Genre Index



The Devil's Backbone, 2001. Directed by Guillermo de Toro. Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Inigo Garces, Irene Visedo, Marisa Paredes.

Synopsis: In the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos is brought to an orphanage that houses the sons of leftists killed in the fight against the fascists. The orphanage is run by two aging Reds, Dr. Caesare and Conchita, who love each other with an unconsumated love that neither has the courage to articulate. Conchita is missing a leg, which makes her dread intimacy, although she needs it, too, and attempts to satisfy herself with clandestine encounters with the school's young janitor, Jacinto. These encounters leave her more ashamed than satisfied. Jacinto has an agenda of his own. Ruthless and mercenary, he covets the gold with which the school's proprietors keep things afloat. He wants nothing more than to steal the gold and raze the school to the ground. He bides his time. The school has an unexploded bomb in its courtyard. The school is also haunted. The ghost, called "the one who sighs" by the students, is the revenant of one of the students, mysteriously killed the night the bomb fell. Carlos begins to see the ghost from the first. The ghost wants to contact Carlos, and on a secret trip to the kitchen one night, it succeeds. "Go away from this place," the ghost tells him, "or many people will die." As the story unfolds, the desperate times in which the film is set catch up to the characters and many people do indeed die as the boys of the school find themselves matched against an evil that is larger than they are....

Horrors: If more evidence were required to demonstrate that 2001 was a superb year for movies, I would offer the following barrometer: If I get a single good horror movie during any given year, I am satisfied that I have been provided with a good year for movies. If I get two good horror movies, I am usually ecstatic. 2001 provided me with three good horror movies, The Others, Ginger Snaps, and The Devil's Backbone. I am beside myself with glee. And isn't it interesting that none of these films originates in the United States?

When last we saw Guillermo del Toro, he was busy trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood. His debut Mexican feature, Chronos, was striking, one of the best horror movies of the 1990s, and he had been hired to make a silk purse out of the sows ear he had been handed by cackhanded Hollywood producers. The result, Mimic, was stylish but stupid as hell, a post modern big bug movie overlayered with an uneasy veneer of pretension. No wonder, del Toro felt compelled to seek his fortunes elsewhere. Now, with another strong horror film under his belt, del Toro has headed back to Hollywood to helm two comic-book adaptations (Blade II and Hellboy), which is really too bad.

Regardless of what becomes of those projects, del Toro still has The Devil's Backbone on his resume. A stronger, scarier film than his debut, The Devil's Backbone juxtaposes the unreal supernatural horror of a ghost story with the very real horror of the Spanish Civil War. More than that, though, de Toro accomplishes the tricky feat of distilling childhood fears into a concentrated shot of terror. Many great horror films are constructed in a way that reduces the audience to a state akin to the dreaming of children--often by presenting children themselves as participants in the story. The Devil's Backbone employs this technique masterfully. One of it's earliest sequences combines the childhood fear of dark places at night with the fear of getting caught misbehaving. Later in the film, it combines it with fear of retribution from an abusive adult. De Toro ups the ante even further by adding the very adult concern with seeing children put in harms way (those who are squeamish about such things should avoid this movie at all costs).

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Devil's Backbone is the fact that it is one of the few horror films that shows the audience everything without punching big gaping holes in its own ambience of menace. The CGI effects utilized by de Toro and his collaborators are convincing and imaginative.

Performances: Fernando Tielve gives a terrific performance as Carlos. For some reason, horror films tend to provide audiences with the best performances from children and this film follows that trend. He is by turns lost, heroic, scared, and resourceful, all without seeming precocious or unconvincing, Of the adults, the ones who grab your attention are Federico Luppi and Eduardo Noriega. Luppi's Dr. Cesare is a much more complex character than one is used to in horror movie, a man consumed by self doubt and by a frustrated romance. He provides the film with a moral center. Eduardo Noriega, it should be noted, is going to be a major star worldwide. Since he isn't one yet, he still takes roles like the vicious Jacinto. His movie star good looks are a nice counterpoint to the sheer ugliness of his character. Jacinto is surprisingly complex, too--moreso than one would expect given the role his character plays in the story.

Images: While the characters are complex and believable, The Devil's Backbone ultimately provides unforgettable imagery. The film takes its name from the exposed spine of pickled fetuses and the sight of these is amplified by the drowned ghost, Santi. The unexploded bomb at the center of the courtyard is a chilling reminder that everyone is on borrowed time. The narrator, who proves to be a ghost himself, ties all of the film's images together when he speculates that a ghost is a terrible event repeated over and over again. There is a reason this film is set during a war, and the final narration hints that we are all trapped, like ghosts....