Hunter, del Toro weaves in his own dazzling visual style. From the opening montage to one of the most devastating explosions I can recall, the film is always terrific to look at. A massive unexploded bomb stands huge in the centre of the playground, a constant reminder of the war that looms on an orphanage now living on borrowed time. Hypnotic cinematography by Guillermo Navarro alternates bright, sun-drenched exteriors on the Spanish Plains with beautiful indoors nocturnal scenes, including a supremely eerie basement. The directors’ handling of the suspense sequences is exemplary, most notably in the scene when Carlos must fetch water at the dead of night. The ghost itself is well executed, with intelligent photography, make-up & subtle CGI giving the young actor a convincingly spooky feel.
Sound is also particularly well utilised, from Javier Navarretes’ wonderful score to the constant, unease-inducing bass tones in the basement. The ghost’s movements are characterised by a really creepy sound effect obtained by sprinkling salt into a saucer of cola. The sequence immediately following the explosion is the most attention-grabbing moment with regards to sound, but it is just as accomplished throughout the film.
The acting is a consistent joy, particularly Noriega (Tesis, Open Your Eyes), playing mean as the thuggish Jacinto, Luppi as the elderly professor, & Paredes as the woman he secretly yearns for. Having such a large cast of children runs a real risk of backfiring with unconvincing performances, but surprisingly this is never an issue, with the lead children being particularly accomplished.
If you’re after a full-on, scare the pants off you horror movie, you might be a bit disappointed with The Devil’s Backbone, since the film refuses to be constricted by its’ perceived genre. Poignant, elegant, humane, moving & intelligent, The Devil’s Backbone mixes supernatural horror, political allegory, psychological thriller, love story, coming of age, & historical drama, with all the ideas being well explored. The most impressive thing about the film is the way del Toro manages to unite all these disparate elements into a coherent & compelling whole. Perhaps not the best around strictly as a genre piece, this is something even better – a genuinely great film.
The UK DVD released by Optimum has a fine image quality that brings out Navarros’ excellent cinematography perfectly. However, it is letterboxed, which will disappoint those with widescreen TVs. The sound is a great Spanish Dolby 5.1 track, with optional English or French subtitles. For extras, there is a better than average, 19 minute making of with intelligent interviews with all the main participants, and special effects shot compositions for two sequences, plus storyboard/film comparisons for another four sequences. Plus, you get a good trailer, bios, & poster/stills galleries, & trailers for Amores Perros, Breathless, Aimee & Jaguar, and Wages of Fear. If you can live with the letterboxing, this is highly recommendable package.