EDITOR’S NOTE: Because of their similar settings and genre tropes, some viewers have been drawing parallels between the current release THE ORPHANAGE, which was executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE , which was directed and co-written by Del Toro. Personally, we think the similarities are mostly generic, and the details are quite different; nevertheless, we offer up this retrospective review of BACKBONE, which is one of the greatest ghost stories ever committed to celluloid.
There’s a moment in the fourth HELLRAISER movie that illuminates much of what is wrong with the horror genre. One of the lead characters is decapitated in a series of slow-motion cuts meant to be a highlight of the film, but the impact is negligible, because nothing about the scene is truly crafted to terrify an audience; it’s all about providing a show-stopping special effects tour-de-force, and that’s exactly how the audiences “reads” the scene—as something unreal and unaffecting, a series of almost abstract images totally divorced from any kind of emotional impact. Put bluntly, what’s happening on screen doesn’t matter; the scene could be lifted out of context and it would make little difference, because you just don’t care. Now, as a kind of antidote to that approach, we have THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, a film that strives as mightily and successfully as any in the genre to make you care, to make the events on screen affect you as if they really do matter. To watch this film is to enter its world, as completely as you ever entered any mainstream drama, and the range of emotions evoked is impressive without every being manipulative. This is a film rich in texture, characterization and themes. Besides being genuinely creepy, it is also surprisingly moving. It is, quite probably (and this is not a back-handed compliment) the saddest horror movie ever made.
Set during the Spanish Civil War, the story of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE follows Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is brought to an orphanage run by sympathizers with the Republican army. This supposedly safe haven turns out to be a microcosm for the conflict going on in the outside world; the point is driven home by the presence of an unexploded (and supposedly diffused) bomb that landed in the courtyard. Soon, Carlos learns that Santi (Junio Valverde) disappeared on the night the bomb dropped; everyone assumes he ran away in a blind panic, but if so, then who is the ghost haunting the building’s basement?
While Carlos tries to win the respect and friendship of the other boys and find out what really happened to Santi, complications set in when it turns out that Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan who now works there, plans to steal the gold being held in secret to support the Republican cause. Things come to a head when the men who brought Carlos to the orphanage are caught and executed. Fearful that they may have revealed the truth about their political sympathies, proprietors Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) try to pack up the children and make their escape, but Jacinto sets fire to their car, causing a fatal explosion. The survivors are left to face the dual threat from Jacinto and his pair of thugs and from the vengeful ghost still lurking on the premises.
This brief synopsis of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE may make the ghost sound like almost an irrelevant afterthought, but that is far from the truth. Santi is actually a haunting memory of the casualties of war, a sort of ghostly embodiment reminding us that the violence of the outside world has already claimed one victim within this supposed refuge, and others may follow. Much of the effectiveness of his appearances comes from the fact that the story overturns the conventional horror movie plot, in which normal life is threatened by a monster but ultimately restored at the ending. In this case, with war raging in the world at large, there is no chance for a return to normality, and the young boys must learn to cope in a world where adult violence destroys youthful innocence, of which Santi is merely the most obvious example.
In a highly significant scene, Dr. Casares explains the meaning of the titular phrase to Carlos, pointing to a stillborn baby floating in a bottle of yellow fluid, its spine exposed through some sort of defect. Superstitious people call this “the devil’s backbone,” and consider the yellow fluid to be an almost magical tonic that will restore virility. If Carlos believes in ghost, the doctor insists, then he should believe in the healing power of the fluid as well—something that Casares, a man of science, dismisses. Carlos, for the time being at least, insists that he no longer believes a ghost is haunting the premises; however, after he leaves, we see Dr. Casares (who burns with unrequited love for Carmen) take a sip.
It’s as if the forces of civilization and intellect are withering away while the war rages on, strengthening the virility of violent, self-interested thugs like Jacinto. Male machismo overwhelmes the nuturing feminine principal as, one by one, characters representing sympathy, love, and intelligence are neutralized, until the remaining boys must revert to a sort of primitive tribalism in order to survive. (THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE systematically kills off the female characters who take care of the boys. Although the last of these victims, the doctor, is a man, he fills a feminine role as a sympathetic healer, and the film goes out of its way to emphasize his lack of masculine virility.)
The progress recalls William Golding’s THE LORD OF THE FLIES. Buzzing flies even make a notable appearance near the end, reminding us of the famous scene in the book wherein a young visionary imagines a conversation with the wild boar’s head mounted on a stick—a sort of prophecy of the violent nature emerging in the boys lost on the island.
However, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE has an important difference: it embraces the camaraderie of the group as a necessary survival mechanism marked by loyalty and the courage to take action when necessary in a world without recourse to law and order. Thus, the supernatural forces at work cease to be symbols of blind superstition; instead, they take on a talismanic, almost religious significance, helping to protect the boys from the modern-day violence that threatens them. This transformation is most obviously seen in the undetonated bomb whose hull seems to thrum with hidden life. At one point, Carlos consults the ominous hulk, asking if it will reveal Santi’s presence to him. A shift in the wind whips ribbons dangling from its tail in the direction of the basement, and we see this high-tech weapon of war transformed into a sort of oracle—the first step toward revealing the truth of what happened to Santi, a truth that will ultimately lead the boys to take a stand and defend themselves.
While the thematic ambitions of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE are laudable, one should quickly add that this is no more exercise in pretension. The script by Guillermo Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Munoz may be slow to build, but that’s a necessary element of the ghost story, which requires a careful laying of the foundation before introducing the supernatural elements. This sort of deliberate construction yields magnificent results, providing numerous identifiable characters instead of the usual shooting gallery of potential victims.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Luppi (seen in Del Toro’s CRONOS) brings quiet, moving dignity to Dr. Casares, and Noriega manages to invest some vestige of humanity into Jacinto—an element echoed in the performance of Inigo Garces as Jaime, the apparent bully who turns out to be not so bad after all. It’s as if the two were a doubled image of each other, each with the potential for good or bad, but ultimately choosing opposite paths.
The special effects are some of the best ever seen, easily matching work from the best US facilities; in fact, in at least one way they are even better. The conception of Santi’s ghostly appearances, seen as if underwater even when he is standing in the open air, results in some truly unsettling imagery, motes floating through ripples around him and blood oozing upward from a wound in his scalp. The ever so slightly unreal quality of most CGI effects (often apparent when trying to duplicate believable objects) is actually a plus here, increasing the surreal appearance of this water-drenched phantom.
As a director, this film represents Guillermo Del Toro’s best work. He broke onto the American scene in 1994 with his Mexican-filmed, Spanish-language import CRONOS. This led to his work on the US-made MIMIC in 1997, a compromised effort that saw him gifted with a larger budget but chafing under studio control. In some ways, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is a combination of those two films, mixing the thoughtful writing of CRONOS with the more sophisticated production values and effects of MIMIC. He is currently finishing up work on BLADE 2 and is scheduled to direct HELLBOY, a comic book adaptation.
Although he clearly welcomes the opportunity to work on big-budget Hollywood productions, one hopes that Del Toro will continue to return to his native Mexico and turnout magnificent gems like CRONOS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE from time to time—films that take the genre seriously to move the audience on a deeper level, instead of settling for the easy scream and shock effects.
Del Toro’s ambition is nowhere more evident than in the film’s ending, which (without giving away the plot details) is a curiously moving mixture of optimism and remorse. Rather like the conclusion of George Franju’s art house horror film EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959), we see an escape to the world at large that seem liberating and uplifting, while leaving us with unanswered questions about what that world could possibly have in store for the characters. Whatever conclusions you wish to infer, it’s safe to say that your eyes will not be dry as you witness this scene. There are many horror films that mix fear with humor, but few in memory so effectively combined the supernatural with sadness.
Copyright 2001 by Steve Biodrowski.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (”El Espinazo del Diablo,” 2001). Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Written by Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras & David Munoz. Cast: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa paredes, Federico Luppi, Inigo Garces.