The Devil's Backbone

(El Espinazo del Diablo)

Horror movies today are never scary. They revel in gore and violence, substituting these things for true chills. Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone avoids these pitfalls and focuses on an overpowering sense of eeriness. It is not scary per se, but more on the moody side. This movie is his meditation on what exactly a ghost is. Del Toro (Mimic, Chronos) is a master at these types of movies, and its too bad he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. He chooses to move things slowly but steadily, setting a chilly tone and pushing it forward. The Devil's Backbone takes place at a small orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. Carlos (Fernando Tielve), freshly abandoned by his tutor, is the newest arrival. He quickly runs afoul of bully Jaime (Inigo Garces, My First Night, Secret of the Heart). At night, he hears sighing noises, and the other orphans cryptically mention a dead boy.

An unexploded bomb lies in the courtyard of the orphanage. It landed there without exploding, and nobody knew what to do with it. Carlos thinks he hears tapping from the bomb, which leads him to discover a ghost. At times, it feels as if del Toro is a little too concerned with establishing mood that he forgets about his story. Eventually, it turns to revenge. The ghost of the dead orphan is looking for revenge, and he reveals to Carlos that more people will die if they stay in the orphanage. The adults will have none of this. Jacinth (Eduardo Noriega, Open Your Eyes, Burnt Money) is a former orphan who now works there. He is having an affair with teacher Carmen (Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother, No One Writes to the Colonel). The main other adult figure is Caseres (Federico Luppi, Wiped-Out Footprints, Rosarigasinos), who is the most sympathetic towards Carlos. Del Toro paces himself as to how much information he reveals. Carlos is like a detective, slowly uncovering more about his surroundings and the people he meets. Everybody is hiding a secret, especially about the ghost.

The Devil's Backbone looks fantastic. The orphanage is a crumbling building that looks as if it may fall apart at any moment. The children frequently explore the basements, full of dusty furniture, and pools of murky liquid. Atmosphere is everything to del Toro, and he succeeds in creating highly creepy sets. A lack of lighting only increases shadows, making things look more ominous. The students are at the mercy of their surroundings, since the orphanage is in a remote location. Like most children, they do not necessarily trust the adults, especially Jacinth, so they need to rely on each other. Unfortunately, Paredes does not do much. Luppi does a little more, but the main focus is on Tielve and Garces. As child actors go, they fare well, most likely due to the script by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Munoz. It forgoes the dumb kid antics and allows them to think. Like children, the idea of a ghost scares and fascinates them. They have this inner desire to learn more about it, which ultimately causes them to seek it out. Above all, it is del Toro's gift for ambience that makes The Devil's Backbone what it is.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 46 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles, Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality.

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