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The Devil's Backbone

Guillermo del Toro's 2001 dark fantasy/horror film.

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A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling...

  • Dec 7, 2009

In Guillermo Del Toro’s own admission, “The Devil’s Backbone” is the one film that he has directed that has become his own personal favorite among other horror films such “Mimic” and “Cronos” and comic book inspired films such as “Blade 2” and “Hellboy”. “El Espinazo del Diablo” is a Spanish-made, gothic horror film written by Antonio Trashorras, David Munoz, and Del Toro that takes place during the Spanish war in the 1920’s. The film is a haunting tale of human affairs, the politics of a war and the sins of the past. 

A young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at an orphanage located at a remote countryside in Spain where his guardians had abandoned him to live with the rest of the forgotten childhood. (most of whom were orphaned because of the war) Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) are the owners of the establishment that despite their limited resources, they do their best to shelter the young boys amid the turmoil of war. This is no ordinary orphanage however, as its dark, gloomy halls have creepy tales of a ghost that walks around at night. Carlos finds himself as the focus of the orphanage’s resident specter, a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde) who is intent on communicating with Carlos. Aligning himself with the other boys in the orphanage, Carlos joins Jaime (Inigo Garces) and the other youngsters to try and find the answer to Santi’s riddle. Meanwhile, the greedy and treacherous Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) without his fiancés Conchita’s (Irene Visedo) knowledge threatens to destroy the orphanage from within; as Jacinto and his cohorts are interested in the gold hidden in the orphanage. 

      Santi at window

                     amber babies
Del Toro’s film is hauntingly beautifully shot; the film is an atmospheric experience that looks very alluring yet it also looks very ominous. It is fortunate that Del Toro isn’t one director who just happens to rely on style and visual manipulation, he remembers that an intricate storyline is what makes a movie truly matter. The film is abundant in metaphors and subtle use of symbolisms as we see Del Toro exercise his delicate hand in crafting his tale. “The Devil’s Backbone” is a very human story that will sadden, amuse and maybe even scare those who are unfamiliar with the struggles within this Spanish period. Del Toro also exhibits a hand of restraint and brings forth questions as “what is a ghost?” and such words carry a very large significance with its backdrop of the supernatural that is more than just a way to thrill or frighten.

        A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling...
The orphanages’ social politics have references to the struggles of the war itself as it emerges as a appalling analogous to Spain’s political disorder. The undetonated bomb that is left in the orphanages’ grounds is a constant reminder of the threat of chaos and the war reaching the orphanages‘ area. The characters themselves are powerful symbols of the warring political sides while the mystery behind the lingering ghostly entity is something that resonates with Spain’s chaotic disorder as one. The film’s imagery repeats itself on occasion as an exercise to a style in poetry or a fable. This was a clever touch since this horror film traces its origins from fairy tales and romance with a very gothic flair. I loved the way Del Toro manipulates the visuals as if the viewer is watching as an spectator at times, and the camera work mimics the angles of one’s corner of the eye (or as one may call it peripheral vision) during the ghostly sequences. 

     Devils Backbone


The film utilizes the use of some CGI especially with the eerie look of ghostly Santi. The outward appearance of our ghost does indeed look very unsettling; he looks like something that was left behind in a inhospitable environment with ghostly droplets of water accompanying Santi. The thing about the story is, as scary as Santi appeared, he is not the film’s main antagonist but rather some of the living are. The visual effects looked very beautiful albeit they maintain a very menacing feel. The humans have their own flaws and are either burdened by pride, greed or lust. Doctor Casara is forced to use a gun to protect his ‘family’ and even the kids are forced to resort to violence. Carmen is an elegant, one-legged woman who still has some sensations of lust even though she is ashamed of her actions. (I guess older women are still into sex after all) I guess this is a way for Del Toro to point out that the living is more to be concerned about than the ghosts of the dead.
The performances in the film are quite good. I found genuine sympathy for the characters even though they are flawed in their own ways. Casara and Carmen are fighting for a political cause in their own way as they store gold for their cause while living on bread and milk most of the time. Carlos despite being the new kid proves to be the more curious and the one who asks the questions. Jaime is the one kid who is the supposed ‘bully’ who has a sensitive side as he is very fond of Conchita. Jaime is one supporting character that has quite a good number of layers. Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is one handsome yet despicable individual but has credible reasons to his behavior; he has psychological issues and even for a bad guy, he still manages to get some emotion going. The strengths of the film lie on its portrayal of humanity, it is a supernatural film that almost doesn’t play like a horror film.
“The Devil’s Backbone” one film that belongs in any movie fan’s collection. It is an essential title that can stand with the best of them. The film is well-acted, scripted and brilliantly directed. I guess one flaw I can say about it is that it is just so remarkably simple that it is a little predictable. However, this type of filmmaking is supposed to be enjoyed through the execution of its visual poetry and methodical storytelling. Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” is one truly poignant and compelling tale that one can see that Del Toro’s heart is all over this creation.
Highly Recommended! [4+ Stars]

The Devils Backbone

special edition DVD santi standing A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling... Jaime Santi at window A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling... amber babies A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling... A Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Story That Exercises Humanity in its Storytelling...

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December 28, 2010
Great review WP, I feel like I have read this before for some reason.
December 08, 2009
Awesome! I still have to see this film in its entirety (saw it heavily edited on cable and with commercial breaks; yuck). Sweet review.
December 09, 2009
I remember watching this on HBO when I first saw it and I went out to buy the dvd after the movie was over. Have you seen Cronos? I am waiting for the remastered re-release.
December 09, 2009
Is there going to be a new release on DVD?
December 09, 2009
yes. There will be in 2010...I hope it gets some extras!
December 09, 2009
Hopefully, it actually gets released. I heard that most companies plan on switching over to Blu-ray entirely by 2011, which sucks by the way.
December 10, 2009
Those rumors have been going on for all depends on how many people do buy the players (not counting PS3). I know more movies are still available on dvd than on Blu.
December 10, 2009
I hope it stays that way. I'm so excited about the new 2-disc set of "The Seventh Seal". It's on sale at Amazon, so I may have to indulge myself for Christmas.
December 10, 2009
so cool
December 15, 2010
so...seen this movie yet?
December 15, 2010
Not yet, but it's high up on my list. I missed it a few weeks ago on TV.
December 08, 2009
I still love this film after all these years but may be impartial to Pan's Labyrinth. I would actually write a review for that one but it's become a bit too popular. This was a very atmopsheric film with great visuals. A tad disturbing but that only made the film even better in my book. Devil's Backbone has one killer ending too!!
December 08, 2009
Thanks, buddy! This does have a killer ending. Pan's Labyrinth has reached mainstream status because of the success of this movie. Have you seen THE ORPHANAGE? Not too shabby. Make sure you check out my review of CRIES AND WHISPERS and tell me what you think. I rented FANNY AND ALEXANDER....
December 08, 2009
I saw parts of The Orphanage but still need to go back & watch it from the beginning. I still haven't seen Cries & Whispers but that's on my list of things to do in the near future. Just finished watching Salo & El Norte this past weekend. Great cinema indeed!! Can't wait for your review of Fanny & Alexander. Fantastic film!!
December 10, 2009
Review SALO pleeaasseee....I'll follow your lead.
December 10, 2009
You're wish has been granted. I promised another reviewer I would do Salo one day but I can't promise any exact dates or even estimated timeframes. This one deserves my undivided attention so I've got to set aside some block of time & just organize my thoughts. SALO was a damned good film though & I'm glad to be the proud owner of such a film.
More Devil's Backbone reviews
review by . May 19, 2009
The Devil's Backbone is an enigma. The DVD cover and the marketing make this seem like a horror / slasher film. This is a gory film to be sure, but it is not a slasher film. The film is more of an art house international period piece film. The film is what nightmares are made of, but more for the pain and phsychological damage than blood and gore.     The film starts off with a hideous montage of red flowing around in water and horrible blurry images of a child drowning. It then …
review by . October 04, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
I didn't remember reading or hearing about "The Devil's Backbone" until I saw "Pan's Labyrinth." If I did see any reviews, I dismissed them since the film was classified as a horror film in the US - what a shame! It has its very scary moments, and it has its violent and gory moments, but this movie is so much more than that. It is a ghost story; it's an historical fiction set against the Spanish Revolution; it has tremendous character development; and, for all of its bleakness, it celebrates the …
review by . May 27, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Acting, special effects, mood      Cons: The story.      The Bottom Line: Too simplistic a tale for the tools used to tell it. Recommended with heavy reservations.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie''s plot.      The Devil’s Backbone begins when Carlos is brought to an orphanage/boarding school in the middle of nowhere in the Spanish desert. The school is run by a …
review by . July 03, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is a visually elegant, beautifully photographed, seamlessly written and directed tale of ghosts. As the film's narrator explains, ghosts are bad deeds that never go away, are like faded photographs that will always reappear. The setting is a lonely, wastelands school for boys placed there by parents for protection during the Spanish Civil War. What these boys experience and uncover becomes a child's view of how adults react to evil. The performances are universally sensitive …
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About this movie


During the Spanish Civil War, newly orphaned Carlos is taken to a school for the children of those who died fighting against fascism. He is given the bed that formerly belonged to Santi, a boy who recently died during an attack in which a bomb dropped, landing in the school's courtyard undetonated, a reminder of impending danger. As the amputee headmistress (Marisa Paredes, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER) and the embittered caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), engage in a love affair, the headmistress' cuckolded husband, the impotent but benevolent school doctor (Frederico Luppi) sits by passively. Meanwhile, after Santi's ghost repeatedly reveals itself to Carlos, another student spooks Carlos with a dark secret about the boy's death. War surrounds the school, violence infests it from within, and Carlos sets out to avenge the death of Santi. <br> <br> Taking on themes such as the brutality of war and the loss of innocence, Guillermo del Toro's (MIMIC) film skillfully combines elements of war, gothic horror, melo...
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Director: Guillermo del Toro
Genre: Horror
Release Date: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: June 25, 2002; July 27, 2004
Runtime: 106 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures
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