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The Devil's Backbone

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

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Brilliant in pieces, a dud as a finished puzzle

  • May 27, 2007
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 Spanish Republican woman and a doctor, who loves her, from Argentina. Recently, the school has become haunted by a poltergeist (what the boarded boys call ‘the one who sighs’). The story focuses on the boys and how Carlos, the new boy, is initiated into the group—to the surprise of the clique, Carlos has backbone enough to stand up not only for himself, but for the others around him. While on a dare, he makes first contact with the poltergeist. Carlos digs into the mystery and discovers that the spirit is of a boy murdered recently by one of the staff. All of this takes place as the Spanish Civil War is nearing an end, and not in a good way for those associated with the school. Too many more details would give away too much of the story.

On the main, I didn’t like the film. There is much to recommend it if anatomized; however, for me, when the pieces are put together it doesn’t rise above mediocre.

The motif of the story is the unexploded bomb that sits in the middle of the school’s courtyard. Though it is said to be defused, it still sits as a symbol of the impending doom for the Republican side in the Civil War and the potentially explosive tensions running through the school. This tension is enhanced by the artful use of music and imposing camerawork used without actors to create mood.

The acting is easily the best and most consistent aspect of the film. There are no weak performances and the majority of the cast is tweens and young teens. All of the characters were firm, believable and complex. I don’t recall seeing any of the actors before, but the performances in this one have made me curious enough to seek out other films starring them.

Special effects also shine. The method of showing the bleeding poltergeist is particularly eerie and stunning. It is sort of like watching Golem in The Lord of the Rings unpleasant to look at but eliciting a complicated sympathy.

For those who don’t want to know the twists and other plot devices, please stop here. The reason the movie fails for me is the story itself. It is a simple ghost-revenge story, nothing more. The acting and effects, the music and cinematography are all sort of wasted on the simplest of ghost stories. The ghost will only gain peace when he avenges his untimely end. Like the motif of the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, the story is also a dud.

As I said, taken apart for analysis, this movie should be brilliant. But when I see it as a whole, I can’t get past the notion that so much time and effort was taken to tell a hackneyed story that wasn’t either made more complex or more compelling by its telling.

I don’t want to pan it outright, so I recommend it with reservations.


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More Devil's Backbone reviews
review by . December 07, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
special edition DVD
     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 …
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 . 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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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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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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