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I'm sure that somewhere along the line Guillermo del Toro has directed a bad film, but if so, I am yet to see it. On the whole, his films tend to be interesting, intelligent, dark and mildly spooky. The Devil's Backbone, one of his earlier works to get a wider release outside Spain, fits the template perfectly.
Set during the Spanish Civil War, it follows the fate of Carlos who is taken to an orphanage following the death of his father. There he discovers that a young boy went missing in mysterious circumstances and many believe that his ghost haunts the building. Meanwhile, Carlos has difficulty fitting into his new surroundings when one of the older boys, Jaime, takes a dislike to him.
The look and feel of The Devil's Backbone instantly pins it as a del Toro film. The Civil War setting, momentous events seen through the eyes of a child, the muted colours and depressed imagery combined with a mild supernatural element all betray its origins. This gives the film a hauntingly familiar feel (in every sense of the word); a feeling that we have been here before and that this is somehow connected to with all del Toro's other films.
There is a danger that repeating common themes or ideas like this could become repetitive and point to a lack of originality. In the hands of a master film maker like del Toro, however, this pitfall is avoided, and whilst there are clear overlaps The Devil's Backbone stands apart as a film in its own right.
Del Toro's strength lies in two key areas. Firstly, he tells a very simple story in a relatively complex way. Whenever you watch one of his films, you are never quite sure where he is going to take you or, for much of the film, what is actually going on or how the different parts of the jigsaw fit together. His genius is in taking a simple story, then playing around with the chronology so that (for example) you see the ending before you understand what it means. It always gives you the feeling that you have come in part-way through a story and have to catch up.
In the wrong hands, this could be frustrating and confusing. In The Devil's Backbone, it is hugely atmospheric. You genuinely feel that these characters are real people, that they have already lived large parts of their lives and witnessed significant events that you were not privy to. This adds to the atmosphere and characters, making it far more intriguing.
Secondly, he blends genres beautifully, blurring the edges between different types of film. The Devil's Backbone is a horror film for people who don't like horror; a ghost story for people who don't like ghost stories; a period drama for those who don't like period dramas. It is all of these things and yet none of them because del Toro uses the bits he wants from each, without becoming a slave to the formula of any. He takes genres we are familiar with and subverts them or gives them his own unique twist.
Again there is a danger to this. The Devil's Backbone might be pinned as a "horror film", but it lacks any real gore or truly scary moments; it might be labelled a "ghost" story, but whilst there is a supernatural element, it's not necessarily the most important part. And whilst it is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this is there merely to add a bit of context rather than the film being a period drama as such.
There's a danger that The Devil's Backbone could attract fans of all these different genres and end up appealing to none. In fact, del Toro blends them perfectly to tell a hugely atmospheric tale where each of the elements assume greater or lesser importance as the story progresses. It makes for a very satisfying tale. Rather than being nothing to anyone, it ends up being all things to all people.
In fact, you could even argue that The Devil's Backbone is none of these thing and that it actually belongs in a fourth genre: the coming of age tale where a group of young boys are forced to become men, put aside their superficial differences and fight against a common enemy.
The cast will not be one which is familiar to British eyes, but they perform their duties well. There is no real standout and many of the characters could be accused of bordering on stereotypes (the kindly doctor, the greedy young gun, the nervous new boy). What's important is that as a group the actors work well. The closest to a stand-out is Federico Luppi as the principled and decent Dr Casares, but Inigo Garces and Fernando Tielve are both excellent as young boys Jaime and Carlos respectively. These three give the film its heart, but are ably supported by the rest of the cast.
The Devil's Backbone is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. As noted above, it's a typical del Toro film - very much a slow burner, with little by way of action or scares. It relies on generating a tense atmosphere making the viewer believe that anything might happen, even if most of the time it does not. Those brought up on the over the top shocks of Hollywood may mis-interpret "slow burning" as boring, since it doesn't provide the shocks that British or US audiences expect from this type of film.
If you are after a typically high quality del Toro film that blends and transcends a number of different genres, The Devil's Backbone is well worth watching. It might not quite match the heights or imagination of Pan's Labyrinth, but it has the same assured sense of storytelling.
The Devil's Backbone
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Running time: approx. 106 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2013
I wanted to watch this film after seeing the famous Pan's Labyrinth film. I really enjoyed it and immediately looked for other films that Guillermo del Toro had directed. This film is set at around the same time period as Pan's Labyrinth. (Pan's Labyrinth is set at around 5 years after the Spanish Civil War whereas The Devil's Backbone is set during the civil war.)
I didn't really know what to expect from the film given that it is in the horror category and didn't seem to have the same magical innocence of Pan's Labyrinth.
A boy, Carlos, is taken to an orphanage by his tutor and his bodyguard. Little does he realise that his tutor is planning to leave him there since his father has died in the civil war. Carlos doesn't get told this at all and just ends up accepting it. Carlos isn't one of the smallest boys, but since he's a newcomer he gets picked on by Jaime, the biggest boy in the orphanage. All the other boys are scared of Jaime and even help him to bully Carlos. And even though Carlos has just entered the orphanage, it's immediately apparent that there is something strange going on. Carlos starts seeing a boy that everyone thinks has disappeared. Meanwhile, as the story unfolds, you see that Jacinto who is a worker at the orphanage harbours ulterior motives and will stop at nothing to get them.
This film isn't gory as such but there are many violent scenes. It definitely pulls at the heart strings and makes you scared for the next moment in the film, whatever that may be. Carlos impressed me with his strength of character and courage, and even though there were a lot of difficult moments that make you feel sad and angry, the ending was very satisfying with different ends tying together: the idea of a phantom, the boy that Carlos sees, etc..
Even though the film is done beautifully, I don't actually think that I would want to watch it again. Having said that the cast were amazing - the young boys especially couldn't have done a better job. If you're expecting it to be similar to Pan's Labyrinth then I think you might be a little disappointing, but if you watch this film without any expectations then I think it might actually surprise you as you become drawn into the plot and what happens.
(NB* 4.5 stars from me! :) )
Film's Title - The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo)
Year of Release - 2001
Director - Guillermo Del Toro
Stars of the Film - Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi
MPAA rating - R, UK rating - 15
I am a fan of Guillermo Del Toro's work and own several of his movies on DVD. This time, I decided I needed a healthy dose of escapism and was transported into his bizarre world again by watching The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo), a film which was released in 2001.
It is set in 1939 during the latter stages of the Spanish Civil War. Young boys who are orphaned or can't be looked after by their parents are sent to a unique kind of boarding school. It is in the middle of nowhere, looking like an abandoned fort and has an unexploded bomb protruding out of the playground - a constant reminder of the war.
It is staffed by a few adults, including Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes). They try their best and cope well with basic rations and the ever-present threat of war. Casares is elderly and kindly (Luppi putting in a wonderful performance here and resembling Christopher Lee as he is now, minus the menace) although pained by his romanticism and love for Carmen. She has an artificial leg, but battles through to govern the young boys and teach them the best she can.
In Dr. Casales's laboratory, he keeps a disturbing collection of foetuses in bottles, pickled in 'limbo fluid' - a liquid which he then bottles and sells to the villagers as a cure for impotence. One of these foetuses has a raised spine, which he explains is known as the Devil's Backbone.
The younger adults at the school include Jacinto (played by Eduardo Noriega) and his girlfriend Conchita (Irene Visedo). There is a silent threat surrounding Jacinto, so initially it is hard to know whether to trust him or not. He is handsome, fit and a hard worker. Along with Conchita, they dream of moving away one day and owning a farm together.
The film begins with the arrival of a new boy Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is left there by his tutor. He finds it hard to settle in at first, especially as he faces bullying from Jaime (Inigo Garces), who is taller and can be quite intimidating. But soon Carlos is also facing another threat, as he seems to be seeing a ghost, known by the other boys as "the one who sighs". But who is he and what does he want?
It seems quite a complex plot, but it is easy to follow - even when you are reading the subtitles (as the film is in Spanish). It is never dull and always atmospheric. The sets are often dark and make effective use of shadows. Tension is built well and there are several creepy moments which will make you jump, but nothing too horrific. After all, it is rated a 15 not an 18. I'm quite squeamish, but was fine watching this. There is quite a lot of violence and blood though and some swearing too (though it doesn't sound as bad in Spanish!). The special effects are very well done, especially the original way the ghost is presented (which I won't mention here, as I don't want to spoil it).
The acting throughout is excellent and there are no weak points at all. The adults perform convincingly, while the youngsters in the cast are natural and give honest performances while beguile and horrify in equal measure. Inigo Garces is particularly compelling as Jaime and even though Carlos seems to be the leading child role, Garces draws most of the viewer's attention.
The consistently high standard of acting really holds you in the moment, never taking you out of the fictional reality of Guillermo Del Toro's world. He both wrote and directed this one and his influence is obvious. We have the idea of young children in an orphanage haunted by a ghost which later forms the basis of The Orphanage (El Orfanato) in 2007; we have the background of war and fascism which later plays a huge role in Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) in 2006.
To me, Del Toro is a genius. He combines horror and drama seamlessly. While The Devil's Backbone is not the lavish fantasy and fairytale production that Pan's Labyrinth is, it is still beautifully shot and a compelling story. We are held tight, wrapped in a cocoon of unease, unable to breathe freely until the 106 minutes are over.
He also challenges our set views and beliefs. Just because something is other-worldly, does it make it evil? If a man is good looking, does that make him kind? Can a huge frightening monster be a protector, not a killer? He shows us how people put up facades and can be one thing on the surface, with a completely different persona not far underneath.
The Devil's Backbone is not a throwaway thrill ride of a horror movie. It's a calmer, quieter journey and one which will live inside your mind much longer than the latest cinema gore fest. This is intelligent, thoughtful horror.
Amazon UK is currently selling The Devil's Backbone on DVD for £4.97. You can also buy the Guillermo Del Toro Collection for £10.93 which features Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone and Cronos.
Que es un Fantasma?, asks El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone) - what is a Ghost? Crafty and chilling, the movie is described by director Guillermo Del Toro as the "sister film" to his smash-hit Pan's Labyrinth.
Just as its better-known sibling is a stylish adult twist on a prototypical fairytale, The Devil's Backbone builds out from a simple ghost story to spin its narrative. Much of the success of Pan's Labyrinth was a result of the vivid contrast it scored between its fantastical story and the fractious combat of the Spanish Civil War, and this film too interweaves the underlying tension of the conflict with its more immediate supernatural story, to great effect.
Although billed as a horror, this perhaps isn't a conventional film of the type. It starts with many of the classic ingredients of the genre; an isolated location, an orphaned child, a lingering ghost - however, The Devil's Backbone isn't laden with shocks and scares. A taut, atmospheric confluence of storylines, the film opens with the arrival of Carlos at the remote Orphanage. Though he firmly believes his father will return from the fighting to pick him up any day, the boy goes about slotting into the everyday life of the place, making friends and winning over would-be enemies.
In his first days, though, he catches glimpses of an ethereal presence about the place; the spirit of a young boy. Holding back his natural fear enough to explore, Carlos finds that more is known about the ghost than is initially let on - and for that matter about the old unexploded bomb that stands, semi-buried in the courtyard.
A heavy atmosphere pervades throughout the orphanage - Del Toro creating a sense of silent menace that hides behind locked doors and exists in shadows. However, the reality, when glimpsed, is never quite what the imagination conceived. Playing on the ideas we form and assumptions we make - based on what we see and what we expect of horror films - The Devil's Backbone skilfully manipulates both its viewers and its subjects at first before letting us into its secrets.
"The living will always be more dangerous than the dead," the film's tagline runs. This is a clever switch in perspective the film undergoes partway through, as it becomes clear that the ghost, who the children know as Santi, is not the one who should be feared. "Many will die," Santi prophesises, and you get the impression he knows what he's talking about.
Each character in the film seems to have their own fascinating tale, although only fragments of these come to the surface. A combination of first-class performances, hinting at great depths of character, and tight, well-paced plotting keep these myriad storylines in check.
Del Toro, as evidenced in Pan's Labyrinth, is adept at telling parallel stories that differ greatly in style. The boundary between the ghostly mystery and the Civil war tale is not as harshly defined as the demarcation between the fantasy and reality worlds in the director's later film, although this is in part because the war is only ever a background presence here. The conflict looms over events, and is responsible for much of what has happened, but tends only to be felt second-hand by the inhabitants of the orphanage. This adds another layer of implied threat to the film, racking up the tension and drama.
The Devil's Backbone is very much a character-led effort; special effects and big set-pieces are relied on minimally (although this isn't to say the film isn't visually impressive). The cast of child actors are excellent, conveying an innocence that is perhaps a little too idealistic, but stands in effective contrast with the more sinister characters of the orphanage. Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega and Federico Luppi (the last of whom being a recurring member of Del Toro's films) play crucial roles as the three adults with most influence on the children, and manage to express complex, very different personalties. Noriega's bitter caretaker Jacinto is an especially effective, memorable turn.
2001 was a good year for clever, atmospheric ghost film. The Others (also Spanish-produced) won great acclaim for the skilful way it played with the imagination, and this film is similarly adept at pulling its audience into the story.
The Devil's Backbone didn't make quite the impression Pan's Labyrinth did in 2006; insomuch as it's a less spectacular, visually ambitious film, this is probably understandable. The indulgent fantasy excesses of its sibling aren't to be found here, but it's every bit as engrossing. A fusion of rich backstories meets a wonderfully dark, gothic atmosphere to create a film that may not be the oh-so-popular beauty of its family, but deserves all the success of its younger sister.
The Devil's Backbone or El espinazo del diablo is for me rather like the older, but potentially slightly less accomplished sister of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth or El laberinto del fauno. Like Pan's Labyrinth however, it offers an incredibly accomplished intertwining of the supernatural narrative on the surface, and the undercurrents of the story of the Spanish Civil War.
Well, I am going to give a brief outline of the film but forgive me for it will be far less detailed than alot of the film reviews I have read on the internet, as for me there's nothing worse than reading a review only to discover there's not really much point watching the movie anymore as you know everything that will happen, and I don't want to ruin the plot for potential viewers!
The Devil's Backbone offers a poignant insight into the effect of the Spanish Civil War upon those who were caught up in it against their will, specifically women and children. Carlos, a young boy who remaining in blissful ignorance of the fact that his father has been killed, is taken to a remote orphanage run by the one-legged Carmen, and the ageing Casares, and abandoned there by his tutor. In heartbreaking innocence he fruitlessly chases the departing car of his tutor, spilling the contents of his suitcase along the way before accepting his fate and returning to the orphanage with Casares.
The orphanage itself is presented as a comfortless place, with limited resources - it is noted that they can barely afford to feed the children. Carlitos struggles to gain the friendship of the fellow boys who are governed by the adolescent bully Jaime yet he soon begins to realise that everything at the orphanage is not as it seems, that a vengeful spirit of a young boy, Santi, "el que suspira," has created fear among the inhabitants.
The narrative is however highly complex with several different storylines interwoven, a love triangle between the adults in charge, the ghost of Santi, Carlos's struggle to be accepted by the other boys, and the Spanish Civil War, of which the archetype of an unexploded bomb in the courtyard is a permanent reminder.
The effects are simplistic, and this adds to the chilling character of the film, it has a clear essence of reality about it, which is a complete contrast to Pan's Labyrinth, and which is rather a benefit than fault. However, it is not a film to cause sleepless nights - it enlists our sympathy rather than fear.
The cast are however second to none, with Fernando Tielve giving an incredible performance inthe role of Carlos and Eduardo Noriega, as Jacinto, demonstrating his ability to play diverse roles, I didn't even recognise him as being César from 'Abre los Ojos'.
But about the DVD itself... I bought this as part of the Guillermo del Toro trilogy comprising Pan's Labyrinth and Cronos besides, at what seemed to me a good price of around £19 but you can undoubtedly find it cheaper if you shop around - I have recently seen it on amazon for around £13 for the three film boxset. It is a Spanish language DVD which offers subtitles in English. What I found disappointing was that it doesn't offer Spanish subtitles, a feature that would be great if you were learning the language. In all honesty, as I find with most subtitled films, the subs could have been better translated - I felt a degree of the sentiment was lost through translations that were far less emotive in English than they are in the Spanish dialogue. However, this is an unavoidable problem with subtitling and the film doesn't suffer too dramatically as a result of this.
In general I would say this film is well worth watching, especially for a student of Hispanic studies, or someone with prior knowledge of Spanish as I feel it works far better in Spanish than through the English subtitles. I am not sure I would deem it a horror movie as it is rather more chilling than scary and ultimately you are led to sympathise with all involved. The ghost in itself is unsettling yet ultimately the true fear comes from the witnessed corruption of childhood innocence.
Overall an enjoyable watch, but I feel Pan's Labyrinth would appeal more to the masses, you just can't help feeling that The Devil's Backbone was produced on rather a small budget and might not have enough variety of settings and action to appeal to everyone.
I don't like horror films - on the whole they're either not scary just silly (in which case, what's the point), or they're properly scary (which is way too much for my weak and feeble disposition) - but I love Guillermo del Toro, including his chillier movies.
The Devil's Backbone gets put in the horror pigeonhole, but really it's more of a chiller and a ghost story. And in this film at least, the supernatural is not to be feared as much as the brutality of the living.
Set in an orphanage in the last days of the Spanish Civil War, the children of dead Republicans become aware of the ghost of the young boy Santi while living in fear of former orphan Jacinto - and the story of Santi's murder unfolds.
The dark, claustrophobic atmosphere in this movie is totally gripping. While not particularly gory in the trad horror sense, it is certainly chilling, and the ghost 'Santi' evokes an evolving mixture of fear, intrigue and pity.
Themes and settings familiar in Del Toro's later Spanish language works are evident here - the mixture of fantasy/supernatural with very specific historical setting of the Spanish Civil War appears in wonderful, lavish form in Pan's Labyrinth (although the war is a more direct player in the later film). And the Del Toro-produced The Orphanage (which I, feeling particularly scaredy-cat, have wimped out on seeing so far) is by all accounts a haunting chiller set in an orphanage.
For me, this film does not match up to the superlative Pan's Labyrinth, but as an intelligent, atmospheric ghost story it's just fantastic.
In the final days of the Spanish Civil War, a young boy named Carlos is orphaned and taken to a remote orphanage, the home of many other children from Republican families. Watched over by an elderly couple named Casares and Carmen, the inhabitants of the orphanage live in the shadow of fear, terrified that the fascists will find them. To add to the strain of their lives, the boys live in fear of the school caretaker, a cruel, disturbed young man named Jacinto, whose loyalty to the orphanage is limited at best.
Alone and bewildered, Carlos is soon the target for the orphanage bully, Jaime. When Jaime challenges him to venture out into the darkness of the school courtyard, Jaime calls his bluff and insists that the older boy accompanies him. In the rustic kitchen, strange sighs and whispers echo around the old stone walls and when Carlos follows the noise down into the basement, a shadowy, spectral figure stalks his every move.
In the days that follow, Carlos soon finds himself surrounded by mysteries and secrets. Who is the sighing one? What happened to Santi, a fellow orphan who disappeared mysteriously many nights ago? There are those in the orphanage who know more than they are prepared to tell. And there are others who know their secrets .
Part ghost story, part murder mystery and part war drama, The Devils Backbone is a stylish, atmospheric slice of cinema from director Guillermo del Toro, the director of Pans Labyrinth. The Devils Backbone is one of those thought-provoking films that somehow manage to be many things at the same time. Rich in troubled characterisation, there are few black and white lines between good and evil here; even the supposed villain of the piece is not entirely without his own tragedies. But whilst the film tells its tale in a rather tragic fashion, it is without a doubt, one of the creepier films in its class.
The films opening sequence sets the scene for what is to come; a shadowy, mysterious mixture of images and poetry, questioning the nature of what a ghost is. For each of the possibilities presented by our narrator, the film that follows provides a dramatic realisation of whether that possibility may be the case or not, leaving the final decision entirely up to the viewer.
From the beginning, del Toros film has a gloomy, dread-laden atmosphere that serves only to unnerve. Colour plays an important role here. Scenes set during the day have a grainy, grimy, sun-baked feel to them, filtered by the baking heat of the orphanage and its oppressive surroundings. At night, the colour seems to disappear, replaced by a lifeless, spectral blue filter that irradiates the screen with a supernatural quality. Oppression is everywhere, as if the students of the orphanage are unable to escape the inevitable impact of the vicious war raging only a few miles from their walls. Its as though a bomb is always about to go off. Literally. In the courtyard rests the eerie tower of an unexploded torpedo, supposedly diffused by the army, but whispering and echoing as though it yields the secret of what is about to come.
The impending doom is prophesised quite literally by the ghoulish figure lurking in the schools corridors. Shrouded by a mist of blood droplets, the ghostly figure is that of a young boy, his head still gaping from a nasty wound, his emaciated form flickering between flesh and bone as if he is unable to decide which world he intends to inhabit. Terrified of the gruesome visitation, Carlos must somehow overcome his fear in an attempt to find out what it is that the ghostly boy wants. Whispering a simple message, it soon becomes clear that terrible things may happen to the inhabitants of the orphanage.
Del Toros imagining of the ghostly boy is artful and innovative. The gruesome shroud of blood droplets is unusual and highly effective, providing the figure with an even larger screen presence. Del Toro perfectly walks the line between frightening and intriguing it is clear from the beginning that it is not the presence of the ghost that is to be the films main revelation. In the hands of other directors, the ghostly boy would have been far more malevolent. In The Devils Backbone, he seems mischievous and yet purposeful.
The film bears many similarities to Pans Labyrinth (although given that it was released several years before, that should probably be stated in reverse.) Both films feature an unfortunate child, moved to a new home through the death of a parent. Both lead children encounter the supernatural and both experience the cruelty of the war. Indeed, in both films there are distinctly cruel men. In The Devils Backbone, Jacinto takes on this role, deeply bitter about his childhood heritage and intent only on staying at the orphanage until he can locate a secret stash of gold bars. There is a certain inevitability about The Devils Backbone but things dont play out quite the way that you might expect. The supernatural elements here are also far less significant. Backbone is essentially a human story about life, love and loyalty.
The film boasts an excellent cast. Child actor Fernando Tielve is outstanding as young Carlos, who must quickly adapt to his new environment if he is to survive. Indeed, all the child actors present here are excellent. Frederico Luppi exudes warmth as the orphanage doctor, a kindly, intelligent man who protects the boys until the bitter end. His wife, Marisa Peredes, is a troubled figure, torn between her love for her husband and her frustrations with their relationship. This makes her easy pickings for the villainous Jacinto, Eduardo Noriego, who is almost certainly too handsome to be a bad guy, but convincing nonetheless.
In which of the various genres The Devils Backbone is most successful, it is difficult to say. Del Toro (once again) captures the brutality of the conflict with brief scenes of cruelty, highlighting the desperate plight of the Spanish people. As an emotional drama, Del Toro successfully develops empathy in all his characters, weaving a fairly complex analysis of how human beings survive. Resoundingly, however, it is as a ghost story that The Devils Backbone succeeds the most. The old orphanage provides the perfect setting for the tale; its long corridors and stone floors echoing every sound as if something lurked in every shadow. It is certainly hard not to share Carloss terror, as the childish phantom pursues him, intent on passing on its message.
The Devils Backbone is an accomplished film. Extremely well crafted, this is a thoughtful chiller that will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled.
You can purchase the DVD for around £8 from a number of online retailers. Please note that this is a Spanish language film, with English subtitles.
The devils backbone - Guillermo Del Toro.
I first got into Guillermos work having watched Pans labyrinth. How ironic it was that that was his most recent work, and I worked from it, backwards to his humbler beginnings. Guillermo is possibly better known for his work on Blade 2, and also cult classic, Hellboy. His passion is definitely for fantasy, and having watched Pan I simply adored his style, so immediately went to my local HMV and got them to look up other work of his. They had to order it for me but within a week I received a copy of the Devils Backbone for only seven pounds.
What the critics said -
Magnificent performances all round. An intimate and captivating ghost story - Hot Dogs Mark Wyatt.
Breathtaking. Contains more substance and style than a dozen Hollywood movies - Empires Colin Kennedy
A gutsy, first-rate, full blooded ghost story, as elegant as it is brilliantly realised - Total films Simon Crook.
Praise indeed, but is it worthy of such acclaim? We will see, by taking a look at the film, and the style.
Born on October 9th 1964, Del Toro was brought up by a strict catholic grandmother in Guadalajara Mexico. He realised his love of film in his teens, and learned about make-up and effects working alongside Dick Smith on the Exorcist in 1973. He worked in make-up for many years, but finally got the break he yearned for in 1993, directing Cronos. This won him 9 academy awards in Mexico, and launched him on his way. His background links him to his work. He often uses religious imagery and always mentions Catholicism in his films. Also he quite often uses insects or insect imagery. Belief in eternal life after death is realised in several films, and is important in The Devils Backbone.
The Setting -
The time is the end of the Spanish civil war. A remote orphanage in the middle of nowhere, kids are left here to be away from the terrors of the time. The building is old, worn, and has a distinct lack of comfort. The relationships between the orphans are tight knit, and when a new boy arrives he struggles for acceptance
The plot (no spoilers) -
The children are distant. There but not there. What is it that has them in this surreal state? One child was killed years previous, and it is long believed he was killed by the falling of an unexploded bomb in the orphanage grounds. The shock of this, however is not the reason for their distance. Rather the fact that their waking dreams have become terrorised by the decaying spirit of the boy - Santi. They are afraid that they will be killed by Santi, and as such cannot live the care free lives that boys should. However, as the story progresses, you learn the true story of the death of Santi, and why he is still there. This keeps you in suspense until its gripping finale, which is fitting to the story that goes on before. Captivating, it will draw you in to the world, and many times I jumped with fear.
Actors who you will not have heard of perhaps, not one of the stars fails to give an outstanding performance. The main character, Carlos is played flawlessly by Fernando Tielve, who is so convincing in his search for the trust of the children. Federico Luppi, Who plays the professor, who runs the orphanage alongside his frustrated wife, played by Marisa Paredes. She is unfulfilled in her relationship with carlos, and turns to the groundskeeper Jacinto to satisfy her yearnings. Jacinto, is the real star of the show here though. Played by relatively unknown actor Eduardo Noriega, This is the character about whom we learn most. Traitor, and sneak, he betrays the children only to be undone in the end. His past comes back to haunt him shall we say?
My verdict -
Like the highly acclaimed Pans Labyrinth, which I must say is one of my favourite films of all time, this plays in Spanish, with English subtitles. This may be a deterrent for many, but indeed I think that it adds to the atmosphere of the film. And this is what the film is all about. Atmosphere. No top of the range effects her. Nor are there any big name actors, or high budgets to work with. What we have is pure, and raw, and flawless. The directors passion for the fantastical is evident throughout, and this carries the film to a higher level. Possibly, I was sceptical of this work when it first arrived, as you will generally find that directors earlier works are poor, as they find their feet and develop a style. Perhaps Del Toro already had his due to his long wait for a break, but this is a brilliant film. It makes most of the higher budget films of the genre pale into insignificance with its power and emotion. Let the film absorb you. Enter its world, and it will take you on an adventure that you will not forget. A ghost story told with such belief, that you will be checking under the bed, believe me.
Recommended - G
The Devils Backbone is set in Spain during the final days of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Francos fascists have victory within their sights, and in a small orphanage the children from Republican families await their fate. In an effort to fool the fascists Casares (Frederico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), an old couple who run the orphanage, have erected a giant crucifix on its roof, hoping to disguise the institution as a Catholic school. In the courtyard an unexploded fascist bomb sits ominously on its nose, embedded into the dirt.
A young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has just been made an orphan (not that he knows it) and is being transferred to the remote orphanage. He is a likeable, studious boy but his welcome from the other children is less than friendly. He has been assigned bed number 12 - Santis Bed and the children of the orphanage worryingly whisper amongst themselves. Carlos later learns that Santi (Junio Valverde) once lived in the orphanage but he disappeared on the same night that the bomb landed. According to the children his spirit can be seen roaming the orphanage and strange noises are often heard coming from the dank cellar. As the days pass Carlos becomes more and more aware of the presence of Santi and he starts hearing noises during the night. Carlos is convinced that the spirit has something to tell them and he is determined to find out what Santi has to say.
At the same time Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the charismatic groundskeeper has his eyes on a cache of gold hidden at the orphanage thatis used to fund the Republican's war effort. Hes engaged to the orphanages cook, but that doesnt stop him sneaking into Carmens room at night. Their lovemaking is a torment to the impotent Casares, who adores Carmen but can n
o longer satisfy her. Jacnito is of course, only interested in the gold and his late night visits are used to find out more about the whereabouts of the gold.
The Devils Backbone or El Espinazo del Diablo as its called in Spanish, is a stylish and atmospheric horror from one of the masters of the genre - Guillermo del Toro. It is a gloomy, yet smartly paced, off-beat horror but at the same time it is a compelling, delicate and beautifully drawn allegorical yarn. The film works ceaselessly at creating its Civil War setting and tries to turn most of the events of the film into allegorical episodes. One very obvious example of this is the defused bomb in the courtyard - a suggestion that the frail normalcy of life at the orphanage may explode at any minute. The mood of the film is set immediately by an introspective opening sequence which asks What is a ghost The answer A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again Something dead that appears at times alive Or a sentiment suspended in time like a blurry photograph trapped in amber A truly chilling opening which sets the scene perfectly. In the main the action is concentrated around the old and dilapidated orphanage. The film is expertly shot and is bathed in a yellowy orange light that smoothes the images to a fine glossy finish. For the scenes that occur during the night Del Toro uses a starker blue tone, which helps to create a really claustrophobic feeling as Santi stalks the emptied halls.
This is a film that from the very outset marks itself as ambitious; combining a boys adventure story, a classic ghost story and some high brow political allegory all in one film. It would have been very easy for Del Toro to lose his way with this film but at no point does the film lose direction or impact. Any director of a ghost film is also faced with the pr oblem of how to portray the ghost. Put a single foot wrong and the effect produced is laughter rather than scares and it is certainly a fine line to traverse. Thankfully Del Toro handles the images of Santi brilliantly. The spirit is glimpsed only briefly but appears as a transparent, hollow eyed child that shimmers and wavers as if it were underwater. Blood flows from a wound in his head and his whispers are heard throughout the orphanage. As far as the horror goes Del Toro keeps it short and punchy. He gives us punctuated bursts of suspense and surprise interspersed with quieter more introspective scenes illustrating the turmoil caused by the Civil War rampaging across the country. As such what Del Toro creates is not an out and out horror film but something that hints at a horrific event. Del Toro uses tense scenes and a sense of danger (through Carlos) to create a nerve jangling experience. As Carlos explores the ruinous orphanage in the foreboding gloom you can literally feel the suspense and danger hanging from every scene.
Another aspect of the film which really impressed me was the standard of acting. All the actors put in good performances and really help to bring the story to life. Playing the central character Carlos, Fernando Tielve puts in a great performance, particularly in the beginning of the film. When he arrives at the orphanage he is singled out by the other children and Tielves performance is very convincing as he tries to win the other childrens trust. Towards the end his performance is slightly impaired by some hammy 'child actor' dialogue but no so bad as to mar his overall performance. Frederico Luppi is also great as the intellectual Professor who is tormented by his wifes affair with the handsome groundskeeper. Likewise Marisa Paredes puts in a good performance as the sexually frustrated wife who turns to Jacinto to satisfy her needs. She also brings a certain comic aspect to the film with her false leg and helps to lighten the mood when things start to get overwhelmingly gloomy.
The star of the show though, is definitely Eduardo Noriega who is superb as the snake in the grass type character, Jacinto. On the surface he is the charming and charismatic fiance to the resident maid but beneath his false exterior lurks a much darker character. Fuelled by greed, the malicious Jacinto will stop at nothing to get his hand on the gold that is reportedly hidden within the orphanage. When nobody is around he is violent and abusive to the children and in one scene he recklessly attacks Carlos when he finds him snooping around in the cellar. I feel I should also mention Junio Valverde who plays the rather limited role of Santi. To be honest he has very little do other than look spooky but he certainly pulls this off with a little help from some excellent special effects.
Overall, The Devils Backbone is a must for fans of the horror genre and certainly puts one over on similar Hollywood efforts. The film plays in Spanish with English subtitles which I know will put some people off but I highly recommend that you give this film a go. When I read the film outline I was expecting a normal run of the mill ghost story but what I found was a much deeper and more involved story which really got me thinking. The film also has its fair share of scares though, and it simply wouldnt be a horror film without those jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Essentially what Guillermo Del Toro has produced is a chilling but ultimately satisfying tale which entertains for its entire duration.
Various movie magazines and people in the British media are constantly scratching their heads when they wonder why the British film industry is mostly crap. Well that's probably because the money goes to films that are mostly crap, formulaic and generally have a happy romantic or farcical vibe. Meanwhile the French knock out stunning films such as Amelie and Brotherhood of the Wolf. Asia knocks out films suchas Dark Water and The Eye. Meanwhile in other parts of the world you have films such as The Devils Backbone. It is 1939 and the Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. A young boy named Carlos is dropped off at a remote orphanage that is secretly harbouring gold for the Republican cause, a cause that is close to defeat. Carols finds his surrounding uncomfortable and not all of the fellow orphans are welcoming. Far more nasty is the caretaker Jacinto who has a violent streak and a desire to get the gold. Amongst the boys there is talk of a child who went missing. Carlos encounters the ghost of Santi in the lower levels of the orphanage and slowly he comes to realize that the threat of war is not the real danger. This is a movie that deals with spirits but it works on a number of levels. It's a period drama, a spooky thriller and a revenge story. The film throws in some good ideas to keep the pace moving along but it never loses its way or over complicates things. It has an abundance of unsettling moments and creepy tension that can draw comparisons to the likes of The Others and The Sixth Sense. Director Guillermo Del Toro is someone who constantly dabbles in the dark side of storytelling. But what is great about Del Toro is he's a director who can make something effective on a small budget like this before going Hollywood on the likes of Blade 2 and Mimic. His direction here is excellent as he generates scares and just a generally unsettling ambience where you can't wait to see what's around the next corner. This is
helped greatly by the gorgeous looking cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, the film has a rich warm style throughout which frankly puts the empty looking British movies to shame. Del Toro gets great performances out of his older cast members but most of the film relies on the younger actors and there isn't a weak link here. All of them are believable and do an accomplished job. Del Toro also throws in little things that intrigue the audience such as an unexploded bomb that just sits embedded in the courtyard. The ghost of Santi is also eerily realized by appearing to be walking around permanently floating in water. There are some subtle effects used here such as blood running out of his head into the open air like mist. Some people may find the pace of the movie quite slow and very low on thrills. This is art house and that probably won't appeal to the masses. However The Devils Backbone has all the elements that make a great film. Good acting, story and style. This has been shown on BBC 4 recently so look out for it as they may show it again in the near future. Alternatively it is available on DVD.
As Guillermo Del Toro films go The Devils Backbone is a defining moment in his career, breaching the gap between International Art House and mainstream Hollywood success, it being his last film before Blade 2. Based within an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the film is driven by its characters and, just like his previous films (Cronos and Mimic), it draws on the supernatural to outline and re-define exactly what it is that drives them. Although Del Toro insists that this is not a film about the Civil War, by trapping and threatening its inhabitants the orphanage inevitably becomes a mirror for the events outside. These four walls become a place of protection for boys who have been orphaned during the war, a place for them to lead a relatively normal existence full of school life, bullying and adventure. Their main source of the latter being Santi, a young ghost who haunts the halls looking for revenge for his recent murder. Yet the pivotal character who evokes real fear in the children is not the spirit, but the greedy, selfish Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan, whose experiences have left him with deep emotional scars. With a strong cast and even stronger imagery (created by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro) Del Toro whips up a hauntingly effective film about love, life and the afterlife. On the DVD: entering the extras literally through the keyhole, there are several opportunities to obtain a deeper understanding of this disturbing film. A "Behind the Scenes" featurette includes the casts own character profiles and interpretation of the story, as well as Del Toro explaining his thoughts about the film and how he achieved some shots. Two of the sequences"Aerial Bombardment" and "The Ghost"--can be seen in further technical detail, with film footage and computer animation combined to make a whole scene. A selection of storyboards can also be viewed which run alongside the soundtrack to the scene, with the option to intercut between storyboard and finished film. A theatrical trailer, a picture gallery and written biographies are standard. The film and additional features are in Spanish with English subtitles and menu. With Dolby 5:1 sound and a widescreen picture, the film not only looks and sounds, but also feels fantastically chilling. --Nikki Disney