What is a ghost? Tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead which still seems to be alive? An emotion suspended in time like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber?
Review Date: August 27, 2002
Released by: Columbia Tri-Star
Release date: 6/25/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
So inquires the opening narrative of The Devil's Backbone
, a Spanish gothic ghost story with so much more to offer than its genre trappings indicate.
At the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is unceremoniously discarded at a remote orphanage after his father is killed in battle. The orphanage, named Santa Lucia School, is cavernous, isolated and crawling with shadows amidst the glaring sunlight of the Spanish plains. The eeriness of the reclusive institution is alleviated, however, by the kindly Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the stern but goodhearted headmistress. Dr. Casares and Carmen keep the orphanage running in order to keep their charges clothed, fed and schooled, despite a severe shortage of funds. A stash of gold hidden away in a deep kitchen cupboard is the only lifeline for adults and children alike.
The other orphans sharing quarters with Carlos are typical representations of pre-teen boys and their behavior. There is Jaime (Inigo Garces) the bully who will turn good; his outward anger and powers of intimidation are manifestations of a repressed secret. The other boys are followers who extend a cautious hand of friendship to Carlos - when Jaime isn't looking. Carlos, on the other hand, exhibits the behavior variations that immediately tag him as the protagonist: intelligence, courage, loyalty (no matter how many times Jaime screws him over) and a resilient and determined attitude. He goes through a brief hazing period, but eventually wins the other boys over with his unwavering friendliness and cache of comic books and neat toys.
Besides the teachers and orphans, Santa Lucia boasts two other interesting characters. Most prominent is an unexploded bomb buried nose-deep in the orphanage's courtyard like a macabre centerpiece - the school's morbid mascot. The bomb was dropped during battle, but failed to detonate. It has reportedly been defused, but the children swear they can still hear it ticking. Then there is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), metaphorical brother to the courtyard bomb, an orphan who never left Santa Lucia and now works as its caretaker. The bomb is truly dead, only retaining the illusion of life by virtue of children's imaginations. Jacinto is alive and ticking for real, a time bomb ready to explode.
While the bomb may be an item of curios awe and titillation, the boys reserve true fear for "The One Who Sighs", Santa Lucia's ghostly inhabitant. The tragic figure that haunts the orphanage is the spirit of Santi, a young boy who met with an untimely end on the night the bomb was dropped. Santi appears to Carlos in shimmering, aqueous form more than once, whispering forebodingly "many of you will die". This is not a threat but a warning. Santi's ominous message ties very closely with the future of Santa Lucia and the volatile nature of one of its inhabitants. But Santi is not only foretelling the future. His appearances are a plea for help, for his spirit will not rest until he gets retribution for his death.
The Devil's Backbone
is a Spanish import originally titled El Espinazo del Diablo in its native tongue. To preserve its authenticity, the DVD was released in Spanish with English subtitles. This gem was masterfully directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who shows a vast stylistic departure from his work on the mediocre Mimic and the frenetic, MTV-meets-The Matrix
pace of Blade II
. Del Toro unfolds this multi-layered story with painstaking attention to fine details like character development, metaphorical and thematic relationships, and the slow torment of unraveling mystery. Please do not equate "slow" with the speed reserved for a 3-hour plus movie that numbs your butt while you desperately await a payoff that usually comes about 2 hours and 45 minutes too late. The pacing in The Devil's Backbone
is deliberate, intended to hold you at full attention and keep you yearning for the next startling revelation.
Although The Devil's Backbone
was marketed as a ghost story to be filed under "horror" at your local Blockbuster, it is truly a multifaceted genre film that is hard to categorize. Yes, it is a ghost story with respect to the presence of an eerie dead kid floating fluidly around the orphanage portending doom and seeking revenge. But it is also a thriller laced with mystery, murder, love (both the hopeless romantic and merely sexual kind), war and thievery. What Del Toro has accomplished in his exposition is akin to shucking an ear of corn - he peels away the obvious exterior to reveal silken threads binding everything together and covering the gold that is the root of the story.
This film has routinely been compared to recent ghostly blockbusters The Others
and The Sixth Sense
. The Devil's Backbone
certainly deserves a place of honor next to its more overtly supernatural cousins. However, comparisons with those two films hints at that new trend in horror movies - the twist ending. The Devil's Backbone has no such ending. While it can be fun (albeit distracting) trying to figure out what the "twist" might turn out to be in other movies, I found Backbone's predictable ending refreshingly straightforward and rewarding. Perhaps the comparison is justified due to the presence of strong, precocious, likeable children. All of the child actors portraying the various orphans turn in remarkable performances. Their emotions fluctuate from fear to curiosity to sadness to anger, all believably. In this movie, as in its two more famous predecessors, the children prove their resilience and capacity to remain strong in situations that would unglue most adults.
The Devil's Backbone
is presented in 1:85 anamorphic widescreen. This is a very nice transfer that showcases Guillermo Navarro's stunning cinematography consisting of wide vistas of Spanish grasslands and the narrow confines and cathedral ceilings of Santa Lucia. Deeply saturated colors are the highlight of the transfer. Daylight shots are composed of warm, rich, sepia-toned hues while the pitch black of nightfall is represented as a cold, steely blue. This film looks like an oil painting brought to vibrate, animated life.
As with any intentionally creepy movie, many ambient sounds are present in this sound track. Whispers, echoing footfalls, and whistling wind through vast corridors all run amok through every speaker. These sounds are not pervasive however, and only appear through the rear speakers when the effect is called for. Dialogue and music are clear, rich and well balanced.
Fans of this movie and Guillermo Del Toro in general will be very pleased with the accompanying audio commentary track, which also features director of photography Guillermo Navarro. Although the director warns that this is his maiden voyage in the world of DVD commentary, he does an outstanding job, weaving anecdotes from the film's production, his other films such as Blade II, Cronos
, and the movies and directors that were his inspiration for this fine piece of cinematic craftsmanship. I was also thrilled that he offered the symbolic meaning of the title "The Devil's Backbone", as that was something I was struggling with.
Another highlight of this disc is a short, but thorough making-of featurette, in which Del Toro and other crew members chime in about making a movie of ghosts and war. Also involved are all of the principal actors, who really grasp their characters' personalities and motivations, making for some very interesting sound bites.
In addition, this DVD features storyboard comparisons for the opening sequence and credits and four key scenes, as well as the theatrical trailers for The Devil's Backbone, 13 Ghosts
(1960), All About My Mother
(directed by Pedro Almodovar, who produced Backbone) and Not One Less
What is a ghost? Is it the literal spirit of a dead child seeking revenge for its death? Is it the defused bomb, dead for all intents and purposes but infused with ticking frustration over its incomplete mission? Is it Jacinto, the orphan who seems not able to ever leave the confines of Santa Lucia? Or how about Dr. Casares, who cannot express his love for Carmen physically, but will recite poetry to her through their adjacent walls - a disembodied voice? The Devil's Backbone
poses this question to the audience and presents many multiple choice answers in this intriguing and memorable story.
This great DVD is treated with the respect it deserves through a superb and beautiful transfer. In addition, you will be treated to a terrific commentary track that will give you a greater understanding of the film in its entirety and a healthy respect for Guillermo Del Toro as a director and storyteller. Overall, this is a very good package that everyone should feel compelled to spend a couple hours with.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B+
Sound - B
Supplements - B
- Running Time - 1 hour 48 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- 28 Chapter Stops
- Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary with director Guillermo Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro
- Making-of featurette
- Storyboard comparisons
- Theatrical trailers for The Devil's Backbone, 13 Ghosts (1960), All About My Mother, Not One Less